Friday, September 19, 2014

She Called It Andalusia

“Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor.”

So announces the small sign on Highway 441 just on the outskirts of Milledgeville.  More tasteful than one of Red Sammy’s billboards but just as selling—selling, at least in part, the idea of home.

Throughout this past July, I found myself thinking a lot about home since I was far from the place I give that title.  Co-directing the 2014 NEH Summer Institute, “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor,” I had moved from Texas into a temporary residence in Georgia College’s Bell Hall along with 20 other O’Connor scholars gathered to study, discuss, and most of all think about the life and work of the woman who called the white farm house a hundred or so yards off the highway home. 

Except she didn’t. She called it “Andalusia.”

Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Connor reports that O’Connor herself is responsible for the name, having learned by a chance encounter while on a bus trip to Atlanta, that the property, then owned by her uncle, Bernard Cline, and called Sorrel Farm for years had been called “Andalusia” in the nineteenth century—a reference to a region of Southern Spain.  Something about the name led her to lobby her mother to press her uncle about rechristening Sorrel Farm with the name “Andalusia,” and he must have liked the idea since he did. 
But why “Andalusia”?  Was there something about the landscape that brought Spain to her mind?  I’d like to think she knew the supposed derivation of the word from the Arabic Al-Andalus, itself derived from “Vandalusia” or “Land of the Vandals”—a perfect setting for Powell in “A Circle in the   Fire” or Manley Pointer of “Good Country People.”  But these stories came after the name change which itself came when O’Connor had no idea this rustic spot would be her home for the last decade and more of her life.

So what did O’Connor see in this rural Georgia tract? 

When the onset of lupus mauled her just in time for Christmas in 1950 and the decision was made for she and her mother to leave their Milledgeville home on Greene Street and take up residence on the farm, what did she see when she arrived?  An early letter to Robert and Sally Fitzgerald after the move records not her own feelings but her mother’s:  “She is nuts about it out here, surrounded by the lowing herd and other details,” she writes (Habit of Being 26).  But what of her feelings?

In much of the fiction she wrote in her front room of the house—a room where she intentionally turned her desk away from the windows to avoid distraction—the Andalusia stand-ins are sites of frustration, struggle, and violence.  Powell and his friends from the city set the woods on fire; Hulga has her leg stolen; Mrs. Shortley dies and Mrs. McIntyre declines into invalidism; Mrs. May is gored while Mrs. Greenleaf wallows in the dirt; Mary Fortune has her brain beaten out against a rock.  

As I wandered the grounds this past summer, it couldn’t help but be personal for me.  Through many previous visits, I’ve marveled at O’Connor’s resourcefulness in using this actual space as a canvas for her imagination.  But two years ago, my own child, a junior at Harvard, was sent home by a debilitating illness, forced to move back onto his upstairs room whose contents had shifted from Texas to Cambridge.  As he has struggled to understand and deal with his illness, so he has struggled too with returning to a place he assumed would never be more than a way station for holiday visits or summer vacations—a temporary base from which to show his Harvard friends the terra incognita that is the Lone Star State.  But illness made it a bar-less cell of indefinite duration.

In the famous photograph of O’Connor with her crutches on the front steps of Andalusia, is she welcoming us or attempting her escape?  When she writes to Betty Hester that, “there won’t be any biographies of me because … lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy” (Habit of Being 290-91), is she being merely amusing or finding a way to come to terms with her limited life?  Would O’Connor, returning to Andalusia today, find in the peacocks protected from predators in their wood and mesh bird palace the most apt symbol of her own experience there?

To ask such questions, to see one’s own experience in this landscape, does not, I believe—I hope—diminish it.  Rather, it reminds us what we see touring Andalusia is both a physical reality that offers a glimpse of Georgia’s—the South’s, America’s—rural past, but also a complex mystery that is entered, as surely as we enter the milking barn, through the doors of O’Connor’s fiction.  The crutches beside her desk, her narrow bed and barrister bookcases:  these are the daily materials of one writer’s life but also the debris left over from constructions of the imagination.

I will go to Andalusia again, to see it again, to think about it again, to measure my own life against the shadow of its past and present.  I will take away from Flannery O’Connor’s an awareness of both her and my physical existence and an awareness that, along with her stories, she created from imagination and dirt, vision and a white siding, a home of the mind for me.  

Image Courtesy  of the Flannery O'Connor Collection, Georgia College and State University, Ina Dillard Russell Library

--Robert Donahoo is the co-editor of Flannery O'Connor in the Age of Terrorism (U of Tennessee P) and co-director of the 2014 NEH Summer Institute, "Reconsidering Flannery O'Connor."  He has published essays on O'Connor in a variety of journals and essay collections as well as articles on the drama of Horton Foote, Mississippi novelist Larry Brown, Tolstoy's novel Resurrection, and American cyperpunk fiction.  A past president of the Flannery O'Connor Society and editor of Cheers!, the newsletter of the O'Connor Society, he is currently a Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.


Sue_Dan Whatley said...

Great post, Bob. I wonder--along with you--what Andalusia symbolized for Flannery--hope or prison--hard to say, and perhaps both.

I feel sure she didn't think of it as home, the farm nor any other place on earth. Home was a place she was going, had never seen before, or couldn't recall, but a place she most certainly believed was there.

Unknown said...

Andalusia (Andalucía)means "to walk easy." Ande--'to walk,' and Lutier--'easy.' Walking easy would have been a great grace for Flannery." But also, Spanish is a derivative of Latin, (the language of her Catholic Church), and "lucia" means light. The two meanings, "to walk easy" and "to walk (in)light" may be what she constantly strived to do.