Friday, August 26, 2016

Flannery and the Family

The longing to discuss what I read and study with loved ones has informed my reading ever since I switched my focus from psychology to literature two decades ago. As a graduate student, I gravitated towards Victorian literature in part because my wife loved and would discuss it with me, and just a few years later added a minor in Irish literature following a pleasant jaunt to Dublin while our first daughter was in the womb. And so it went: we studied Gaelic Irish together when my degree called for a third language, read literary biographies aloud while I studied for my PhD exams, and reread the Brontës side by side while I wrote one of my dissertation chapters.

Since then, our family of four has journeyed together through western narrative, beginning with personal childhood favorites like C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, moving swiftly through Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle of Time series, traipsing through the magical world of Harry Potter, and more recently delving into such popular dystopias as those sketched in The Hunger Games trilogy and Ender’s Game series.

I have been a bit slower to introduce the girls to the types of fiction I regularly teach, wanting their initial experiences of the western canon to be positive. A couple summers ago, when they were 11 and 13, I warily introduced Emma and breathed a sigh of relief when Austen’s humor clicked with them, just as I was delighted a year later to see how much they enjoyed the melodrama and social commentary of Dickens’ Hard Times. Both forays into the nineteenth century generated enough interest each time for one daughter or the other to spend the succeeding year researching and reading the author in question for school. Success!

So you might imagine the anxiety with which I introduced them to O’Connor’s fiction during our family’s pilgrimage to Milledgeville this past June. I had excitedly rediscovered O’Connor after taking a job in California--until then not having read a word since 1994--and for 4-5 years now have been teaching both her short and long fiction in my various disability studies courses, as well as in the Bible as Literature and in Literature and the Arts course I teach annually. My own appreciation of O’Connor grew particularly swiftly this past year; I spent much of my sabbatical reading and writing about O’Connor following fruitful ventures into her letters and manuscripts at Emory U. and George College. She plays a key role in my current book project, and, thankfully, has fully won over the affections of my wife. I did not know, however, how O’Connor’s particular brand of redemptive grotesquery would go over with my teenage girls. Despite their early familiarity with Brothers Grimm stories and recent ventures into violent action movies like Fury Road, I was unsure how they’d react.

Crossing my fingers, and lifted by a prayer or three, I set things in motion a couple days before Milledgeville by reading aloud “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” starring an unnamed protagonist just slightly younger than my girls. Both O’Connor’s fictional progeny and my own daughters think romance a bit suspicious and sexuality quite icky, share a deep-seated love for the Divine, and are drawn to the mystery of the Eucharist. It seemed a good place to start.

Fortunately, my daughters’ amusement at the young protagonist’s quirkiness--her aspirations to become a hard-to-kill martyr and her arrogant dismissal of older teenagers as “idiots,” among others--did not devolve into condescending critique. They could sympathize enough with the girl’s subject position to laugh without judgment, and were intrigued along with her at the enigma of intersexuality that figures into the story’s recollected carnival scene.

Emboldened, two days later I again pulled out the worn collection of O’Connor’s fiction I purchased in college, and this time chose the more infamous “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Our family was, after all, driving from Atlanta to Georgia’s former capitol, allotting just enough time to read the story before pulling into Milledgeville, and there was something particularly poignant about driving out of the same metropolis the doomed family leaves behind in that story, though it took our own car slightly longer than 20 minutes to escape the outskirts of the city . . .

As we drove southeast through a countryside that retains much of the color and texture of the landscape O’Connor knew well in the 1950s, our imaginations proceeded along a parallel path that descended swiftly from the fluffy, comic clouds of family squabbles and poorly behaved children into the horrors of violent loss. The girls were silent as I finished the last few, blood-soaked pages, and then the conversation began, covering the contours of psychosis and self-deception, the sometimes far-from-tender route taken by mercy, and the potentially similar spiritual paths traversed by the Misfit and the old woman he shoots in the chest.

The conversation continued in the hallowed recesses of Andalusia with the help of two kind and knowledgeable docents--escaping into the depths of Wise Blood for a time--and then wound down, appropriately, as key images previously touched only by fancy came into view: a barn, a tractor, a peacock.

And a shared family experience that, unlike the buried recollections of “General” Sash, will be long treasured and only grudgingly forgotten.

Paul Marchbanks is an associate professor of English at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and is currently writing a book on the redemptive ends of much grotesque art.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Flannery's Fangirl

When we first pulled up the dirt road onto Andalusia, it felt familiar. The car bounced on through the winding driveway, passed the caged peacocks, and the worn rocking chairs on the porch. It bounced passed the small pond behind the trees, and all the way up to the empty visitor’s parking lot. We were the first ones to visit that March morning.

We were: my two parents, Debbie and Alejandro, and I, Sarah Lawrence College graduate student, Isabel, studying creative writing. We had been road tripping the past two days from Miami, trying to get back to New Jersey. We had decided when we first planned the trip we would have to stay in Georgia, so why not take a trip to Milledgeville to visit Andalusia? Touring American writers’ homes and graves has slowly turned into a bucket list between me and my father. O’Connor’s home at the top of both our collective lists.

I got out of the car, and walked on up to the back of the house. My parents were already ahead of me, near the front porch. Everything was green and blue. The bright morning light, mixed with the freshness of the earth. The irises were lined up in a row around the foundation of the house. It smelled of early spring. The grass underneath my sandals was wet and squished with each step as I walked up to the front of the house. The small pond was down the hill to my right, and the peacocks in their cages were on the left side of the property. I felt giddy, ready to devour every ounce of knowledge about O’Connor I hadn’t already known.

My fascination with O’Connor started when I was thirteen. I knew I wanted to be a writer, so my dad got me, The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers Workshop. The first story I read in the book was O’Connor’s “The Comforts of Home.” It was breathtaking. I knew, right then, I had to read more. As I continued to read O’Connor throughout high school (both in and out of the classroom), she easily became my favorite writer. From “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to Wise Blood, her writing always captured me on a multitude of levels. The combination of her clear, pungent prose, mixed with wit and harsh criticism of the world she came from, is not only something I admire, but something I strive to create within my own stories. Luckily enough, when I went to William Paterson University for my undergraduate degree, I had the immense privilege of working one-on-one with O’Connor scholar Brad Gooch. His book, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, is a book where I have dog-eared almost every other page, and was delighted to find several copies waiting to greet me in the Andalusia gift shop.

Walking through the farm and property of Andalusia felt strange and electric. Passing her bedroom, the old restored kitchen, all the way out to the back— beyond the peacocks and the stables— all of it so green and lush. I was so hellbent on exploring, that it consumed my whole morning. Sometimes I’d walk side by side with my parents and we’d examine the property together, but then I’d get restless and move on ahead of them to another room. We saw it all. I typed on the model of her old typewriter, watched the video about her life in the small art gallery, my mother even bought several iris bulbs from the garden. When I went up to the peacocks and watched the lazy birds lounge on their perches, or walked along the banks of the small pond, I felt closer to her. Like I was allowed a little sliver into her world, what it might have been like when she lived at Andalusia. I remember sitting on a small wooden bench near the pond, my parents climbing up the prairie hill to the front of the house, and feeling the wind rush past my face, the baby hairs on my arms stood up in a sudden chill. My dad called me from the top of the hill, it was time to go.

By early afternoon, we headed out of Andalusia and out into Milledgeville proper to find O’Connor’s grave. I was the first to find it and the last to leave it. I knew I would see it again. We headed back on the highway, up the coast.
Isabel Anreus is a graduate student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Word of Welcome

Milledgeville, as it does each August, welcomed its newest residents en masse this week. The class of 2020 and their parents blanketed the downtown area in the course of move-in day at Georgia College, and I know our merchants are happy to see them. Summer is fairly peaceful around here, but there is such a thing as too quiet. Ours is a very O’Connor sense of normal: several hundred teenage strangers make the place feel like home. While it was nice to have an array of parking spaces to choose from in downtown Milledgeville, it’s time to get back to the usual order of things. Both students and parents are eager to start a new chapter, and as a teacher I share in their enthusiasm. 

At Andalusia, this time of year offers us several opportunities to educate as well, and in ways that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the garden variety “visit to the museum.” Creative writers, naturally, have an affinity for the inspiration that Andalusia offers, and I hope that the stories and poems they read at Thursdalusia have been crafted with a little bit of the farm therein. Student organizations frequently join us to put on special events (the 12th Annual Bluegrass Festival on November 5!) and to maintain our grounds and trails. Students from the hard sciences are some of our most frequent visitors as they sample our pond water and survey the wildlife on the property. And, while it’s not necessarily an effort to educate on our part, especially enjoyable are our teacher friends who use the porch as a second office to plan and grade.

It may be a bit of tall order for someone who’s out to test our pond water to become a dyed-in-the-wool Flannery fan. It happens, of course, and that’s a pleasant bonus, if for nothing else to give the English teacher greeting them something to talk about. But beyond giving our volunteers someone interesting to read, I hope their service to Andalusia gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride in preserving a place that is so vital to Milledgeville. That dedication to service and to causes greater than oneself gets at the ultimate purpose of education, and those of us at the farm, educators in our own right after a fashion, are privileged to provide an outlet. Thus, we thank our volunteers already in the fold, and invite the newest “Milledgevillians” to join our cause.

Daniel Wilkinson is, when not greeting guests at Andalusia and the Old Capital Museum, an Instructor of English at Georgia College. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Finding Flannery

Flannery would have welcomed us, I think, Michael and me, twice making a pilgrimage to the high holy place of Andalusia when a special event allowed us proximity to Milledgeville.  After celebrating Christmas 2014 with family in Atlanta, we detoured to Andalusia while driving home to Florida.  In May of 2016, we were again in Atlanta for the high school graduation of my granddaughter at the Galloway School.  Such an elaborate event you have never witnessed, especially for a Depression child such as myself who attended a yellow brick schoolhouse set back from an athletic field on Atlantic Ave. housing us natives in our journey from first grade to 12th, growing up during WWII in Fernandina, Amelia Island’s fishing village-cum-mill town, where Main St. began at the river and ended at the ocean, where you went home and told Mama if you saw a stranger downtown, and it was entirely apropos that, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, everyone else does.”

            So, what drew us to Andalusia? A Florida poet and her professor son, teaching English/Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, about whose students he said, “I teach them what they don’t want to know.” Well, if by some abysmal error in academic judgment, the didn’t get Flannery O’Connor, they were not left out of the loop because Flannery has been a figure in Michael’s classes.  Michael is a fan, an ardent fan, and so am I, the reader who marveled at Flannery’s characters, mastery of plot, and dialogue: the amazing doors her imagination led her through.

            Our very first visit, it was post-Christmas, it was bitter cold, and Andalusia was respite from the tinsel and tape of the holiday.  It was peaceful and quiet driving from the highway where the white farmhouse rose at the end of a secluded road like something remembered from lost yesteryear, or else, a “Manderlay” of another fiction.  And, speaking of lost, we got Very—as we made our way back to Fernandina on an unfamiliar route we had not traveled before.  But, my son Michael said to me with satisfaction as we left Andalusia, “We did this together!” When I questioned Michael as to why he had wanted to come to Andalusia, he replied, “Be a part of the house and the people who lived there.”  Yes. To absorb its energy, become a more knowledgeable person. Such make up the deep and reverent memories that are the only things we take out with us at final exit.

            Returning to Andalusia in May 2016, was homecoming, and when we drove away this time, we did not get lost.  There was a leisurely drive on the lovely Georgia backroads.  Parking our car at the back yard of the house, there was a low wooden performance space that had been set up for special events, and under shade trees lawn chairs were placed in a wide circle for the comfort and welcome of visitors. Come sit a spell, I heard in my head like the Southerner I am, and so we stayed a spell enjoying the intimacy and privacy of the setting.

            Next stop by unspoken consent was the screened-in pen that housed the peafowl, one female, and a male of the exotic plumage. Michael, camera in hand, focused in on His Majesty, the male.  Some minutes passed while the two birds slowly paraded before us as if accustomed to celebrity, then, several minutes more and the male fanned out in all his glory and stood (so it seemed) striking a pose in front of us.  Michael said, “Flannery had said, ‘Do not try to make it happen.’” But, it happened! I told Michael, “I think he likes you.”

            After negotiating the front steps leading up to the porch and into the foyer of the house, we stopped at the front desk to make some purchases.  A fine edition of Flannery’s collected stories, some buttons imprinted with Flannery’s highly recognizable face for Michael to wear on his t-shirt, for me to wear at my table at the next Amelia Island Book Festival; and especially for me, handmade by a local artist, a double strand of carnelian’s mysterious and magical stones no doubt prized by queens and priestesses.  One of the ways we touch back to history, not to mention the primary reason we were there. 

            History is heavily embedded within Andalusia’s walls.  We passed through room to carefully preserved room, and in the silence there is a palatable O’Connor presence that asks for reverence like a church or cathedral.  In the house kitchen with its appliances the like of which we shall not see again, it brought up an image of my stepmother feeding wet garments through the wringer of that same kind of antique laundry machine kept in the garage of the beach house I grew up in. From the kitchen, there is a small windowed porch in which the only furnishings consist of a couch placed against the windows, and a desk on which sits an antediluvian typewriter.  Michael set in solitude for a long time on the couch in that room in communion with the remaindered spirit he must have felt there. I don’t think it accidental that Flannery was born on March 25th, and Michael was born March 24th.  Separate years, but surely kindred spirits of the Ram. As the uninvited fellow who impulsively sat down to share my blanket at a concert in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park said to me, “The beautiful people find each other.”

            Knowing that Flannery was as fascinated as this writer with all types of birds had a strong resonance for me. I sat down at the desk, punching the keys energetically just as in Miss Ross’s typing class at Fernandina High School so many years ago. I wrote several paragraphs to leave behind me about my favorite bird, the breathtakingly beautiful male cardinal who for me is an omen of imminent good fortune—often the case when the cardinal and poet cross karmic paths.

            So, thank you, Andalusia, for the floodgate of memories you have unlocked.  Thank you for your tangible past that interprets the present and leads us into the future, enriched. We shall come again for this.  And again, and again. 

Nola Perez is a poet and memoirist from Fernandina Beach, FL.  She is the author of In the Season of Tropical Depression, The Movement of Bones, and other works.

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Requiem for Flannery

This coming Wednesday, August 3, is an anniversary we mark each year: Flannery O’Connor’s death at 12:4o a.m. at the Baldwin County Hospital. Perhaps on this day more than any other Flannery steps out of the “darkness of the familiar” as she put it. The lady behind those stories, essays, and letters that we’ve read so many times becomes far more of a real person in our confronting her death. 

Even to visitors who have never read much of her work, Flannery’s presence here is quite evident, beyond the crutches against the wardrobe and the sink against the wall. The literary elements are still here, too: the hayloft and tractor, among others.  The house is put through many of the same motions as it was when Flannery lived here, from the Supper Club dinners with our donors to conversations with visitors on our front porch.  I think Flannery would like that this place remains as much of a home as it is.

There are stories of Flannery’s having to hide papers from her nurses because they didn’t want her to write in the hospital. We can all certainly admire the work ethic there.  Those stories went into the second collection: Everything That Rises Must Converge, and some of my favorites were edited in the hospital room: “Parker’s Back,” Judgment Day,” and others.  Flannery’s work ethic is no small part of our willingness to preserve Andalusia for the generations to come.  This is a place of great inspiration, but inspiration is only as good as the efforts taken to put it into something tangible, sharable, and lasting.  Thus, we thank Flannery for her example, and work to preserve that which she left behind. Requiescat in pace.

If you would like to make a contribution toward the preservation of this place, please visit our website, or give us a call at 478-454-4029. 

Daniel Wilkinson is a Visitor Services Assistant and Blog Editor at Andalusia

Friday, July 22, 2016

A "Glob": On the Farm in Piedmont, NC

Why do I come to Andalusia? Because I visit with the spirit of Flannery, and the farm wraps its arms around me.  I feel good from both encounters.  I come to Andalusia because the pace makes me feel good about myself and the world. 

When I was a child, I grew up on farms. One was with my parents; it was not really a working farm.  My father earned our livelihood in other occupations.  Our farm just had beef cattle to keep the land in use with minimum labor.

The farm I loved was the one of my paternal grandparents. (I know now my grandfather was an agribusiness man, a totally unknown idea to me at the time.)  My grandfather, known as “Pa-Pa” (Pah-paw) had many operations. The list would include: a traveling saw mill, a cotton gin, a Robinson Chemical retail fertilizer business, a threshing machine business, and in the winter a place where people came to slaughter and prepare hogs for utilization during the winter.  He also served out community as Church Treasurer, Chairman of the local school board, and adviser and helper to many.

I understand now that the cotton gin’s space with the roll-top desk was basically my grandfather’s office. However, much of my time was spent in his large truck with a full bed on the back. This was not a pick-up truck, but a large truck.  He never went out in it without his constant working companion, Raoul, a young black man.  Sometimes I was allowed to sit on the back of the truck bed with my feet hanging over; Raoul was ALWAYS there to protect me. Most of the time the three of us rode in the engine area of the truck. I have no idea how many hours I spent in this endeavor, from about three years to the time I began school at six years of age, but I felt like the “Queen of the Hill” as I rode along. 

And so, Andalusia puts its arms around me when I am here.  And I feel as safe as eight decades ago in Piedmont, North Carolina. There are many Grandmother stories, but they must wait for another day.  

Therry Deal, formerly of the Georgia College College of Education, is a volunteer at Andalusia. 

Friday, July 15, 2016


We are pleased to revisit this topical, and I daresay almost tropical, piece by our Executive Director, Elizabeth Wylie. 
-Daniel Wilkinson, Blog Manager & Bon Vivant

“Just wait until July and August.” This has been the frequent refrain as I have mentioned my interest in exploring the idea of going without air-conditioning at Andalusia. A 1962 photograph of the farm house shows a window air conditioning unit installed in Flannery’s room but surely this was a recent addition (the first window unit was introduced in 1939 but just 10 percent of U.S. homes had air conditioning as late as 1965). Instead, we can imagine Flannery and her mother ‘operating’ the farm house in a classic manner. This meant minimizing heat gain by working with the original climate-specific vernacular architecture of the 1850s plantation-style house. The high ceilings, tall windows, deep roof overhang and cross-ventilation were designed for the middle-Georgia climate.

Many of us remember our grandparents keeping the house closed in the day and then opening it up in the evening to cool off. Shutters played an important role in this dance as did behaviors: one would be early to rise to beat the sun. Lots of outdoor work happened early in the morning before it got hot. Mid-day ‘dinner’ was the main meal and was typically followed by rest, or at the very least low-impact activities performed inside or in the shade. Once things cooled, folks would go back outside until sun-down. A light evening meal (‘supper’) would close out the day. This kind of schedule encouraged lively civic engagement with lots of porch sitting, strolls in the town square, and conversation. The human body is also remarkably adaptable. If we were to dial back air-conditioning, we might start to question our assumptions about what is comfortable and can (re)learn how to live in the environment we have.

Today, 90 percent of U.S. homes have air-conditioning. Commercial spaces are typically over-cooled and who can say they have not had to ‘layer-up’ in response to what I call the ‘tyranny’ of air-conditioning in office buildings and commercial spaces. The associated impacts from refrigerants and fossil fuel energy use are contributing to climate change. Going without air-conditioning at Andalusia is certainly a preservation strategy as we demonstrate mid-century life ways, encouraging porch sitting, etc. But revival of the original design intent at the house also underpins a conservation story, one of environmental stewardship and resource efficiency. There is for sure a critical need for climate controlled spaces (for those sick or vulnerable, as Flannery was for example) so I don’t imagine we can or would jettison air-conditioning altogether. Still, Andalusia is valued as a place of beauty and serves as a snap shot of mid-century farm life. It is the place that inspired and supported an original and influential artist; part of our job is to tell the story of how she lived there. That means going without air-conditioning (or trying to anyhow!). What say you? Could you eliminate or minimize your air conditioning use?
 Photograph by Joe McTyre. Note the red arrow that points to Flannery's A/C unit. 
Elizabeth Wylie is the Executive Director of the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Walking the O'Connor Labyrinth

The first time I went to Milledgeville, there was nothing much to see. I mean, nothing much O’Connor-related. I did manage, after getting a guy from a convenience store to drive me to Memory Hill, to stumble across her grave (the caretaker didn’t know where the O’Connor plot was). But I kept going back. I made at least six more pilgrimages to Milledgeville, and every time there was more to see.

On that first trip, I drove up and down 441 looking for some sign of Andalusia. On my next trip, I was there for a writing conference with a friend. We, along with a future National Book Award winner, piled into my truck and drove to Andalusia. We’d heard the stories of Regina Cline hiring Baldwin-Felts detectives to keep people like us off of her property, so we were nervous. But it was hard to be so close and then to just walk away. We hopped the fence, but didn’t dare get too close to the house or the barn.

The next trip I was pleased to find that Andalusia was open for visitors—sort of. The local trolley was making a special trip out there. I went with my friend, the novelist and short-story writer and possibly even more devoted O’Connor fan, Elizabeth Stuckey-French along with her family. We got to sit on O’Connor’s front porch. Why did it make us so happy? I’m still not sure.

Years later I went back for a National Endowment for the Arts Summer Institute called “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor.” The Institute was a great experience. I read through drafts of the novel O’Connor was working on at the end of her life, went to lectures, and sat in rocking chairs and learned about O’Connor from smart and charming people. I also began working on The Book of Hulga, which was just published on O’Connor’s birthday this year. The group of scholars went out to Andalusia a couple of times and now were allowed inside the house.

I was there recently for the Flannery O’Connor and Other Southern Women Writers Conference. I told the story about the first time I’d gone to Andalusia and somoene said they wished they’d had the opportunity to jump the fence. I could understand the sentiment—there is something vaguely romantic and poetic about the gesture.

On the last day of the conference, I hiked with a friend of mine from town, struggling through the heat and exhaust and high grass along 441. We walked into the cool house and paused for a long while, looking at O’Connor’s bed, the crutches leaning there, the curtains she hated, the painting on the wall, the bookcases. We went outside and looked at the peacock, walked through the barn.
The director, after offering the shop’s part-time worker a loan when he mentioned waiting on his financial aid check to arrive, offered us a ride back into town. In the car I thought about the person’s comments about jumping the fence. I thought too about all of the work and money and time that went into restoring Andalusia, into making it available for people like me, people with no real claim to O’Connor other than admiration. And I realized that this—this connection between strangers because of a shared love for a woman not one of us ever knew personally but whose words shaped us in ways we can’t articulate—this was what I have been travelling to Milledgeville all of these years to find.

And I know I’ll keep coming back.

Rita Mae Reese is a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship in fiction, a “Discovery”/The Nation award, and a Pamaunok Poetry Prize, among other awards. Her second book, The Book of Hulga, was selected by Denise Duhamel for the Felix Pollak Prize in 2016 and is available at Amazon and other retailers.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Places of Pilgrimage

In spring 1958 Flannery O’Connor embarked on her one and only trip to Europe. Although, as Brad Gooch has noted, O’Connor styled herself an “accidental pilgrim,” this trip was primarily one of pilgrimage, especially to the famous Marian shrine in Lourdes, France.

After spending some time with her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald in Italy and visiting Paris, O’Connor traveled with her mother and a group of other Georgia pilgrims to Lourdes. There in 1858 the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to a young woman named Bernadette Soubirous. The centenary of this event inspired O’Connor’s “Cousin Katie” Semmes to suggest—or really, insist upon—the trip. Her hope was that the healing properties attributed to the waters at the shrine might be beneficial to O’Connor’s worsening health.

Although O’Connor declared in a letter to Elizabeth Hester that “I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it,” she did make the journey to that holy site, in her own words, “as a pilgrim.” After some resistance and “with bad grace,” she entered the pool in turn with the other malades. She was understandably dismayed by the unsanitary conditions of the common bath, the shared “sack that you take a bath in,” and the “thermos bottle of Lourdes water” passed around from pilgrim to pilgrim that “everybody had a drink out of.”

“Somebody in Paris told me the miracle at Lourdes is that there are no epidemics, and I found this to be the truth,” she later quipped to Elizabeth Bishop; “apparently nobody catches anything.”
After a return to Italy and a special blessing by Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, O’Connor and her mother travelled home to Andalusia. By the end of the year O’Connor reported to Hester that “the trip to Lourdes has effected some improvement in my bones,” which, according to her doctors, “were beginning to recalcify.”

Cousin Katie, who was herself very ill in Savannah, was thrilled to hear of this improvement. Despite O’Connor’s sardonic comments about the pilgrimage, she was herself open to, and suspected that she might have experienced, the power of the miraculous. She added in the same letter to Hester: “Before we went they told me I would never be off the crutches. Since last week I am being allowed to walk around the house without them.”

O’Connor even attributed renewed progress on the novel The Violent Bear It Away to her experience on the pilgrimage. “I am by no means finished,” she wrote to Hester, “but at least I know that it’s possible. I must say I attribute this to Lourdes more than the recalcifying bone. Anyway it means more to me.” Certainly the European trip reinvigorated her body, at least temporarily, as well as her literary imagination.

* * * 

Although I have never been to Lourdes, like O’Connor I have travelled as a pilgrim to Rome and the Vatican, on the occasion of the 2009 International Flannery O’Connor Conference at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. But the closest I’ve come to a visit similar to O’Connor’s at Lourdes was my first trip to Milledgeville and Andalusia ten years ago.

My first stop in Milledgeville was at Memory Hill Cemetery and O’Connor’s flat stone grave. Some visitors leave peacock feathers or flowers. I brought a rosary made of Jerusalem stone and draped it on the tablet, near the “IHS” (for Iesus Salvator Hominum, Jesus, Savior of Men). I prayed for the repose of O’Connor’s soul, and of her father’s and mother’s, and I asked Flannery to pray for me.

I then drove through the heart of Milledgeville and to the property of Andalusia. Like many before me, I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than a wooden farmhouse and some fields and trees. I had been praying for a renewal in my academic work, a new direction and a new start, and this desire inspired the visit. I wanted, like many, to gain a better sense of the world that formed O’Connor’s imagination and her writing.

After pulling my car behind the house, I wandered around the backyard a bit, came up to the front door, opened it, and entered. It struck me as a simple place, frankly in need of some repair. The most fascinating room, to the left of the entrance, was roped off and contained an enticing bookcase filled with various volumes from O’Connor’s own library. The crutches, too, were there—not hundreds as at Lourdes. Just one aluminum pair.

Craig Amason, who was then director of the property, greeted me warmly. I purchased a couple of O’Connor books, the latest issue of The Flannery O’Connor Review, and a bumper sticker that declares in the words of Hazel Motes, “No man with a good car needs to be justified.”

I then strolled around the property a bit more, and eventually, downhill from the front porch of the farmhouse, I circled a small pond covered in algae. Looking at a photo of it now, it reminds me of O’Connor’s description of the pool at Lourdes, stagnant and unhealthy. To my knowledge, no one currently bathes in it or believes its waters to be in any way medicinal, physically or spiritually.

Still, that visit was in its own way transformative. I discovered then a new subject for my literary criticism and a new, powerful enthusiasm. As a Catholic I feel close to O’Connor, as one can to the souls who have gone before us, to all the departed and to the Communion of Saints. As I write about her work and think about her life, I intuit a deeper connection to O’Connor as a fellow believer and as someone who is both dead and still, mysteriously, alive.

I am certain that I am not the only one who perceives Andalusia to be, if not quite a shrine, a holy place where God was loved and suffering was endured, and, yes, where witty comments were made amidst many moments of grace.

George Piggford, C.S.C., is a Catholic priest and Associate Professor of English at Stonehill College in Easton, MA. His “Mrs. May’s Dark Night in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Greenleaf’” will appear this fall in Christianity and Literature.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Mentor in Milledgeville: Caroline Gordon at Andalusia

“Whenever I finish a story I send it to Caroline before I consider myself really through with it,” O’Connor once wrote. “She’s taught me more than anybody.”1

 My current research project is an attempt to reassemble the unpublished correspondence between Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, one of O’Connor’s most influential artistic mentors.

In unpublished letters, Gordon writes that she feels foolish—even presumptuous—critiquing O’Connor’s stories. Yet the letters she writes are expansive, illuminating letters.

Gordon wrote to O’Connor from Princeton, Minneapolis, Paris, Rome, and Seattle.

O’Connor wrote to Gordon from Andalusia.

Gordon’s first letter to O’Connor was written in 1951; Gordon didn’t visit O’Connor at Andalusia for eight more years. By then, they had exchanged over 48,000 words of correspondence.

In October, 1959, Gordon arrived in Milledgeville with Ashley Brown.

Flannery O’Connor’s mother, Regina, clashed with Caroline Gordon. While out on a drive with Regina at the wheel, Gordon saw a dog that (she believed) needed rescue. Gordon wanted to bring the creature safely to Andalusia. Regina refused to stop. Later, Gordon convinced Ashley Brown to go back out and search for the dog. The dog, Gordon said, could remain in Brown’s car overnight if Regina didn’t want the dog at Andalusia. (Regina didn’t!) Brown humored Gordon. They searched. But he was relieved when they could not find the dog, and he told Regina he would not have allowed the dog to stay in his car. Later, in a conversation about farm business, Gordon and Regina disagreed about artificial insemination. Gordon, the Catholic convert, opposed it as unnatural; Regina, quite pragmatically, felt otherwise.2
On Sunday, Gordon gave Flannery O’Connor feedback on her final draft of The Violent Bear it Away “several hours lecture on my prose,” said O’Connor. “I have just corrected the page proofs and I spent a lot of time getting seems and as-if constructions out of it. It was like getting ticks off a dog. I was blissfully unaware of all this while I was writing it.”3
Gordon and Brown departed. Regina told Flannery that she understood why that man (Allen Tate, Gordon’s husband) would want to divorce Gordon.

Despite Gordon’s strong personality, Flannery fully grasped the value of these critiques. To a friend, O’Connor said of Gordon’s comments: “It would have done your heart good to see all the marks on the copy, everything commented upon, doodles, exclamation points, cheers, growls. You can know that she enjoys reading it and reads every word.” 

Gordon next descended on Andalusia in September, 1960.

Writing to Lon and Fanny Cheney, O’Connor said, “I had a call from Mrs. Gordon Tate Herself from Princeton saying her aunt in Chattanooga had summoned her and she would like to come see us on her way back. She said she would come on the following Tuesday but arrived instead on Monday. She stayed until Wednesday and we haven’t heard from her since she left. However, the people over at Wesleyan are having one of those Arts Festivals that no college can now do without and have invited her to be on the panel (me too) and she wrote the man she would come down as she would be glad to continue her visit with us. So it appears we are to be honored again.”5
The October, 1960, Wesleyan Arts Festival featured O’Connor and Gordon alongside Katherine Anne Porter and Madison Jones, all “paid (well) to swap clichés about Southern culture.”6

After the conference, Gordon and Porter planned to visit Andalusia. O’Connor predicted (with her usual dry humor) that the occasion would be something to see: “According to Ashley [Brown], these two have not confronted each other for fifteen years.”7 

The highlight of the weekend, however, was when “Katherine Anne remembered to inquire about a chicken of mine that she had met here two years before,” said O’Connor. “I call that really having a talent for winning friends and influencing people.”8 

Meanwhile, Caroline Gordon read a draft of A Memoir of Mary Anne and, after admiring it, urged O’Connor to find a secular publisher.9 

Gordon’s next Andalusia visit was the following year in July, 1961.

O’Connor was working on “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Gordon’s feedback was characteristically blunt. The story wasn’t dramatic enough, Gordon said. O’Connor was writing too many essays and it was affecting her style.

O’Connor acknowledged that Gordon was correct in her analysis. And there were “a million other things that I could have seen myself if I had had the energy,” O’Connor said. “So much of my trouble is laziness, not physical laziness so much as mental, not taking the trouble to think how a thing ought to be dramatized.”10 

After the visit, O’Connor said, “Ashley and Caroline were strenuous, as usual.”1

 For many writers, extended isolation (such as O’Connor’s at Andalusia) fuels uncertainty and darkens the maze of revision. Detailed, thoughtful critique from a trusted reader—however humbling—offers explicit relief. Despite O’Connor’s occasional wicked and unsparing characterizations of Gordon, O’Connor clearly found Gordon’s comments illuminating, generous, and life-affirming.

Among Gordon’s circle of friends, O’Connor was one who knew of Gordon’s painful personal struggles. When one person harshly criticized Gordon, O’Connor outlined the details of Gordon’s struggles and insisted: Pray for her.12 

During the July, 1961 visit, O’Connor noted that Gordon had stopped drinking—not even a glass of sherry. O’Connor thought that Gordon (divorced now) seemed much improved.13 

That would be Gordon’s last visit to Andalusia.

It remains noteworthy that Gordon’s earliest critiques of O’Connor’s work (in 1951-52) coincided with O’Connor’s move to a new home, Andalusia. A landscape of sprawling pastures circled by jagged pines. From her first letter to her last, Gordon told the young writer to expand her use of landscape and nature, to enlarge her fictional settings and reflect O’Connor’s Christian vision of an eternal God.

Year after year at Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor would place Caroline Gordon’s letters to the side—then get back to work.  

Christine Flanagan, MFA, is an Associate Professor of English at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery, Brainard Cheney, and Frances Neel Cheney. The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Cheneys. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 1986.

O’Connor, Flannery.  Collected Works. Library of America, 1989.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

1 Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 22 December 1957 (Habit of Being 260).
2 Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester, 31 October 1959 (Habit 336) and (Unpublished excerpt of letter, Betty Hester Letters, Emory University).
3 Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 31 October 1959 (Habit 336).
4 Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester, 28 February, 1959 (Collected Works 1088).
5 Flannery O’Connor to Brainard and Fanny Cheney, 15 September 1960 (The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Cheneys page).
6 Flannery O’Connor to John Hawkes, 9 October 1960 (CW 1134).
7 Flannery O’Connor to Brainard and Fanny Cheney, 22 October 1960 (The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Cheneys 122-23).
8 Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 8 November 1960 (CW 1135).
9 O’Connor to Robert Giroux, 4 November 1960 (Habit 415).
10 O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 17 July 1961 (Habit 444-445). 
11 O’Connor to Betty Hester, 22 July 1961 (Habit 445).
12 O’Connor to Betty Hester, 6 November 1958 (Unpublished letter, Betty Hester Papers, Emory University).
13 O’Connor to Betty Hester, 22 July 1961 (Unpublished excerpt of letter, Betty Hester Papers, Emory University); also O’Connor to Brainard Cheney, 23 July 1961 (The Correspondence 138).