As literary culture unravels, hope flares in the publication of two literary biographies, one on Flannery O'Connor and the other on Donald Barthleme. Coming soon is Blake Bailey's anticipated biography of John Cheever. For years, literary biography was associated with Britain's supposedly more developed literary culture, but the appearance of three such books in rapid succession in the U.S. shows that the American love for books and literature remains stronger than many believe.
Brad Gooch, the earlier biographer of Frank O'Hara (perhaps he has a thing for Irish writers with the O' last names?), looks at the career of O'Connor, the Catholic writer from Georgia whose work has been canonized (embalmed?) by the Library of America. His book is simply called "Flannery: The Life of Flannery O'Connor" (Little Brown.) On the other hand, Tracy Daugherty seeks to revive the reputation of a once popular writer in his biography of Barthleme, "Hiding Man" (St. Martin's). Perhaps Daugherty's book will lead to Bartheleme's work receiving its Library of America stamp. In his heyday, he appeared worthy of such recognition, although he sought to be a literary rebel. The biographies then come from different angles, with Gooch exploring the life of a writer now considered "major" after earlier obscurity, and Daugherty hoping to revive the prominence of a once celebrated writer now in eclipse. The state of their standing is shown in that Gooch titles his book "Flannery," with that distinctive first name recognizable. However, Daugherty can't even feel safe using the name "Donald Barthelme" in his title, although that name once had a magical significance, defining a truly distinctive body of work with unmistakable style. It was a "brand," as we would say today. And, I suppose "Flannery O'Connor" is a brand, a distinctive, recognizable oeuvre.
In a recent review of Daugherty's book, New Yorker cultural gadfly Louis Menand engages in much throat clearing attempting to define "postmodernism," the movement in which Barhelme and other '60s era experimental writers are placed. "Postmodernism" is one of those difficult to define terms, like existentialism, in which many don't exactly know what it means but know it when they see it. It's either a continuation of modernism, or the end of modernism, as Menand helpfully explains. From my viewpoint, postmodernism was characterized by experimental writing, the intrusion of the author, "metafictional" techniques such as alternative endings, plots, etc., exaggerated surrealism, campiness, an appreciation of pop culture like cartoons and television and advertising.
O'Connor, with her anguished, God-haunted characters, violence and use of irony, is considered a late modernist, although she eschewed the "stream of consciousness" of Faulkner, Proust and Joyce. At times, she appears almost a pre-modernist. But she can be considered postmodernist too. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has experimental, surrealistic elements. And she uses sardonic humor, sometimes heavy irony and pop-culture elements like billboard messages.
Bartheleme and O'Connor have a kinship. Both were Southerners who left their native region only to return, somewhat battered and disillusioned. Bartheleme's home was the postmodern Sunbelt metropolis of Houston. Unlike Barthelme, O'Connor often explores a rural consciousness, but no one has ever given a truer picture of Atlanta, mostly before it exploded into a Sun Belt city like Houston. Both died young. Bartheleme was crippled by alcoholism and depression. O'Connor died from the debilitating disease of lupus. Both sought transcendence in art; both were devoted to their craft. One might say that Bartheleme made art a religion, while O'Connor made her religion into art.
When I was in college, Barthelme was one of those writers that young literary hipsters avidly read, or at least pretended to read and talk about, with his latest short story in the New Yorker or novel or collection drawing the same excitement as the newest album by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. It's hard to imagine that kind of energy over writing today, but surely all of those kids enrolled in creative writing programs must burn with white heat over new novels, poems, stories. Later, O'Connor had her moment when her work was discovered by a new generation and everyone seemed to be talking about her.
Barthelme, with his apparent lack of belief, flat narratives, abandonment of traditional narrative and love of pop culture, appears far different from Flannery O'Connor. Yet they are linked in their obsessive desire to unveil the human personality. I look forward to reading both books, to trace how they are different and what territory they share.