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Excerpt: 'Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor'

When Fitzgerald returned from teaching, and the children were tucked into bed, the three adults re-created some of the mood of Yaddo by mixing a pitcher of martinis, sharing a meal, gossiping — Mary McCarthy and Randall Jarrell taught at Sarah Lawrence, and were vital sources — and discussing books. The Fitzgeralds outdid even Flannery in the piety of their lengthy Benedictine grace, recited in Latin, as she ruefully recalled, "while the dinner got cold." They circulated among themselves volumes by Catholic writers — Lord Acton, John Henry Newman, a history of the Reformation by Father Philip Hughes. Flannery recommended Nathanael West's defiantly original novel Miss Lonelyhearts, as well as Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, its central image of a mother's coffin a fixation in the novel she was writing. "They were our movies, our concerts, and our theatre," wrote Robert Fitzgerald of these talks that often went on until midnight.

Yet not all of the conversation was so high-minded. Flannery learned that she could always get a rise by telling droll tales of Georgia and her family. Daily letters from her mother, who also mailed hand-sewn baby clothes, fruitcakes, and arcane recipes, provided a rich inventory. Flannery told, too, of affable Uncle Louis, who sent "gewgaws" from the King Hardware Company in Atlanta, where he was now working as a salesman. Because of the prevailing familial tone — O'Connor dubbed the Fitzgeralds "my adopted kin" — Robert was one of the only people she ever spoke with about her father's death; his father, too, had died when he was fifteen, and the loss had been equally devastating. "Perhaps this ménage a trois plus provided her with an easier and freer family life," Sally Fitzgerald surmised. Dinners wound up at the kitchen sink as Sally and Flannery chatted while sudsing and drying, and the "master of the house" busied himself elsewhere.

Meanwhile, upstairs, the pile of yellow second sheets on which Flannery was composing her novel was mounting. She was making progress, thinning out and pacing the opening. "Well I can't sustain that," she told Sally when her friend praised "The Train." "I have to tone it down." Haze Motes, in his "glaring blue" suit and "hat that an elderly country preacher would wear," was coming into focus as a slightly demented saint in the making, a shift in direction that Sally thought perhaps "due to criticism by Lowell." Yet Flannery proudly wrote Elizabeth McKee, "The novel is going well, almost fast." The biggest problem remained Rinehart. In October 1949, Giroux sent a provisional Harcourt contract. But Selby was refusing to let her off so easily, accusing her of being "unethical," the worst word he could have chosen. To right the "malicious statement," Flannery agreed to show Rinehart more pages, in March, she hoped for the last time.

From the book 'Flannery' by Brad Gooch. Copyright (c) 2009 by Brad Gooch. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group USA, Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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Brad Gooch