Have you been on the edge of your seat? The fourth and last of my planned posts on Flannery O’Connor has been delayed (the first, second, and third were published weeks ago) while library transfers were pending. Meanwhile, a new documentary has also been released, although currently only available to American viewers in virtual cinemas.

In her essay collection In Rough Country (2010), Joyce Carol Oates considers Flannery O’Connor in the context of her southern contemporaries, observing how both Carson McCullers and Truman Capote were “showier, more-renowned and best-selling” authors during their turbulent and highly publicized lifetimes, but it’s the reputation of Flannery O’Connor which has endured and increased.

Oates writes about O’Connor’s infatuation with the “young, attractive, charismatic” poet Robert Lowell at the Yaddo writers’ colony in 1948, her relationship with the Harcourt-Brace textbook salesman Erik Langkjaer (check out “Good Country People” and the hayloft shenanigans), and her close friendships with Betty Hester (who was dishonourably discharged by the military for “sexual indiscretion”) and Maryat Lee.

Oates believes that while O’Connor “seems to have been a “cultural racist”, in her art, she transcended the limitations of her time, her place, and her being”. She specifically refers to a fragment “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” to illustrate that, although she was Catholic and conservative and anti-liberal and anti-progressive, she afforded her Black characters a capacity for empathy and intelligence which many white writers of that day did not.

In Writers and Their Pets by Kathleen Krull, with art by Violet Lemay (2019), we learn that O’Connor kept chickens and ducks and all sorts of birds, but most particularly peafowl. She writes about how Flannery had an assignment to design a Sunday school dress, which inspired her to sew a full set of clothing for her pet duck, including underwear. The duck attended school to model the creations. (This anecdote is relayed differently in Brad Gooch’s biography, and both versions are charming.)

This was the perfect lead-in to The King of the Birds, by Acree Graham Macam, with art by Natalie Nelson (2016). It’s a wholly delightful picture book about two of O’Connor’s peafowl. Irony and humour are in abundance. And the illustrations are colourful and striking, many painted elements with the occasional surprise of an historic element (like a photograph of a landscape, or human figures). Short and simple, this tale manages to be strangely joyful, and it ends on the advice to young readers to find some Flannery O’Connor stories to read when they are older.

New York Times’ Footsteps: Literary Pilgrimages around the World contains a 2007 essay by Lawrence Downes, “In Search of Flannery O’Connor”, which recounts his experiences following her footsteps in Georgia. Of primary interest is his time in Milledgeville. It was once the capital of the state and is 30 miles from Macon, has about 19000 people living in it on the banks of the Oconee River in Baldwin County. He describes O’Connor’s fiction as “doctrinally strict” and “mordantly funny”, “soaked in violence and humor, in sin and in God”.

I peeked into Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel, Frances and Bernard (2013), inspired by the relationship between O’Connor and Lowell (also discussed above in Oates’ essay). Having recently read O’Connor’s letters, I was struck by how discordant Bauer’s tone seemed to be; her Frances didn’t sound like my idea of Flannery. And the lengthy and detailed discussions of Christian doctrine which had remained (mostly) interesting to me when written in Flannery’s hand seemed to revolve more around the question of faith than good-and-evil in Bauer’s work, which didn’t resonate with me.

And I’m now, at last, reading Brad Gooch’s 2009 biography, which I’ve saved to the end. So enjoyable is this volume, that I’m now interested in both Rumi and Frank O’Hara, simply for his biographies of these poets. There are about 75 pages of supplementary materials in the back of Flannery (acknowledgments, notes, citations and index) but the text reads easily and there are so many quotations (in the voices of the author and her contemporaries) that it feels like I’m crawling into the shape of her life.

Who’ll be next up in The Writing Life? If you had to choose an author, in this very moment, to spend some more time with on the page, who would you choose? Whose writing life interests you today?