Sunday, December 20, 2015

Flannery Fandom

During my first visit to Andalusia last summer, one of the biggest surprises to me was the containers of dirt for sale in the gift shop. T-shirts, postcards, books—these I expected. Even the peacock feathers made sense. But dirt? I’m told that when they didn’t sell it, fans would dig it up themselves. Or try to steal signs, fauna, scraps of wood—any sort of material souvenir of O’Connor’s home has been fair game. What do we make of such weird fandom? Flannery O’Connor attracts serious scholars. The annual Flannery O’Connor and Other Southern Women Writers Conference reflects the scholarship that her work continues to elicit. A quick library database search returns nearly fifty peer-reviewed articles which have been published about her work in the past three years, and I can only imagine that in the next few years, the attention garnered by the newly available archives at Emory University will only cause this output to increase.

However, she also attracts serious fans—some scholars, but many not. It’s well known that artists including U2, Bruce Springsteen, and REM have cited her as an influence (and I have written elsewhere about her surprising influence on punk music). There are novels such as Ann Napolitano’s 2011 novel A Good Hard Look, which imagines O’Connor’s life in Milledgeville and her effect on her neighbors there, as well as Carlene Bauer’s 2013 novel Frances and Bernard, a fictional “what-might-have-been” account of her intense friendship with poet Robert Lowell. And then there’s the annual birthday parade at O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah, Georgia. Every year, to commemorate her birthday in March, people assemble at Lafayette Square in Savannah in costume to parade, play music, and generally make a joyful noise in appreciation of O’Connor’s life and work.

There are people in minister’s hats and gorilla suits, in tribute to characters in Wise Blood; there are costumes with peacock themes; and there are plenty of people dressed as O’Connor herself, imitating her hairstyle, glasses, and the 1950s dresses so many of us know from her photographs.
I can only imagine how ridiculous O’Connor herself would have found such shenanigans. Even when she was alive, she had a wry attitude toward what she referred to as the “lunatic fringe” of her fandom. Complaining about a letter she had received asking for an autographed photo, O’Connor observed that “I feel that since I have now reached the lunatic fringe there is no place left for me to go.” 1

Although authors do come from everywhere, it’s tempting to think that artists emerging from Milledgeville are unlikely, I suppose. Visit a city, and every third barista has written a novel. Visit Milledgeville, and you see a cute college town: less hipster than Athens; less self-conscious, perhaps, than Oxford, Mississippi. There’s nothing unusual about Milledgeville water, and unlike (so many) other Southern writers, O’Connor is not known for her drinking—so, the argument that it’s something in the water of central Georgia that produced O’Connor is a hard sell. What Georgia does have is its dirt—even the Georgia Writers’ Association has an annual Red Clay Writers’ Conference. And
although it has become clich├ęd to speak of the centrality of place in Southern writing, I believe that O’Connor paid enough attention to it in her work—whether essays such as “The Regional Writer and His Country” or The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” or stories such as “The Displaced Person” or “A Circle in the Fire”—that it’s safe to say that the land occupied a certain amount of her writerly attention.

But enough to merit its commoditization? Perhaps. Fans of living authors will camp out for hours for a few minutes in the presence of their hero. To have your name articulated in speech and in an autograph implies an added layer of intimacy to that you already feel you have, from living with the novel or poem or song your hero has created. It feels like you’ve forged an even stronger connection with the novel or poem or song that you love. What, then, about the artists we can’t wait in line to see? That’s a big reason, I believe, that such superfandom occurs.

When we (and yes, I’ll admit “we” here, as I have been known to emulate O’Connor’s sense of style) dress up like O’Connor and her characters—or want dirt from Andalusia—I think that we’re trying to similarly forge more intimate connections to things we have strong emotional reactions to. It’s more complicated than “the things that we love”—no one just “loves” O’Connor’s work. We’re struck by it, challenged by it, and feel confused by it. So we keep returning to it.

We literary tourists want to inhabit the outer versions of the worlds we have built in our heads. We want to connect physically with the imaginations with which we’ve already connected. O’Connor herself understood the desire for souvenirs—she often sent her friends and admirers peacock feathers, whose symbolism represented her own values.2 I hope, then, that she would forgive our desire for dirt.

1. Apparently, parades of people in sweater sets and pearls or gorilla costumes were beyond even her own active imagination. 

2. If you haven’t read her essay “King of Birds” about her fascination with peacocks, go do so now. In fact, even if you have read it, go read it again. And then listen to REM’s song with the same title.

Monica Miller is the Assistant Director of the Writing and Communication Program and a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech. Her current work focuses on the figure of the ugly woman in southern literature.

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