[percy-l] In Search of Flannery O'Connor

JHForest at cs.com JHForest at cs.com
Thu Feb 1 08:00:09 EST 2007

New York Times / www.nytimes.com / February 4, 2007


In Search of Flannery O'Connor

[photo: 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. Susana Raab for The New York Times]

By Lawrence Downes

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

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

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

"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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

* * *
Lawrence Downes is an editorial writer at The Times.
* * *
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