Friday, August 29, 2014

Fences and Walls

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. (

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I Would Like to Know Who This Is Who Understands My Stories

Excerpt from a short story, “I Would Like to Know Who This Is Who Understands My Stories,” previously presented at the Georgia College Flannery O’Connor Conference “Startling Figures” in 2011. 

Hester Journal: September 27, 1955

Third letter and counting. I keep thinking of how she said she would like to know who this is who understands her stories—Finding myself deeply gratified that even in this mess of modernity smart women can sometimes find one another and survive the recognition.

Now says that if she were to “live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent [she] would like to write a comic novel about a woman.” What is more comic, she says, and terrible than “the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?” Well that reference was not so thinly veiled. I imagine, of course, that it is a heap easier to find the comic in it when you are on the other side of the teeth-grinding. Steeped in her own faith, her certainty about the great and terrible structure of it all, she’s like an old tree that bends in the wind but accepts without question the shape of the sky under which it rises or falls. And then has a good laugh about it. She sees me, on the other hand, as a great example of the religious consciousness without a religion. I do regard the heavens, but they move by the mighty jet stream. If God lives at all it is in the indifferent global wind. That is as close as I can get. Anything else feels like shading your eyes in the face of what’s horrible and real, and I learned early that I am not one to look away.

All this, and yet—I can’t deny that the hope of faith remains within me. And now it even comes to me disguised in envelopes from Milledgeville—home, fittingly enough, of our most famous insane asylum.

Though I do not fear proselytizing from her. Her spiritual influence on me is at once more subtle and more insidious. I worry instead that in the course of winning my heart as a friend she will convince my brain of the virtue of faith. She must suspect by now that this is where I live. 

Hester Journal: June 25, 1956 

Andalusia visit complete. Whole time I was there could barely sit. The drive down was fine, but once I arrived and saw the first sharp little peacock head jutting around the yard, its startling tail blazing and bumping behind, then saw the first glint of sunlight off her glasses as she stood crooked on the front porch, and then the same light off her teeth smiling at me. A nervous energy pulsed through me all day. Something she radiated that reached out and affected me, leaving this unrelenting ripple on water inside. Something that told me she is one of our very best, and that that this new friendship, struck a year ago this summer, will continue to reverberate through me and will not leave me unchanged. So the whole time there my nerves jangled a little and my teeth rattled a little and I had a hard time staying in one spot for too long, let alone sitting down to eat like a normal human being. She, of course, was perfectly calm and composed. I could see that she was quite happy to have me, she and Regina both.

The both of us spinster co-habitants of widows, nonetheless hard to believe that we are near the same age—she seems older, somehow, and yet younger too. Some combination of a perpetual 12-year-old about to make a terrible remark and an 80 year old sitting with the ever-shocking knowledge that life must end for all of us, but quick. Gives the impression that nothing whatsoever can be worked out on the surface of things. Like she bears the weight of more wisdom than she ought to have, but retains a perfectly easy capacity for happiness. The peacocks please her no end. At one point, watching her face soften as they ate the feed she scattered for my benefit, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude for the New Yorker writer who said her stories were full of groundless cruelty and depraved half-wits. Bless his idiotic heart for starting this friendship. And now, one year later, I am inching closer to the Christ-centered world like a nearly good woman fearing that someone may arrive to shoot me every minute of my life.

She did seem fragile though. Why was she standing so crooked on the porch, and making her way so crooked down the stairs, when her writing is ramrod straight, even the letters. Why is she here in Georgia and not out, up and out, in the northeast where all the real writers are? Everyone knows that Mississippi keeping Faulkner must be thanks to some Mrs. Faulkner who will tolerate his foolishness and edit his garbled drafts on the condition that she get to remain in Oxford. Besides, Faulkner needs the South more than Flannery does, despite what she thinks. All she seems to need is the Trinity, a few likable people, and an unending supply of regular, profoundly unlikeable, people—and that particular constellation can be rendered just about anywhere. I want her here, but I also can’t help but wonder what might happen should she get out of the “region” and into the “world.” She would of course say that there is no difference between the two.

In sum, post-Andalusia: she is everything I expected. And she is more. And she is perhaps a little less. But mostly she is more. And she is certainly among our best, our very very best.

TO: Betty Hester
FROM: Flannery O'Connor
28 June 1956

[Y]ou don't look anything like I expected you to as I always take people at their word and I was prepared for white hair, horn-rimmed spectacles, nose of eagle and shape of ginger-beer bottle. Seek the truth and pursue it: you ain't even passably ugly. […]

You are wrong that it was long ago I gave up thinking anything could be worked out on the surface. I have found it out, like everybody else, the hard way and only in the last years as a result of I think two things, sickness and success. One of them alone wouldn't have done it for me but the combination was guaranteed. I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow.

Hester Journal: June 30, 1956 

Letter arrived today from F. Says next time I visit I must eat, if for no other reason than to "attain reality" for Regina. And that I gave the impression of being "poised for flight.” That if she had turned her back, I might have been gone. She’s certainly wrong about that, but the “lark with a jet engine” feels true enough. She also says that sickness is a place, one where there's no company, where nobody can follow. I think that must also be true of grief.

-- Rachel Watson has a PhD in English from the University of Chicago. She has published criticism on Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and William Faulkner, and her fiction has appeared in the Sonora Review and in a collection edited by Paul Auster, I Thought My Father Was God

Our guest blogger was among 24 scholars attending "Reconsidering Flannery O'Connor" a Summer Institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at Georgia College in July 2014. For more information about the institute, please visit 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Until I Win the Lottery

Dear FO'CA,

I am enclosing my check for $50, and I wish I had a million to contribute. I am a 79-year-old widow (for 14 years), and I live on Social Security and a very small pension. But my gratitude and love for Flannery O'Connor know no bounds. It's funny, I had just said goodbye to a luncheon guest, Jeff Blake, who is also an avid O'Connor fan, when I found your request in my mail. We had shared our books and talked about O'Connor at great length.

He was fascinated with my photos of her, and the fact that I had visited her when I was a student at Wesleyan in Macon. He asked to copy them, and I was glad to let him do so. The photos were taken by Dr. Thomas Gossett who is mentioned in The Habit of Being along with his wife, Louise, and he sent them to me during the time that we corresponded after we had both left Wesleyan, up until the time of his death several years ago, of pancreatic cancer.

I first read O'Connor's story "Good Country People," while lying on a blanket out in my back yard in Decatur, the summer before I was to go off to Wesleyan. I believe it was in "Harper's Bazaar" magazine. I had been raised a Southern Baptist, and I was both fascinated and puzzled by this story. Was this author a man or a woman? Was he/she making fun of the South? Of religion? Later, I read A Good Man is Hard to Find and was delighted to understand a bit more about O'Connor. When I went to Wesleyan and learned that she lived a short distance away, I couldn't wait to go out there and meet her. And the opportunity to do so was provided by Dr. Gossett, and also another professor, Dr. Warren Gignilliat, who took his Writing Lab students out one day.

I remember having lunch at the Sanford house with O'Connor, her mother, and Katherine Anne Porter. I was paralyzed with awe, and I didn't open my mouth. But the talk around the table was very interesting.

Sorry to be so long-winded. The main point of my story is that through my reading and re-reading of O'Connor (I'm now re-reading Wise Blood for the umpteenth time), I wanted to become a Catholic, and I did, finally, going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) at Christ the King in Buckhead, and then transferring my membership to Sacred Heart in Atlanta, now the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where I volunteer for Meals on Wheels, the Prison Ministry, Habitat for Humanity, and anything else that will have me.

And, the most important thing to me is that my husband, Francisco Fontsere, who was raised Catholic in Spain (Barcelona) and turned against the church during the Spanish Civil War, became interested in O'Connor because of my constant references to her, and he read her letters and then the stories, and he eventually returned to the Church with me, through RCIA. The ripple effect... O'Connor has had and continues to have such a profound effect on my life. My husband passed away in July of 2000. At the time, he was also a great fan of Teilhard (?) and the Spanish Christian mystic, Unamuno. I had written on his headstone a quote from Unamuno, "With reason, without reason, against reason, I believe."

Again, I wish I had a million dollars to contribute, but this will have to do until I win the lottery.

With love and gratitude,
Helen Poole Fontsere

Flannery O'Connor looking for a peacock feather to give Helen Fontsere (c. 1958-59).