Literary lives beyond the page
This month sees the release of a trio of books about three very different literary figures. Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever and Paule Marshall could hardly be more different from one another, except that all have created immortal works of fiction and all have lives worth examining. But why do we necessarily want to examine them? What is it we hope to learn that we cannot glean from the stories or novels themselves? Why do we have an unappeasable hunger to know as much as we can about a person who created something we love? Should not our drive to know more be checked by the last sentence of the last page of the last work? After all, anything more, anything truly factual is really none of our business. Which is, perhaps, precisely why we want more.
More is certainly what we get with Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. O’Connor did not live a long life nor leave behind a long bibliography, but the rippling impact of her two novels and collections of stories assumes a long, long reach into the world of American letters. Gooch, author of a biography of Frank O’Hara, examines O’Connor’s life with exhaustive care, giving readers a detailed picture of this very Southern, very Catholic and very private writer.
O’Connor did not travel widely, socialize (as such) or date, and she spent most of her life in the company of her mother and her beloved menagerie of birds, yet her fierce insight, imagination, faith and craft create a universe that fairly burns through geographical or cultural boundaries. Flannery follows O’Connor’s early influences and traumas, her quietly determined path through school, her relationships with friends and mentors, her experiences at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Yaddo, and her supreme dedication to her work throughout even the final days of lupus, the prolonged, crippling illness that took her life at age 39.â€©
A Cheever chronicle
Novelist and short-story writer John Cheever, who died in 1982 at the age of 70, has already been the subject of a biography, but not, it should be noted, one written with the approval and support of the Cheever estate and access to the staggering amount of information made available to the current biographer, Blake Bailey. In Cheever: A Life, Bailey has the good fortune to have at hand literally everything that bears even the slightest import to the life of John Cheever. This he deftly distills into a brick of a book fat with footnotes, taking readers year by year through the events, people, places and works of this Pulitzer Prize-winning author. â€©Cheever was a puzzle of a man, fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies that, thankfully for American literature, evolved into luminous prose. His alcoholism and bisexuality are now well known, but not so the humanizing details, or his depression and cancer, all of which and more are set down in detail here. Bailey may soon be responsible for a fresh Cheever revival: release of this biography coincides with two new Library of America collections of Cheever’s stories and novels, both edited by Bailey. This triangulation is excellent news for readers familiar with or brand-new to Cheever—an opportunity to reassess or discover one of the best writers of the 20th century.â€©
Telling her own story
Paule Marshall (who pronounces her name with a silent “e”), considered the foundational author of contemporary African-American women’s literature, has just published what will, with hope, be the first of her memoirs. She is the author of several acclaimed novels and short stories, and her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones is a classic of Black American literature courses. Triangular Road: A Memoir is a slim, fearless account of several episodes in Marshall’s own life, including an homage to mentor Langston Hughes, and a dark, tangential portrait of the James River as it winds through Richmond, Virginia (her first tenured position was at Virginia Commonwealth University). Most engaging, however, is the chapter on her own family, real and imagined, who came out of African slave ships, Port Comfort chattel “scrambles,” Barbados sugar cane fields and Bajan Brooklyn brownstones, growing a family tree embraced and honored by Marshall, and, at times, used as patterns for her own carefully crafted fictional characters.
Joanna Brichetto writes from Nashville.