The writer Flannery O’Connor’s desk and typewriter in her bedroom at Andalusia, her farm near Milledgeville, Ga. She was a master of the Southern Gothic.
In Search of Flannery O’Connor
THE sun was white above the trees, and sinking fast. I was a few miles past Milledgeville, Ga., somewhere outside of Toomsboro, on a two-lane highway that rose and plunged and twisted through red clay hills and pine woods. I had no fixed destination, just a plan to follow a back road to some weedy field in time to watch the sun go down on Flannery O'Connor's Georgia.
Somewhere outside Toomsboro is where, in O'Connor's best-known short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a family has a car accident and a tiresome old grandmother has an epiphany. The fog of petty selfishness that has shrouded her life clears when she feels a sudden spasm of kindness for a stranger, a brooding prison escapee who calls himself the Misfit.
Of course, that's also the moment that he shoots her in the chest, but in O'Connor's world, where good and evil are as real as a spreading puddle of blood, it amounts to a happy ending. The grandmother is touched by grace at the last possible moment, and she dies smiling.
“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
O'Connor's short stories and novels are set in a rural South where people know their places, mind their manners and do horrible things to one another. It's a place that somehow hovers outside of time, where both the New Deal and the New Testament feel like recent history. It's soaked in violence and humor, in sin and in God. He may have fled the modern world, but in O'Connor's he sticks around, in the sun hanging over the tree line, in the trees and farm beasts, and in the characters who roost in the memory like gargoyles. It's a land haunted by Christ — not your friendly hug-me Jesus, but a ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind, pursuing the unwilling.
Many people — me for instance — are in turn haunted by O'Connor. Her doctrinally strict, mordantly funny stories and novels are as close to perfect as writing gets. Her language is so spare and efficient, her images and character's speech so vivid, they burn into the mind. Her strange Southern landscape was one I knew viscerally but, until this trip, had never set foot in. I had wondered how her fictional terrain and characters, so bizarre yet so blindingly real, might compare with the real places and people she lived among and wrote about.
Hence my pilgrimage to Milledgeville this fall, and my race against the setting sun.
O'Connor's characters shimmer between heaven and hell, acting out allegorical dramas of sin and redemption. There's Hazel Motes, the sunken-eyed Army veteran who tries to reject God by preaching “the Church of Christ Without Christ, where the blind don't see, the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way.” Hulga Hopewell, the deluded intellectual who loses her wooden leg to a thieving Bible salesman she had assumed was as dumb as a stump. The pious Mrs. Turpin, whose heart pours out thank-yous to Jesus for not having made her black or white trash or ugly. Mrs. Freeman, the universal busybody: “Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.”
People like these can't be real, and yet they breathe on the page. And there is nothing allegorical about the earthly stage they strut on: It's the red clay of central Georgia, in and around Milledgeville, where O'Connor spent most of her short life. She lived with her widowed mother on the family farm, called Andalusia, just outside Milledgeville, writing and raising peacocks and chickens from 1951 until her death in 1964 at age 39, of lupus.
O'Connor was a misfit herself, as a Roman Catholic in the Bible Belt, a religiously devout ironist writing for nonbelievers. She liked to gently mock the redneckedness of her surroundings. “When in Rome,” she once wrote, “do as you done in Milledgeville.”
But Milledgeville is not the backwoods. It's a city of 19,000, on the Oconee River in Baldwin County, 30 miles from Macon. It is the former capital of Georgia, trashed by General Sherman on his March to the Sea. It has a huge state psychiatric hospital and a prominent liberal-arts college, Georgia College and State University. The old Capitol building is now home to a military school. There is a district of big antebellum homes with columns and fussy flowerbeds. Oliver Hardy lived here when he was young and fat but not yet famous.
Milledgeville now looms huge beyond these modest attributes because of O'Connor, or Mary Flannery, as she was known in town. Her output was slender: two novels, a couple dozen short stories, a pile of letters, essays and criticism. But her reputation has grown steadily since she died. Her “Complete Stories” won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1971. Her collected letters, “The Habit of Being,” banished the misperception that she was some sort of crippled hillbilly Emily Dickinson. They revealed instead a gregarious, engaged thinker who corresponded widely and eagerly, and who might have ranged far had illness not forced her to stay home and write.
O'Connor's own trail begins about 200 miles southeast of Milledgeville, in Savannah, where she was born and spent her childhood among a community of Irish Roman Catholics, of whom her parents, Edward and Regina Cline O'Connor, were prominent members. The O'Connor home, on a mossy historic square downtown, is landmarked and has been closed for renovations, but is reopening for public tours in April. The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is across the square, although nothing in it informs a visitor that one of the country's most prominent apologists for the Catholic faith worshiped and went to parochial school there.
O'Connor learned her craft at the University of Iowa and at Yaddo, the writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She lived for a while in Connecticut with the poet Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally, and thought she was leaving the South behind.
But she got sick, and went home to Andalusia, four miles north of Milledgeville.
Andalusia was a working dairy farm run by Flannery's mother, Regina, who as a prominent widow businesswoman was something of a novelty in town. No one has lived there since O'Connor died in 1964 and Regina moved back into downtown Milledgeville.
Strip malls have long since filled the gap between town and farm, and you now find Andalusia by driving past a Wal-Mart, a Chik-fil-A and a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, where a man shot his wife and killed himself a few days before I arrived. You pass a billboard for Sister Nina, a fortune teller who reads palms in a home office cluttered with votive candles and pictures of Catholic saints. (To judge from one consultation, she is capable of divining that a visitor is a bearer of dark sorrows, but not exactly skilled at pinpointing what those sorrows might be.)
Across the highway from an America's Best Value Inn, a tiny sign marks the dirt road to Andalusia. I turned left, went through an open gate and there it was, a two-story white frame house with a columns and brick steps leading up to a wide screened porch. Through the screens I could see a long, tidy row of white rocking chairs.
I drove around back, between the magnolia and pecan trees, parked on the grass and walked back to the house past a wooden water tower and an ancient garage, splintered and falling in on itself.
I was met at the door by Craig R. Amason, the executive director of the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation, the nonprofit organization set up to sustain her memory and preserve her home. When the affable Mr. Amason, the foundation's sole employee, is not showing pilgrims around, he is raising money to fix up the place, a project that is a few million dollars short of its goal. The foundation urgently wants to restore the house and outbuildings to postcard-perfection, to insure its survival. Last year the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation placed Andalusia on its list of most endangered places in the state.
For now, the 21-acre property is in a captivating state of decay.
There is no slow buildup on this tour; the final destination is the first doorway on your left: O'Connor's bedroom and study, converted from a sitting room because she couldn't climb the stairs. Mr. Amason stood back, politely granting me silence as I gathered my thoughts and drank in every detail.
This is where O'Connor wrote, for three hours every day. Her bed had a faded blue-and-white coverlet. The blue drapes, in a 1950's pattern, were dingy, and the paint was flaking off the walls. There was a portable typewriter, a hi-fi with classical LPs, a few bookcases. Leaning against an armoire were the aluminum crutches that O'Connor used, with her rashy swollen legs and crumbling bones, to get from bedroom to kitchen to porch.
There are few opportunities for so intimate and unguarded a glimpse into the private life of a great American writer. Mr. Amason told me that visitors sometimes wept on the bedroom threshold.
The center hall's cracked plaster walls held a few family photographs: an adorable Flannery, age 3, scowling at a picture book, and her smiling older self on an adjacent wall. There was a picture of Edward O'Connor, but none of Regina, who died in 1995 at 99. In the kitchen, an old electric range with fat heating elements sat near a chunky refrigerator, the very one Flannery bought for her mother after selling the rights to “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” for a TV movie in which Gene Kelly butchered the role of the con man Tom T. Shiftlet. In the center of the room, a small wooden table was set for two.
A walk around the grounds summoned all manner of O'Connor images. In a field of goldenrod, a lone hinny, a horse-donkey hybrid named Flossie, with grotesque clumps of fat on her rump, kept a reserved distance. I followed a path below the house down to a pond buzzing with dragonflies. Mr. Amason had told me to keep to the mowed areas to avoid snakes, so I wasn't too surprised to encounter a black rat snake, stretched out like a five-foot length of industrial cable, by a footbridge at the far edge of the pond. I tickled it with a turkey feather and it curled to strike faster than I could blink.
Back in Milledgeville's tidy downtown, I went to Georgia College and State University, which was Georgia State College for Women when O'Connor went there. The library displays her desk, paintings and other artifacts, and a librarian took me in the back to see her papers and books — a daunting array of fiction, classics and Catholic theology. The book of Updike's poetry looked well read, but not as much as the Kierkegaard (“Fear and Trembling” and “The Sickness Unto Death”), whose binding was falling off.
I found Sacred Heart Church, where Flannery and Regina worshiped, and was amazed when the pastor, the Rev. Michael McWhorter, suggested that I come back the next morning for the funeral service of O'Connor's first cousin Catherine Florencourt Firth, whose ashes were coming home from Arizona. I sat quietly in a back row, then shrank into my jacket when Father McWhorter announced my presence from the pulpit. But the mourners, clearly accustomed to Flannery admirers, nodded graciously at me. The pastor had a shiny round head and tidy beard, and applied incense with medieval vigor, sending curls of sweet smoke around Mrs. Firth's urn until the tiny sanctuary was entirely fogged in.
I am not accustomed to crashing funerals, so I did not linger afterward. I was grateful for the kind offers from Mrs. Firth's relations to come back and visit longer next time.
My last stop was also O'Connor's: Memory Hill Cemetery, in the middle of town, where mother, father and daughter lie side by side by side under identical flat marble slabs. A state prison detail was prowling the grounds, trimming hedges. They had sloppily strewn oleander branches on Flannery's grave, which I brushed clean. I found a plastic bouquet to place at its head. I looked at the dates:
March 25, 1925
August 3, 1964
She died young, but not without saying what she wanted to say. I thought back to my journey the night before, when I captured the O'Connor sunset I had been looking for. I found a road that led down to the edge of a kaolin mine. Standing beside huge mounds of white chalky dirt, surrounded by deep treads left in the red clay by earth-moving machinery, I watched as a sentence from one of my favorite stories, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” slowly unfolded, as if for me alone:
“The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees.”
By the road's edge I spied an unusual-looking vine. It was passion flower, with purple blossoms that look like a crown of thorns, and the nails for Christ's hands and feet. I picked a bunch of strands, with their immature fruit, like little green boiled eggs, and got back onto the road to Milledgeville, under a blackening sky, to put them in some water.
WHERE TO STAY
Milledgeville has a lot of chain motels, but only one Antebellum Inn (200 North Columbia Street; 478-454-5400; www.antebelluminn.com), a stately bed-and-breakfast with big white columns, dark woodwork and four-poster beds with flowery linens. A co-owner, Jane Lorenz, is from Hawaii, a Southern state legendary for its hospitality, and when I stayed there the house echoed with sweet Hawaiian slack-key guitar music. Doubles from $99.
In Savannah, the Hamilton-Turner Inn (330 Abercorn Street; 912-233-1833; www.hamilton-turnerinn.com) occupies a corner of Lafayette Square, near O'Connor's childhood home. Rooms are named for famous Savannah personalities. The Flannery O'Connor room (with whirlpool spa) was taken during my visit, so I settled for the Casimir Pulaski. Doubles from $179.
WHERE TO EAT
Sylvia's Grille (2600 North Columbia Street; 478-452-4444; www.sylviasgrille.com) is steps from Andalusia's driveway, in a Wal-Mart shopping plaza, but it's no chain restaurant. It has wine tastings, live music and dishes like duck confit and cioppino. Lunch every day and dinner every day but Sunday. Dinner for two with wine is about $50.
Little Tokyo Steak House and Sushi Bar (2601 North Columbia Street; 478-452-8886) serves grilled steak and seafood and impressive sushi, which says as much about the worldliness of little Milledgeville as you need to know. Open for lunch every day but Saturday; dinner every day, for about $60, with sake or wine.
Firefly Cafe (321 Habersham Street; 912-234-1971), in Savannah, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and weekend brunch. An unassuming place with delicious food, especially the corn chowder with crab and the cranberry-pecan-spinach salad. Dinner for two with wine is about $60.
WHAT TO DO
Andalusia (2628 North Columbia Street; 478-454-4029; www.andalusiafarm.org) is open for tours on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment seven days a week. The 21-acre farm complex includes buildings in varying states of authentic decay, a pond, wild turkeys and snakes. The gift shop sells O'Connor's works, bumper stickers (“I'd Rather Be Reading Flannery O'Connor”) and cards bearing O'Connor epigrams, intricately lettered by her first cousin Frances Florencourt. My favorite: “Total nonretention has kept my education from being a burden to me.”
Sacred Heart Catholic Church (110 North Jefferson Street NE; 478-452-2421), where O'Connor and her mother worshiped. Sunday Masses are at 9 and 11:15 a.m. and 5 p.m.
O'Connor's grave at Memory Hill Cemetery (300 West Franklin Street; www.friendsofcems.org/memoryhill) is on the east side in Section A, Lot 39. The cemetery is also the final resting place of Congressman Carl Vinson and of Edwin F. Jemison, the scrawny Confederate soldier whose doleful portrait is one of the best-known Civil War photographs.
Sister Nina (3054 North Columbia Street; 478-453-8288) offers crystals, palm and tarot readings by appointment.
The Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home (207 East Charlton Street, Savannah; 912-233-6014; www.flanneryoconnorhome.org), now closed for renovation, is to reopen in April.
WHAT TO READ
O'Connor's short stories and two novels, “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away,” appear in numerous paperback editions and the Library of America has published her collected works. “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose” includes essays and lectures in which O'Connor gives a reader invaluable insight into what she's doing. An essential companion is “The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor,” which is literate, self-deprecating and deadly funny.
In Milledgeville, you might want to prowl garage sales for signed first editions of “Wise Blood,” her first novel, which scandalized the society ladies of Milledgeville in 1952. They never expected young Mary Flannery to write such a strange book full of grotesque violence and occasional s-e-x. Craig R. Amason, a local expert on O'Connor, suspects that after the book signings and teas, quite a few copies ended up in attics, unread.