Friday, June 26, 2015

Mary Flannery O’Connor at Sorrel Farm

It may be that I have just come in from mowing the lawn on an unconscionably warm June day, but it looks terribly hot in the photograph I have up on my laptop screen. The sun is bright; the young African-American man who is the photo’s subject squints into the sunlight, and his shadow is a little round nub behind him: just before or just after noon, the sun pounding down. He is wearing a bright red jacket and grinning—clearly he is not uncomfortable wearing flashy clothes—and there is a bright red sedan parked fifteen or twenty feet behind him. The car’s whitewalls, those where the entire outside of the tire is dazzling white the way it was back around 1960, are the exact same color as the scratchplate of the guitar the young man—he’s, what, fifteen? sixteen?—is holding, and the guitar itself is red like the body of the car and the jacket on the goofing kid, who has struck the flex-kneed pose of a showman.

Sometimes I turn off the lights in my classroom and put this image onscreen with no comment other than “Here. Look.” Most of my students just stare at it and then cut eyes my way, varying degrees of furious at me for wanting them to figure out why this old photograph should be taking up class time. But every time I have done this—and this has a lot to do with how my students grow up listening to their parents’ classic rock—some boy who needs a haircut (the student is always a boy) (he always needs a haircut) will notice that the guitarist is left-handed and that the guitar is upside down, and he will say, “Hendrix,” usually with a smile and often with a quiet note of admiration, both for the guitarist and for his own cleverness. Sometimes the student’s classmates will take a couple of notes right then: this might be on the test, J-i-m- and so on. However, I am not in fact consumed with interest in Hendrix himself (as I explain to people who want to place me generationally, I was/am a punk not a hippie) but rather in how the student swept his floppy bangs out of his eyes and reasoned with the photo—how he asked questions of the photograph and the photograph answered back: I’m lefthanded. I play a righthanded guitar held upside down. Your professor thinks I’m famous enough that you should know my name. Who am I?

I am a sucker for documentary evidence that brings marvels to life: a photo in the Ken Burns Baseball documentary that seems to depict Babe Ruth’s “called shot”; a catalogue for Araby, the “Grand Oriental Fête” held in Dublin in March 1894; the real Eleanor Rigby’s tombstone (d. 1939) in the graveyard of St Peter's Graveyard, Woolton, where Lennon and McCartney met in 1957; a newspaper clipping about James Francis “Three Gun” Hill. I have gone on at some length about this Hendrix photo as a text for close reading because I am circling back around to one I saw this April 18 when I was nosing around Google looking for photos of Flannery O’Connor. I say “nosing around” because I was not doing something legit, like putting together a PowerPoint faculty lecture as I did last November (“Flannery O’Connor’s Sins of the Flesh”—not as sexy as it sounds) or the introduction to the O’Connor seminar I taught this spring. I was not doing anything I could have explained if my wife had said, “But why are you looking for pictures of Flannery? Don’t you have enough already?” (There were so many in my faculty lecture that the classroom computer crashed and both of the flash drives I had saved the presentation on stopped working.) Instead, I was, ummm, looking around, as one would do for an old crush, just seeing what the Internet would turn up: googling; poking through cyberspace; creeping; stalking.

The photograph that appeared that Saturday was one I had never seen before. With the (a mistake, I think, corrected in the title of this posting) caption “Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia, her family’s dairy farm,” the photo appears on the cover of the Winter 2015 Emory Magazine. It illustrates “Grace Notes,” a story about Emory’s remarkable acquisition of thirty boxes of O’Connor materials for its Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). Some of the material from the acquisition had shown up on the Internet back in fall, albeit in collages that make for difficult inspection. Still, if you squint you can work out the remarkable images that make up those assemblages, including a stupendously satisfying selfie, that have appeared in the last eight months and made a research (stalking?) trip to Atlanta inevitable. The drive for expertise, which is another name for the urge to dominate and control one’s topic, will cost me a week on an in-law’s couch.

At first, I failed to see that the porch extends behind her (the lighting washes out what is on the upper left of the column) and thought that the chair was pulled up at the corner of what one would now call “Flannery’s room.” At first, to be honest, I made a horrible mistake, encouraged by the stupid assumption that this photo was taken in the Fifties, when Flannery had come to live at Andalusia. I actually wondered where her crutches were. Why did they take her crutches and leave her with a possibly vicious rooster? My guess was that the porch, clearly unscreened here, was screened in the mid-fifties, and for this idiotic reason I sent an email to Andalusia Farm: “Can you identify when this photo was taken?” I had posted my question before taking a more serious look at it and seeing that, as Elizabeth Wylie replied almost immediately, “Flannery looks like a (young?) teen there.” Of course, she does. I have not seen much of the teen Flannery from this angle, I think—there is a photo of the twelve-year-old in the Cash biography, and that’s all I can recollect—but the hair and glasses seem very similar to the photo accompanying the December 1941 story in the Peabody Palladium titled “Peabodite Reveals Strange Hobby,” albeit that photo is head on and disguises her self-disclosed “receding chin” (though not her “you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex”). It does me some—a little, maybe—credit to say that I had figured out the approximate dating of the photo before Elizabeth politely and enthusiastically replied and recognized that I was not looking at Flannery O’Connor, but Mary Flannery instead, and not at Andalusia but at Sorrel Farm.

In the magazine cover photo, which is overlit—the afternoon sun is flooding in—and hard to make out, Mary Flannery sits in a ladderback chair backed up to a column on the front porch of Sorrel Farm’s main house. The column helps give away the setting. Grinning, Mary Flannery seems awfully tickled by something, perhaps the black rooster perched on the arm of her chair, though her gaze seems more focused on something way the other side of the rooster—something in the stable, perhaps. On the other side of the rooster is a tree, and in the background on the left is some sort of lump that shows up white and misshapen in the photo—a stump? a meteorite? I have carefully, perhaps obsessively, studied present-day photos of Andalusia and can accurately report that I have no earthly idea which tree that is and what the lump is. The shrubbery, which can be spotted to the left of the column, does not even reach the height of the porch and it is scraggly—not, that is, the well-coiffed mature hedge that welcomes you onto the porch and into the house today.

What would also strike you is that the porch is unscreened and the chair is not one of the rockers you’re likely to sit in when you visit, wishing you could stay till sunset and see if the sunsets in Flannery’s stories are much like those on Flannery’s farm. O’Connor wrote about the newly acquired rockers to “Billy” Sessions on the first day of September 1957: “[O]ur front porch now looks like the entrance to an old ladies’ rest home. I hadn’t rocked for years but I think I am going to excel at it with a little more practice.” They seem as if they ought to be there, but they were still sitting on the porch of Bell House in Atlanta when Mary Flannery sat down with the black rooster for their double portrait. In a pre-Andalusia photograph Elizabeth Wylie sent me, the house appears without screen (and also, dang it, without weird white lump; maybe it was what was left of a melting snowman [?]), and, if you lighten the image, black chairs appear next to the front door. I can’t tell you if they’re ladderbacks.

Mary Flannery’s arms are crossed in front of her. It is a good pose, I think, if you happen to be sitting next to a rooster that might be camera-shy and pecky. She is wearing a dark cardigan, a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and sensible shoes. “Wear some old shoes as this place is very muddy and manurey,” she wrote Betty Hester on June 15, 1957, emphasis hers. (Compare that with O’Connor’s recollection of the la-dee-dah offices of Mademoiselle: “full of girls in peasant skirts and horn-rimmed spectacles and ballet shoes” [To Betty Hester, May 5, 1956].) There is a book to be written about shoes in and on O’Connor. About this I am serious. The book may be short but maybe not: shoe appears exactly 100 times in the Collected Stories; it appears 18 times in Wise Blood, in which the word hat appears only 16 (imagine Hazel Motes: which of his fashion choices seems most important to you?). The Girl Scout shoes on the feet of “the ugly girl” in “Revelation” were part of Mary Flannery’s self-chosen uniform as well, says Brad Gooch.

Whether she is wearing a skirt tucked between her knees (my guess intially) or shorts led to a minor disagreement between me and my wife (who, to be fair to her, defined the garment as “equestrian culottes” or “shorts” even when I insisted on “skorts”). No good Catholic girl, she authoritatively asserts, would tuck her skirt between her knees. She grew up Catholic and pretty good and I was a Baptist, so you might want to trust her on this one. I didn’t, so I inadvertently crowdsourced the question instead. Till two days before, I had seen the skirt as a solid fabric. But then I read Gooch’s description of Mary Flannery’s “creative” outfit, which included silk blouse, heavy shoes, and plaid skirt, and began to see a pattern, a recognition I did not feel I could trust since the bio might have prejudiced me. So I emailed the photograph to the faculty and staff of my college and asked, “What do you see when you look at this young woman’s skirt: solid or plaid?” I might as well have asked whether a dress was blue-and-black or white-and-gold, the excitement was so great. Within one hour, I had received dozens of answers, which broke down more or less like this: 10% solid; 85% plaid; 5% stripes. But then, several respondents also answered a question I had not asked. “Jimmy, you dolt,” one answered (“dolt” was implied), “the garment is plaid and that is not a skirt. Those are shorts.” (One person answered that she was in fact OBVIOUSLY wearing striped shorts, but I choose to ignore him because he seems a dangerous anarchist to me.) That was enough reinforcement: I concede this one to that good Catholic girl Sharee St. Louis Smith, who also, since I am acknowledging some of my innumerable debts to her, reminded me that the porch chair is called a “ladderback” and not, as I had been putting it, “that kind, you know, that my grandma had in her kitchen.”

“There was something about ‘teen’ attached to anything that was repulsive to me,” wrote Flannery to Betty Hester in February 1956. In the collected letters, she seems reluctant also to speak about college days as well: she joked about having “Total Non-Retention” in letters to Betty Hester, Cecil Dawkins, and Janet McKane. However, with publication of the MARBL documents and as more of us visit Atlanta to gently plunder the treasures stored there, this teenager and her world will become more and more real to us. Downtown Milledgeville today, especially the few blocks separating 311 West Greene Street from the site of the Peabody School—a route that teenager took most every day—presents a mind-warping collage of sights, some that would have been familiar to Mary Flannery (Atkinson and Terrell Halls, among other buildings) and some not. I have fun, for instance, imagining Mary Flannery, “head thrust forward” (as Gooch describes), hands clasped behind her back, as she plods along in heavy brown shoes, running smack into one of those maintenance carts you see all over GCSU. Those years seem like the great mystery of O’Connor’s life to me, a time when she was surrounded by kin and WAVES and chickens with names like Haile—and now it occurs to me that I should find out the name of the rooster in that photo.

-- Jimmy Dean Smith, Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Union College, KY, 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

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