It must have been so very lonely.
Flannery O’Connor’s kind of art, the conjuring of words and characters out of the void, required solitude. Aloneness.
America’s greatest female writer spent great unforgiving lengths of time at a desk in a room in an old country house she called Andalusia Farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. Her kind of art required that she fence herself off from the world – at least this world – and to work apart from collaborators or distractions. Perhaps, like many writers, she even craved isolation from noise. (Surely more than once the madwoman cries of peacocks around her farm house interrupted the labored creation of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or Wise Blood.)
If art puts up fences, illness builds hard stone walls. What shock of loneliness did Flannery O’Connor feel when a doctor looked in her remarkable eyes and pronounced the dreaded word: lupus? She had already seen her father waste away to that cruel autoimmune disease, his body betraying itself, attacking itself, finally killing itself. Her diagnosis exiled her to a stony cell of specialness, of sickness, as unlucky as a poor prisoner meted out a death sentence from some all-powerful, invisible judge. Flannery O’Connor didn’t face solitary confinement, but she knew confinement … and she knew its loneliness.
This summer, I read at Andalusia from my novel, Pickett’s Charge, one member of a two-person traveling event named Misfits, Mission and Mercy in Southern Fiction. I appeared with Kaye Park Hinckley (A Hunger in the Heart, Tuscany Press 2013; Birds of a Feather, Wiseblood Books 2014). Hinckley is a fine writer in the O’Connor style – Catholic, born and raised in a deeply southern place (Dothan, Alabama, my own home town), a storyteller with a moral compass in every sentence.
We read in Flannery O’Connor’s house. It felt somehow like the writer still lived there, that she simply had ghosted out for a walk into the dewy yard while 25 strangers came and went through her rooms, read from a lectern in her kitchen, gawked at the gewgaws in the parlor, peeked at this and that. I certainly did my share of sight-seeing – for many years, I daydreamed of visiting Andalusia, making this pilgrimage to literary Lourdes.
Many writers come selfishly to Andalusia, secretly hoping to pull a sword from the stone of genius, to inhale some of O’Connor’s leftover talent from the air of the place. When invited by Elizabeth Wylie, the executive director of Andalusia Farm, Kaye and I seized the opportunity to see where greatness lived, where genius worked.
It felt so very lonely.
Ms. O’Connor’s bedroom, isolation itself, looks the same as when the writer suffered there – from her art and from her illness. The mattress on the conspicuous bed seems to hold a small hollowed-out shape. A metal crutch, the kind my own poor Aunt Rose Nell used back in Alabama for 50 years after polio crippled her, leans against a desk. Light pours through windows; the room feels holy, somehow like a church.
She wrote in that room. Alone. The day of the reading, I thought of Flannery O’Connor seated for hours (for eternity now) at the wooden desk in her bedroom, leaving behind her own kind of Bible for those of us who write.
Destiny … or God … or the devil … or whatever we understand (or misunderstand) fate to be, set Flannery O’Connor apart from the world. Life placed fences and walls around her. How could this writer not have thought from time to time, despite her famously deep faith, that the gods played cruel tricks, fatal ones, on the innocent and undeserving? Why else would a child be made to watch a father slowly fade away to an incurable disease? And why else would that child be stricken with the same terrible illness?
God may work in mysterious ways. Those can seem ungodly.
To comprehend these mysteries, I believe Flannery O’Connor willed herself to become Fate herself, or God, or the devil, or whatever we understand a seeking writer to be. On the lonely edge of this life, she created her own universe, filled it with light, sea, plants, animals, then people. On the seventh day … and many other days as she grew sicker and sicker in the course of her shortened life … she rested on her little bed at Andalusia.
The universe she goddessed into existence out of the void, out of the face of the deep, feels a lot like ours. Mean things happen to good people. Good things happen to mean ones. Crazy hilarity comes howling out of terrible cruelty. (“She would've been a good woman … if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”)
The only order of Flannery O’Connor’s cosmos, the only sense any of it makes, comes from something that can’t be found in any room, behind any wall or fence. It can only be found inside, in the loneliest place of all.
Flannery O’Connor found it… and somehow deeply believed in it… in a wooden house near Milledgeville.
Charles McNair is the author of Pickett’s Charge (Livingston Press, 2013) and Land O’ Goshen (St. Martin’s Press, 1994). A native of Alabama, he lives in Atlanta and writes for a living. He asks readers and writers who appreciate Flannery O’Connor to contribute to an endowment drive to preserve Andalusia Farm. (www.andalusiafarm.org)