Friday, December 27, 2013

Looking Back

As 2013 recedes in the rear view mirror, I am acutely aware of the many changes that have occurred at Andalusia during this past year.  In April we celebrated the restoration of the Hill House with a reception to mark the completion of this two-year project.  To top it all off, we received The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation award for excellence in restoration at a ceremony held on April 26 in the Old Capitol Building.  In addition to bestowing this award, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation gave us a $2,500 grant to continue our work on the cow barn.  With their help and a generous $10,000 grant from the Watson-Brown Foundation Junior Board, we were finally able to put a much-needed new roof on the structure.  Now that we have a new roof and the barn is stabilized, we hope to be able to open it to visitors at some point in the future.  In 2013, we finally were connected to city water service.  It is such a relief knowing that we now have a dependable source of water and don't have to worry about the well running dry in the midst of a summer drought (though, as luck would have it, 2013 was the rainiest year in Georgia's history).  Much credit for this and the aforementioned preservation/restoration work goes to our former Executive Director, Craig Amason.  Yes, I did say former.  The biggest change of the year, as far as I'm concerned, was the departure of Craig last month.  Having been at Andalusia just about as long as Flannery (13 years), Craig left us to take a position with Piedmont College in Demorest, where his wife, Amy, is also employed.  In November, after having interviewed many qualified candidates, the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation chose Elizabeth Wylie as our next Executive Director.  She comes to us from Boston and brings with her a broad background in museums and management of non-profits.  She has a proven track record in fund raising and is brimming with innovative ideas.  I look forward to working for her and have every confidence that we are going to be well-served by her leadership. Next week, we will take a look at what's ahead in 2014.
- Mark

Friday, December 20, 2013

Faith as a Romance

Last week, a friend sent me a review from The Christian Century of Carlene Bauer's first novel, Frances and Bernard, that came out earlier this year.  Written in epistolary form, it is loosely based on the friendship between Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell.  In writing the book, Bauer drew heavily on the letters of O'Connor and Lowell. Since I have not read the novel, I am not in a position to review it.  However, based on the review by Amy Frykholm in The Christian Century, Bauer's novel does not exactly follow the trajectory of either writer's life.  The author, instead, "illuminates interior dilemmas, asks theological questions, and explores the dimensions of a life of faith and of romantic love."  Like Flannery, Frances's faith is more robust and deeply rooted than Bernard's/Lowell's.  Unlike O'Connor, however, both Frances and Bernard wrestle with the doubts, challenges, and agonies of faith.  For these fictional characters, faith ends up being more of an "obstacle" than a "way forward."  In the end, their romantic love and artistic ambition "provide a greater sense of redemption than faith, which seems only to stir things up, create unanswerable dilemmas and cause the characters to live too much in their imaginations and not enough on the ground." While basing fictional works on historical characters can be problematic, Frances and Bernard sounds like a compelling read.  In closing, I want to wish you all a very merry Christmas.  Due to the way the holidays fall this year, Andalusia will be open during our regular hours the weeks of Christmas and and New Years.
- Mark

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Catholic Writer Today

Writer of the "Golden Age"
In the December issue of First Things, there is an interesting piece by poet and former NEA chairman, Dana Gioia.  His article, The Catholic Writer Today, has sparked quite a lot of buzz on the blogosphere.  Gioia's premise is that Catholics today do not have the same kind of visible presence in the arts, especially literature, that they once enjoyed in the middle of the last century.  Gioia goes on to explore why this has occurred.  Rather than recapitulate every point he makes, I offer a few reflections.  First of all, Gioia rightly says that the golden age of American Catholic writing was not a renaissance.  It was, and so far remains, America's only Catholic moment in the arts.  For readers of this blog, it is worth noting that Gioia dates this era to the time Flannery O'Connor was writing.  It begins around 1950 and ends with her death in 1964. One could argue there was a lot of good Catholic writing that came both before and after that.  Ernest Hemingway (who Gioia claims was Catholic - hmmm), was already a major player before O'Connor was out of diapers.  At the other end of her life, by 1964 Walker Percy was just beginning to hit full stride and many of Thomas Merton's poems had yet to be published.  I do agree with blogger Eve Tushnet that Gioia fails to take into account how much the world of writing and book publishing has changed in the last 60 years: "There’s no acknowledgment of how completely the structure of artistic production and audience has changed since 1950. The change has been seismic. Publishing is an especially extreme example, and it happens to be Gioia’s example, so let’s roll with it. Both making books and finding the books you want to read are totally different now. Telling a young Catholic writer to go have a career like Flannery O’Connor’s is like telling a young Catholic father to get a good stable union job at the Chrysler plant. Thanks, yeah, I’ll get right on that."  To read more of Tushnet's review go to her blog.  For another interesting take on Gioia's article check out the Dec. 8th post on Heather King's blog.  And by all means, do read The Catholic Writer Today.
- Mark

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Rare Sighting

On Monday a Georgia College student finishing up an environmental studies project at the cow pond informed me that he had spotted a peregrine falcon.  He went on to say that this bird of prey is on the endangered species list and that seeing one anywhere is a rare treat.  He also noted the very fact that a peregrine falcon would find Andalusia such a congenial and protected habitat speaks volumes for this farm.  And indeed it does, since this is not the first time that such birds have been seen here.  Next time you're visiting Andalusia be sure to check out the brochure we've printed up that lists all the birds that have been spotted at the farm.  On it you'll find every kind of bird from cedar waxwings, to bobwhite quail, and the elusive Kentucky warbler.  The list of 167 species is by no means exhaustive.  I wouldn't be surprised that if some day the passenger pigeon miraculously reappears it will show up at Andalusia.  Back in 1934, the Milledgeville city fathers decided that the motto for our community would be: "Milledgeville: A Bird Sanctuary."  Old signs proclaiming such can still be seen downtown.  In recent years to draw more tourists to town, the slogan was changed to "Capitals, Columns, and Culture." I prefer the old motto.  If Milledgeville no longer considers itself a bird sanctuary, we here at Andalusia consider the farm to be so.  It was when Flannery O'Connor lived here, it still is today and we hope will remain so in the future.
- Mark

Friday, November 29, 2013


In the Nov. 20th edition of The Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) columnist Paige Henson wrote an interesting piece about how (or even if) Flannery O'Connor would have made use of social media were it available in her day.  Henson, who for years ran an ad agency in Macon, is an expert in the implementation of social media for businesses seeking to maximize their outreach.  She is also a big O'Connor fan.  In this article (which unfortunately you can't link to from the paper's website) Henson goes through the different media out there - everything from Facebook and Twitter to LinkedIn and Instagram) and speculates on how Flannery would have utilized it.  With the exception of LinkedIn, Henson believes O'Connor would have taken to social media like a duck to water.  I'm not so sure.  For one thing, it is important to remember that Flannery O'Connor was an intensely private person.  I cannot, therefore, see her Tweeting or posting to Facebook.  Nor can I see her posting selfies on Instagram.  On the other hand she did have a good many friends who I think she would have stayed connected to via emails and text messages.  The other thing to remember about Flannery is that when it came to publishing anything that had her name on it she was a perfectionist.  Modern social media by its very nature precludes the kind of thoughtful precision that Flannery felt was so necessary to her writing.  Blogging, on the other hand, allows for a greater degree of editorial control and so I think she might have been a good blogger.  Its' fun to speculate, but I think it's possible that O'Connor may have shunned the whole business.  She was, after all, something of a Luddite who even found it impossible to make the change from a manual to an electronic typewriter (she didn't care for the sound it made or the pesky way it would repeat letters if a key was struck too hard).  She may have been suspicious of social media and may have thought it was just too confoundedly newfangled to bother with.  Personally, I'm glad it wasn't around during O'Connor's lifetime.  Otherwise, we wouldn't have all those wonderful letters (even though I'm fairly certain Flannery would not have wanted them published).  Thank you to Paige Henson for providing a lively topic for discussion. 
- Mark

Friday, November 22, 2013

Farewell Craig

Craig Amason
Flannery O'Connor did say it best:  A good man is hard to find.  He's even harder to say good-bye to.  Sadly alas, next Wednesday we say so long to our executive director, Craig Amason.  Believe it or not, he has been at Andalusia just about as long as Flannery - 13 years.  It has been my honor and pleasure to work under him for four of those years.  What Craig has accomplished during his tenure is pretty amazing.  When the Foundation was established in 2001 and he was named its first director, Andalusia was in pretty dilapidated shape.  So much restoration work had to be done just to open the place to the public.  Craig undertook this enormous task with extraordinary competence and good cheer.  Through his Herculean efforts, O'Connor's home received its first visitors in 2003.  Yet much more work needed to be done.  When I visited the farm for the first time in June, 2009, the Hill House was covered with vines, the dairy processing shed needed work, the cow barn was on the verge of falling down, and there were none of the attractions that we take for granted today such as the aviary and peacocks.  While Andalusia has benefited from the generosity of its donors, it would not be what it is today without Craig's hard work and dedication.  His love for Flannery and her art is reflected in his labors to make Andalusia one of the premier literary landmarks in this country.  His enthusiasm for O'Connor is contagious.  I have watched him hold school groups spell-bound with the passion of a street preacher.  Flannery could not have found a more committed evangelist.  Yet he is no ideologue.  He just loves O'Connor's fiction and that love is reflected in his work at Andalusia.  In the summer 2013 Friends newsletter, Paula Lawton Bevington observed aptly that Craig is going to be succeeded not replaced.  He's also going to be missed by so many of us.  It seems appropriate in a way that he leaves us the day before Thanksgiving, for we owe him a debt of gratitude for all he has done to preserve and promote Andalusia.  Please join me in wishing him and his lovely wife, Amy, all the best in their new life in Demorest, Georgia.
- Mark

Friday, November 15, 2013

Promoting Literacy

Attention Flannery O'Connor Scholars!  As you know many of the seminal books in O'Connor criticism are no longer in print (e.g. Carter Martin's The True Country).  Fortunately, they are still readily available through on-line used booksellers.  Recently, I had the good fortune to stumble upon one that not only provides excellent service, but also promotes literacy.  Better World Books is an on-line retailer that sends a portion of the proceeds from sales to programs around the country that promote literacy.  This is certainly a venture Flannery O'Connor would have endorsed.  A few weeks ago I purchased Simone Petrement's authoritative biography of Simone Weil from Better World Books for just $3.47.  Not bad for a hardcover, first edition (with dust jacket) of a 576 page book that arrived in pristine condition.  In addition to the millions of dollars BWB has raised for literacy, they have also saved tons of books from landfills, created jobs for hundreds of people, and provided scads of great books to readers around the world. For more information on this most worthy endeavor, check out their website.
- Mark

Friday, November 8, 2013

White Girls

Hilton Als's first book in fourteen years, White Girls, will be released next Tuesday.  This tome has been getting a lot of critical praise, most recently in the New Yorker.  Why do I bring this to your attention?  Well, for one thing, Hilton Als has written insightful articles on Flannery O'Connor in the past and, while White Girls is not just about her, there is an essay on Flannery in this cultural study which touches on a cornucopia of hot-button issues.  "White girls," as Als dubs them, are not just female. Included under this label are writers such as Truman Capote and Malcolm X.  From what I've read, it's pretty hard to characterize this work.  According to the blurb on Amazon, Als essays "hairpin between critique and meditation, fiction and nonfiction, high culture and low, the theoretical and the deeply personal."  The reviewer goes on to say that, "Als presents a stunning portrait of a writer by way of his subjects, and [is] an invaluable guide to the culture of our time."  These accolades are echoed in reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist.  Coinciding with the release of White Girls, Nov. 12th is also the launch of Flannery O'Connor's much-anticipated prayer journal.  There is soon going to be a piece on it in the New York Times Book Review by Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead).  Seems only fitting that an author of O'Connor's stature merits such a heavy-hitter to review her little book of letters to God.
- Mark

Friday, November 1, 2013

Grace and Art

Well, the plaudits for Flannery O'Connor's forthcoming prayer journal keep pouring in.  Yesterday, at the library I picked up the November issue of Book Page which contains a very positive review of A Prayer Journal by Kelly Blewett.  In her column Ms. Blewett notes the brevity of the book, but admits that isn't a "drawback" because "the material that is here is well worth reading."  While I've read excerpts from the journal elsewhere, I loved the quip from Flannery in an entry dated September, 1947: "Today I have proved myself a glutton - for Scotch, oatmeal cookies and erotic thought."  Great zinger, especially for those who are tempted to turn O'Connor into an alabaster saint.  By the way, A Prayer Journal will be released in 11 days.  You can be sure that we will have plenty of copies for sale in our gift shop.
- Mark

Friday, October 25, 2013

Only God is an Atheist

Wish I could take credit for that great title, but I got it from a blog I read this week.  The author of that particular post, A.G. Harmon, borrowed it from Flannery O'Connor who, in an entry in her soon-to-be-released prayer journal writes, "No one can be an atheist who does not know all things.  Only God is an atheist.  The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons."  Pretty insightful for a 22 year-old.  So as not to paraphrase Mr. Harmon, I will simply encourage you to read his interesting blog post of Oct. 22-23.  There sure is a lot of buzz being generated by this journal that O'Connor kept when she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, and it's not just on the web either.  On Wednesday, I received the November issue of The Atlantic.  Leafing through it, I came across a feature article by James Parker titled "The Passion of Flannery O'Connor."  It's generous of the good folks at The Atlantic to make this article available on-line.  Unlike some journals, The Atlantic has historically given O'Connor the credit she is due.  For more stories by and about her in The Atlantic, go to
- Mark

Friday, October 18, 2013

Stump the Chump

Last week a visitor asked me if I knew how the Clines (Regina O'Connor's family) made their fortune.  Hmmm.  Now that one stumped me.  I told this person that I thought her grandfather had established a business of some sort in Milledgeville, but beyond that I wasn't sure.  Not to worry; I told him I would look up the answer and get back to him as soon as I could.  In the mean time, more visitors came, I got tied up in the gift shop and, before I had a chance to turn to the ever-reliable Brad Gooch to answer our visitor's question, he had left.  So if you happen to be reading this blog, sir, here is the answer you were looking for.  After emigrating from County Tipperary (Ireland) in 1824, Flannery's great-grandfather Hugh Donnelly Treanor built a prosperous grist mill on the Oconee River in Milledgeville.  The family's good luck continued when one of his daughters, Kate, married Peter J. Cline, a successful dry-goods store owner in town.  When she died, he married Kate's sister, Margaret.  According to Brad Gooch, "Peter's wealth sufficiently trumped his oddity as a small-town Irish Catholic to allow him to buy an antebellum mansion in Milledgeville soon after the Civil War, to be unanimously elected its mayor in 1889, and to have his every movement covered in the local paper." (Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, p. 22).
- Mark

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ready Reference

In our office Craig and I have a set of books close at hand that we can turn to quickly to answer visitors' questions or to provide us with ideas for blog and Facebook posts.  Among the titles on our "ready reference" shelf are Jean Cash's and Brad Gooch's biographies; At Home with Flannery O'Connor (Craig Amason and Bruce Gentry, eds.); and, of course, The Habit of Being (filled with post-it notes to mark interesting passages in the letters).  There is one other book we have that is required reading for the serious O'Connor scholar: Flannery O'Connor: The Contemporary Reviews.  This valuable resource edited by R. Neil Scott and Irwin H. Streight contains all the reviews of O'Connor's fiction that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals during her lifetime.  It is interesting to see how some of these very early reviewers either totally misunderstood Flannery or - more rarely - "got it."  Even when her work was panned, sometimes the reviewers were quite insightful.  A case in point comes from my hometown newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, in this 1960 review of The Violent Bear it Away:  "For this reviewer [William H. Blocklage], this book evokes the same emotional response that certain modern music does.  Author and composer alike offer little else than dissonance, though most artfully contrived.  The brilliance engages the mind, but the heart does not get its due." (Flannery O'Connor: The Contemporary Reviews, R. Neil Scott and Irwin H. Streight, eds., p. 106)  Whether one agrees with the review is really beside the point.  Rather, it recalls a day when every city newspaper worth its salt had a book section and serious fiction was covered because enough people were reading it to justify publishing reviews.  Sadly, that day appears to have passed us by.
- Mark

Friday, October 4, 2013

To Bless, Not to Condemn

St. Francis of Assisi
This past week a visitor asked me what Flannery O'Connor would have thought of the new pope.  Good question.  My initial response was that I think overall she would approve since Francis seems to be cut out of the same cloth as John XXIII, a pope O'Connor regarded highly.  Since today is the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the saint whose name Jorge Mario Bergoglio took when he was elected pope, I thought I might explore the question further.  Before continuing, it is important to remember that we live in a very different day and time than when John XXIII was elected pope in October, 1958.   Therefore, what Flannery would have thought of any pope today is pure conjecture.  Nevertheless, there are some parallels that suggest she would have given Francis the thumbs up.  Like John, Francis is reaching out to those who, in the past, have been marginalized and disenfranchised by the church.  In Francis's vision none are excluded - not even unbelievers.  All are loved and accepted by God.  All have a place at the table.  When John XXIII assumed the the chair of St. Peter, the windows of the church were literally thrown open to the world.  One could cite many examples, but one that touched O'Connor personally was the pope's acceptance of Teilhard de Chardin, an author whose works were previously banned by the Vatican.  When asked about Teilhard, Pope John remarked, "I am here to bless, not to condemn."  As refreshing as this was, O'Connor was not happy with all the changes that were occurring in the church as a result of the Second Vatican Council that John convened in 1959.  She was not enthused about the move from Latin to the vernacular in the mass.  In fact, she thought some of the trial liturgies were hideous.  Nevertheless, as a loyal daughter of the church, Flannery accepted the change.  She died before the Council adjourned so it is hard to say without reservation how she would have sized up the papacy of John XXIII.  It's even harder to guess what her opinion would be of Francis, whose papacy is just in its infancy.
- Mark

Friday, September 27, 2013

Papal Pundit

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. interviewing Pope Francis
If you've been following the news the last couple weeks you are aware that there are big changes afoot in the Catholic Church thanks to Pope Francis and his desire to restore the primacy of Jesus' teachings on social justice.  As earth shaking as this is, it would not merit mention on this blog were it not for the fact that  this came out in an interview conducted by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. who just happens to be a huge Flannery O'Connor fan.  He has been to Andalusia on a couple different occasions and is a delightful man.  The interview with the pope was published by America magazine (a journal to which Flannery herself subscribed) with the title A Big Heart Open to God.  The title, of course, refers to the new pope, but it could just as easily be applied to Fr. Antonio.  Since the publication of this article, Fr. Antonio has been enjoying some well deserved public recognition.  This past week he was interviewed on the Stephen Colbert show.  I did not see the interview, but I am told that it was both entertaining and revealing to those who have ears to hear.  Way to go, Antonio!
- Mark

Friday, September 20, 2013

Love from New York

It is indeed ironic that nearly fifty years after her death, Flannery O'Connor is finally getting her due from The New Yorker.  Even more ironic is the fact that the magazine is devoting so much space to a work of a religious nature.  I think Flannery would find it pretty unbelievable that the esteemed journal that once rejected her cartoons and dismissed her prose would deign to publish a review of her forthcoming prayer journal in the Sept. 16th issue (unfortunately, the article is unavailable online without a subscription).  Though O'Connor continued to read The New Yorker throughout her life, she had serious issues with its editorial philosophy - see for example her letter to Betty Hester where she refers to it as "moronic." (The Habit of Being, p. 90).  Perhaps O'Connor was predisposed to dislike the magazine since it rejected the Thurberesque cartoons she had the temerity to submit when she was just a teenager (see her letter to Janet McKane - The Habit of Being, p. 536).  Perhaps she felt, with some justification, that they dismissed her too easily.  For her part, O'Connor could be equally dismissive of The New Yorker, whose critic panned The Violent Bear It Away in a "nasty," one paragraph review.  When Elizabeth Fenwick Way sent Flannery a clipping of it, O'Connor replied sardonically: "Thanks for the love letter from the New Yorker." (The Habit of Being, p. 388).
- Mark

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sainte Simone?

Simone Weil
Well, not in the opinion of Flannery O'Connor.  And yet, the author was drawn to the writings of the French philosopher/social activist/mystic Simone Weil (1909-43)  like a moth to candle light.  So influential was Weil (pronounced "vay"), that it is possible that one of O'Connor's better known characters was modeled on her.  Jewish by upbringing, in her later years Simone Weil turned more and more towards Catholicism, but could not bring herself to be baptized and so chose to remain outside the institutional church.  Today, she is recognized as one of the most brilliant and original minds of the twentieth century.  As sublime as her thought can be, her writings can also be confusing, contradictory, and impenetrable as granite.   It was the person of Simone Weil rather than her work that simultaneously attracted and repelled Flannery.  In a letter to Betty Hester, O'Connor says "The life of this remarkable woman still intrigues me while much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me.  Her life is almost a perfect blending of the Comic and the Terrible.  Simone Weil's life is the most comical life I have ever read about and the most truly tragic and terrible.  If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman - and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth." (The Habit of Being, pp. 105-106)  Sound like a character in an O'Connor story?  In a follow-up letter, Flannery admits that such a fictional character would not be a "hypothetical Miss Weil.  My heroine already is, and [her name] is Hulga." (The Habit of Being, p. 106)
- Mark

Friday, September 6, 2013

More Merton

Thomas Merton
Over the Labor Day holiday I finished reading Thomas Merton: Selected Essays.  It is striking how many times Flannery O'Connor's name appears in these writings.  Even in one of Merton's later essays on Faulkner, she pops up.  That the monk recognized O'Connor's genius is not surprising.  Others before him had (e.g. Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren etc.).  What is noteworthy is Merton's astute reading of O'Connor in the days before there was much literary criticism devoted to her.  Here, for example, is Merton's take on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find":  "[In O'Connor's story] evil is not so much in the gangsters, so fatally and so easily 'found,' as in the garrulous, empty-headed, folksy, sentimental old fool of a grandmother.  Not that she is deliberately wicked, but the fact is, she does get everybody killed.  It is her absurd and arbitrary fantasy that leads them directly to the 'good man' and five deaths.  She is a kind of blank, a void through which there speaks and acts the peculiar nemesis that inhabits (or haunts) the world of Flannery O'Connor - and doubtless ours too, if we could but see it as she did."  He goes on to add "The first thing that anyone notices in reading Flannery O'Connor is that her moral evaluations seem to be strangely scrambled.  The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem.  This is not in itself unusual.  But her crazy people, while remaining crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity.  In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics.  The 'good,' the 'right,' the 'kind' do all the harm.  'Love' is a force for destruction, and 'truth' is the best way to tell a lie."  (Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, Patrick F. O'Connell ed., pp.261-62).  I wonder how many other people reading O'Connor's story in 1965 recognized the Misfit as the "good man"?
- Mark

Friday, August 30, 2013

Iraqi Visitors

On the eve of this Labor Day week-end where we unofficially bid summer adieu, I thought I'd use today's blog to look back at what was for me the highlight of the summer at Andalusia.  That event occurred July 20 when we welcomed to the farm seven Iraqi scholars and their host, Professor Gina Caison, from Georgia State University's English faculty. Their visit to Andalusia was coordinated through the U.S. State Department and the American embassy in Iraq as part of a three-year grant to help improve higher education in the areas of English language and literature (including American).  The grant was made possible through the efforts of Dr. Gayle Nelson and Dr. Ericson Friginal.  Under terms of the grant, the International Research and Exchanges Board paired GSU's Department of Applied Linguistics and English as a Second Language with professors at the University of Baghdad as a part of its University Linkage Program (ULP). Professors from Iraq spent two weeks this summer in Atlanta taking intensive workshops on one of three areas: literature, linguistics, and translation. The group came from the Universities of Baghdad and Erbil. They represented graduate students and professors from the Colleges of Arts, Education, and Languages. Pictured at the right are Esraa Jalal Al-Gawhari, Ammar Shamil Al-Khafaji, Ameer Chasib Furraih, Dr. Asmaa Makram Al-Sadoon, Dr. Saad Najim Al-Khafaji, Dr. Fareed Bahjat Qazzazee, Dr. Saad Kassim Sagher, and Professor Caison.  All of these participants have an extensive background in American and British literature, and it is certainly an understatement to say they were excited to visit Andalusia.  One exclaimed it was "like touching history."  While it is always a pleasure to show Andalusia to visitors who are enthusiastic to be here, it is even more so when those visitors have traveled half way round the world to see the place where Flannery wrote her novels and short stories.  Their enthusiasm underscores a point I've been making for a long time, and that is how Flannery in her quirky off-beat way is somehow able to span, indeed transcend, linguistic, cultural, and religious barriers that oftentimes separate people.  Finally, I want to thank Prof. Bruce Gentry of Georgia College for coming out here on a muggy Saturday morning for assisting me in a group tour I won't soon forget.
- Mark 

Friday, August 23, 2013

No Pain No Gain

C.E. Morgan
In other words, grace hurts.  So says novelist C.E. Morgan in an incisive article by the same title in this week's Christian Century.  For those who are befuddled by the element of violence in Flannery O'Connor's fiction, I encourage you to check out this article.  Many times perplexed visitors will ask me about why O'Connor is so preoccupied, almost obsessed, with violence.  In order to justify the literary merit of her work, I'm afraid I sometimes become defensive, almost apologetic.  "Well, it's not the kind of gratuitous violence that we've come to expect in the movies and popular culture.  It's not all that graphic."  True enough, but more needs to be said.  And Ms. Morgan certainly does in this very fine piece that explores the sacramental function of violence in three of O'Connor's short stories: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Good Country People," and "A Circle in the Fire."  Unfortunately, only part of the article can be viewed following the link.   You'll  have to subscribe to the magazine or read it at your local library.  Either way, it's worth the effort.
- Mark

Friday, August 16, 2013

Voices in the Woods

Merton outside his hermitage
A couple months ago, Orbis Books released a splendid collection of essays by Thomas Merton.  In his essay, "Day of a Stranger," Merton mentions a number of the poets and prophets, Eastern and Western sages, men and women artists and visionaries whose disparate voices sustain him spiritually as he embarks on his new life as a hermit  in the Kentucky woods.  At the hermitage there is room for many voices: "Of Vallejo, for instance.  Or Rilke, or Rene Char, Montale, Zukofsky, Ungaretti, Edwin Muir, Quasimodo, or some Greeks.  Or the dry, disconcerting voice of Nicano Parra, the poet of the sneeze.  Here also is Chuang Tzu whose climate is perhaps most the climate of this silent corner of woods.  A climate where there is no need for explanation.  Here is the reassuring companionship of many silent Tzu's and Fu's; Kung Tzu, Lao Tzu, Meng Tzu, Tu Fu.  And Hui Neng.  And Chao-Chu.  And the drawings of Sengai.  And a big graceful scroll from Suzuki.  Here also is a Syrian hermit called Philoxenus. An Algerian cenobite called Camus.  Here is heard the clanging prose of Tertullian, with the dry catarrh of Sartre.  Here the voluble dissonances of Auden, with the golden sounds of John of Salisbury.  Here is the deep vegetation of that more ancient forest in which the angry birds, Isaias and Jeremias, sing.  Here should be, and are, feminine voices from Angela of Foligno to Flannery O'Connor, Theresa of Avila, Juliana of Norwich, and more personally and warmly still, Raissa Maritain." (Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, p. 234).  I'd say that's pretty distinguished company for Flannery to be in!  It certainly underscores the esteem that Merton had for her, but what about you?  Whose voices would uphold you if you were living as a hermit in the wilderness?  Whose books would you want to have with you - besides, of course, Flannery's? 
- Mark

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

In Her Own Voice

What is it about actually hearing an author read something he or she has written that so intrigues us?  Why are we so fascinated when we listen to an audio recording of James Joyce reading from Dubliners or T.S. Eliot reciting his poetry?  Undeniably we are drawn to these recordings because of the stature of the reader.  These guys are rock stars in the literary world!  However, I think that hearing an author read a work of fiction can shed new light on the work of art itself.  By emphasizing certain words, pausing in key places, or modulating  the voice, an author is able to bring out nuances of meaning.  In other words,  authors' intentions can be made clearer when we hear them read from their own works.  A couple months ago, I listened to an audio book of Barbara Kingsolver reading her novel Prodigal Summer.  I know for a fact that I got so much more out of hearing her read this book than if I had tackled it on my own.  Another example: When I was a freshman at Denison University in 1976, Eudora Welty came and read one of her stories at a convocation (I don't remember which story anymore).  With her charm and mellifluous southern accent, this demure little lady drew me into her writing.  To top it off, the next day, to our surprise, she showed up in my English class and happily fielded questions from us guileless 18-year-olds.  I'm not sure if Flannery O'Connor sat in on any English classes when she visited Vanderbilt in 1959.  However, she did read her short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" before a university gathering.  It was recorded and now is widely available on the web.  If you wonder what the characters in Flannery's stories might have sounded like, the dialect that she heard spoken daily on the farm at Andalusia, listen to this
- Mark

Friday, August 2, 2013

Viva Artistas, Viva Espana!

What do you get when you cross Marc Chagall and Grandma Moses?  The paintings of Flannery O'Connor, of course!  While I don't know if O'Connor was influenced by Grandma Moses, she certainly had a high opinion of Marc Chagall and I think you can see traces of his influence in her art work.  In any case, he was one of Flannery's favorite artists.  In the letter to Janet McKane that I referenced last week (The Habit of Being,  p. 531) she thanks her friend for sharing a recently published article on the artist.  "I was delighted to read the piece on Chagall.  I never see the Atlantic so I would have missed it altogether and Chagall is one of my favorites. Last year I saw a television interview between Chagall and a young man from the museum in Boston.  I think it was - educational TV.  The young man was very arty. He started exhibiting his own learning along the way, giving everybody including Chagall a lecture on the nature of influences on the artist.  When he finally gave Chagall a chance to answer, Chagall said in the simplest way possible that his greatest influence was his mother. It took the poor young man an instant or two to get his bearings after that."  Further on in this letter Flannery makes an oblique reference to Picasso.  While O'Connor was certainly a capable artist, we would not be talking about her paintings today were it not for the fact that she was one of the most important short story writers of the twentieth century.  We do have to talk about the Spaniards, however, because the history of world art is incomprehensible without Velasquez, El Greco, Picasso, et. al.  For my Georgia readers who might be interested in learning more about the country that produced so many great artists, tune into GPB television tonight at 7:00 p.m. for a program hosted by noted  travel writer Rick Steves called Viva Espana!.  The region of Spain Steves is focusing on is - what else - Andalusia!
- Mark

Friday, July 26, 2013

More Irish than the Irish

In last week's post I mentioned the O'Connor conference in Ireland next year.  While the conference is taking place in the author's ancestral homeland, it may surprise readers of this blog to learn that Flannery's opinions of  Ireland and its people were rather mixed.  Her friend Ashley Brown said Flannery "had a  rather low opinion of Ireland.  She called Blarney Castle 'Baloney Castle.'" (At Home With Flannery O'Connor: An Oral History, p.113).  In a letter to Janet McKane, Flannery confessed, "I have never been greatly tied emotionally or sentimentally to my own Irish background.  The Irish in America are sometimes more Irish than the Irish and I suppose some of my indifference is a reaction against that." (The Habit of Being, p. 531).  No doubt Flannery was thinking of all the cliched St. Patrick's Day celebrations she had witnessed in Savannah growing up. "I was brought up in Savannah where there was a colony of the Over-Irish.  They have the biggest St. Patrick's Day parade anywhere and generally go nutty on the subject."   In this same letter, however, she goes on to add that she finds the people of Ireland lovely.  "On the other hand, all the Irish from Ireland that I have ever seen have been charming."  That is how I found them to be when I visited the country 33 years ago, and I bet foreign visitors to next year's conference will too. 
- Mark

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Mystery of Place

Here's something that's sure to stir interest amongst the readers of this blog: the details for the next international Flannery O'Connor conference have been announced. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Place will take place next July 24-26, 2014 at All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland.  Presenters already lined up  include Gina Ochsner, John F. Deane, and Brenda Bynum.  Among the highlights of the conference are an opening night reception, optional dinner at Johnnie Fox's Irish Pub on Friday, a dramatic and entertaining reading by Brenda Bynum on the final night of the conference, and much, much more.  Ireland is certainly one of the most beautiful countries in the world and what a wonderful opportunity this would be for Flannery's fans to participate in what promises to be a most stimulating conference in the author's ancestral homeland.  For more information click here.
- Mark

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fly Peacock, Fly

On my way into work on Tuesday I was listening to NPR's morning show, Performance Today.  One of the pieces that day was a work I had never heard before, "The Peacock," by the twentieth century Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly.  It is a  theme and variations for orchestra based on an old Hungarian folksong called "Fly Peacock, Fly."  If I remember correctly, the song tells the story of a peacock who visits a prisoner who is longing to be released so that he can be reunited with his love.  Each day the peacock flies to the prisoner's cell and serenades him.  The peacock's song sustains the prisoner in  his ordeal and gives him hope.  When I heard the Kodaly piece I immediately thought of Flannery and how her peafowl must have sustained her during her 13-year bout with lupus.  While the birds themselves might have afforded her some solace, I doubt their shrill cacophony did  - keep in mind that at one time she had as many as 50 of these critters out here.  Still, I think Flannery would have been delighted to know that a composer had written a piece based on the peacock's song (a piece that at the time was as controversial as some of Flannery's own stories). For those interested in hearing how Kodaly set this to music click on the Performance Today website for July 9th.  Fred Child's introduction of the piece is entertaining and worthwhile, too. 
- Mark

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Coming this Fall

When I got hooked on Flannery O'Connor four years ago, I tried to read everything about her that I could get my hands on.  One of the more helpful books, was Flannery O'Connor's Georgia by Barbara McKenzie.  What drew me to this book was the way it seemed to capture in word and photograph the fictional world of Flannery O'Connor - which wasn't so fictional after all!  The photographs of preachers seized by the Holy Spirit, full immersion baptisms in muddy creeks, and fire and brimstone highway signs, evoke so well the cultural milieu of Hazel Motes, Francis Marion Tarwater, and Mrs. Greenleaf.  Psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote a splendid introduction that provides the context for this collection of vintage photographs that has sadly been out of print for years.  Recently, however,  the University of Georgia Press announced that they will be bringing it back in the fall.  We look forward to carrying the new edition in our gift shop as soon as it rolls off the press. 
- Mark

Friday, June 28, 2013

Mystical Mentor

A quick overview of the books in Flannery O'Connor's library reveals that she did not have much of a taste for mysticism or contemplative writing.  Sure, she owned and read some of the basic texts, but it just wasn't her cup of tea (see, for example, her letter to Ted Spivey - The Habit of Being, p. 297).  She was drawn more to the theological giants of the church and read everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Romano Guardini.  Not surprisingly, a more structured prayer life also was more suited to her spiritual temperament.  She prayed the rosary, the daily office, and, of course, attended mass almost every day.  Beyond these practices, she recited formal prayers such as the Prayer to St. Raphael (see the post for May 31). When it came to silent contemplation, she felt it was better to leave that to the monks at Conyers.  There was one writer on Christian mysticism, however, she endorsed enthusiastically and whose magnum opus, The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends, she encouraged others to read: Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925).   As important and indispensable as von Hugel's book may be, it is also very, very difficult.  Take it from me, I gave this two volume doorstop a try, and finally had to throw in the towel.  More my speed is Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness.  First published in 1911, this volume by Evelyn Underhill remains the most read introduction to mysticism in the English language.  Even Flannery, who had a general distrust of Anglicans, praised this "mine of information." (The Habit of Being, p. 116).
- Mark

Friday, June 21, 2013

Better Late than Never

Did you know that Flannery O'Connor's novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has been named by America magazine's Catholic Book Club as their selection for the month of June?  This is the first time that a work by O'Connor has ever been chosen. Acknowledging this grave omission in the book club's 85-year history, editor Kevin Spinale writes "the Catholic Book Club seeks to right a wrong with this month’s selection.   Since its inception in 1928, CBC has never chosen a work by Flannery O’Connor.  This month, we will read and discuss O'Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away."  My question is why this book and why now?  Wouldn't her collected short stories be more apropos to start with for readers who may have no knowledge of Flannery?  To introduce the novel, Spinale has written an engaging piece for America.  Especially interesting are some of the questions he raises based on his reading of the novel.  Take a look, too, at the full list of Catholic Book Club selections through the years.  Flannery shouldn't feel too bad not making the cut 'til 2013.  It took poor St. Augustine until 1960 to get on their list. 
- Mark

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Place Called Sickness

Most readers of this blog know that Flannery O'Connor suffered from the chronic autoimmune disease, lupus erythematosus, that eventually took her life in 1964 at the young age of 39.  O'Connor rarely talked about her illness.  One of these infrequent occasions was in a  letter she wrote to her friend Betty Hester in 1956.  Speaking of her suffering Flannery writes: "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.  Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies." (The Habit of Being, p. 163).  Unless one has lived with a chronic, life-threatening disease, the reader is unlikely to empathize with the feelings Flannery discloses in this letter.  He or she has probably never experienced that kind of loneliness nor could possibly imagine how an illness can be one of God's mercies.  One man who does understand is the former editor of Poetry Magazine, Christian Wiman, who for the last few years has suffered with a nasty, aggressive form of cancer.  He writes bravely of his struggles in his new book, My Bright Abyss.  In a review of it in the New York Times Kathleen Norris characterizes the book as "urgent and daring."  Indeed! What's especially daring is Wiman's level of honesty.  Writing in a style reminiscent of Pascal, Wiman struggles to find faith as he stares into an abyss of impending loss and annihilation.  I agree with everything Kathleen Norris says in her review of this important book and strongly implore you to read My Bright Abyss.
- Mark

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Visitors to Andalusia frequently notice the image of the Sacred Heart hanging on the stairway wall and occasionally ask if Flannery had a particular devotion to it.  Since today is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Catholic calendar, I thought I would address that question and share what little we know about the provenance of the picture.  I haven't read anything in Flannery's letters or other writings that would suggest she was devoted in a special way to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  At the same time, since the family worshiped at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, one would suspect that the image conveyed special meaning to the O'Connors.  The etching done by the obscure artist F. Giusto, however, is no mere decorative piece.  It is a 300 day indulgence granted by Pope Benedict XV on July 17, 1921.  There is an inscription in both Latin and English at the bottom of the print that reads: "We grant three hundred days indulgence to the Faithful who shall recite three "Gloria Patri" before one of these pictures of the Sacred Heart."  It is signed by the Pope and dated 17 July 1921.   Though the picture is original to the house, it is doubtful it was displayed in its current location.  In fact, when the FOCA Foundation was deeded the property, this image of the Sacred Heart was in what is now the gift shop where the Library of America photograph of Flannery now hangs.  If anyone knows more about the circumstances of the O'Connor's acquisition of the Sacred Heart print or where it originally was displayed please let us know. The image you see above is the actual print at Andalusia.
- Mark

Friday, May 31, 2013

Guiding Angel

One of the more attractive items in our gift shop is a St. Raphael prayer card designed by one of Flannery's first cousins, Frances Florencourt.  This prayer was so important to Flannery that she recited it every day for many years (The Habit of Being, p. 590).  Furthermore, as disclosed in a letter to Betty Hester in 1956 (see The Habit of Being p. 132), O'Connor even borrowed imagery from it and put it in her short story, "The Displaced Person" ("the business of Mrs. Shortley  looking on the frontiers of her true country.").  The allusion is apropos since all of us are, like Mrs. Shortley, travelers journeying to our "true country." According to Catholic belief, Raphael is the patron saint of travelers (in addition to medical workers and matchmakers).  In the biblical book of Tobit (considered canonical by Catholics), the archangel Raphael appears in human form as Azarias, the traveling companion of Tobit's blind son, Tobias.  During the course of their journey, Azarias's protective beneficence is revealed in many ways, including the binding of a demon in the Egyptian desert.  Upon reaching their destination and Tobias's miraculous healing, Azarias reveals himself as "the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord." (Tobit 12:15)  Here, then, is the full text of this beautiful prayer to St. Raphael that meant so much to Flannery:
O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.  May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured by your joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze.  Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.  Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
- Mark

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tree Trimming

Regular visitors to Andalusia will notice that there is more sunlight flooding the front yard.  This is because last week we had a number of our venerable oak trees trimmed to insure their ongoing vitality.  The work - which took two days -  will not only benefit the trees, which we hope will be around for many more years, but also the front lawn. More light should encourage the grass to grow.  From an aesthetic standpoint, the work we had done makes the place look more open and airy, more like it was when the O'Connors were living at Andalusia.  Look some time at vintage photos of the farm and you will see what I mean.
- Mark

Friday, May 17, 2013

Carrying the Torch

From time to time in this blog I have cited some modern writers who I believe carry on Flannery O'Connor's legacy. Among those who have been influenced by her and could be considered her literary heirs are Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, and Cormac McCarthy.  This week Craig said that he saw an article online that makes the case for Marilynne Robinson.  That caught my attention because I am presently reading her first novel, Housekeeping.  Do a Google search sometime with Flannery O'Connor and Marilynne Robinson and you will find a slew of articles comparing and contrasting the two authors.  Unlike some of the writers mentioned above, however,  Marilynne Robinson acknowledges no indebtedness to O'Connor.  In fact, she has been critical of O'Connor for Flannery's less than serious approach to her subject matter.  Robinson claims "the influence of Flannery O'Connor has been particularly destructive" by leading readers not to expect "serious fiction to treat religious thought respectfully." (Robinson, "A World of Beautiful Souls")  While their style and approach may differ, Robinson's and O'Connor's thematic concerns are similar enough to invite comparison.  So what do you all think?  Does Marilynne Robinson follow in Flannery's footsteps?  Does she carry the O'Connor torch in the 21st century?  However one answers those questions, I do think Robinson's work, meager as it is in terms of quantity (3 novels in 33 years), will, like Flannery's, stand the test of time.
- Mark

Friday, May 10, 2013

Kierkegaard's Kin?

Last Sunday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one my all-time favorite guys, Soren Kierkegaard.  Considering the incalculable influence he has had on modern thought, it is surprising that scarcely a word about his bicentenary appeared in the press.  Thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger were influenced by him, as were many modern and post-modern fiction writers.  Indeed, a work such as Wise Blood would have been impossible without Kierkegaard.  Though Flannery O'Connor disavowed any literary kinship to the great Dane, she did read him.  In fact, in a letter to Betty Hester (see The Habit of Being p. 273) it can be inferred that she even found Fear and Trembling intellectually stimulating.  While O'Connor may have wanted her audience to think that Thomas Aquinas was her literary and spiritual north star, the truth of the matter is others such as Kierkegaard were more important in her development as an artist.  It is curious how Flannery could deny his influence given the fact that she loved Dostoevsky, a writer whose novels are literary counterparts to the works of the philosopher, theologian, mystic (it's so hard to put a label on him!) from Copenhagen.  At the very least, both writers shared a common fate of not being understood in their lifetimes.  Flannery once quipped that she could wait a hundred years to be understood, and while she may not have had to wait that long, poor Kierkegaard did. 
- Mark

Friday, May 3, 2013

Waiting Room Dramas

This week I started Louise Erdrich's novel, The Round House.  Though I am only in the fourth chapter, I was struck by how reminiscent one of the book's opening scenes is to the doctor's waiting room in "Revelation."  Though in Erdrich's novel the scene is not as pivotal as it is in Flannery's story, there is a character in it who is every bit as judgmental and bigoted as Ruby Turpin.  To set the stage, 13-year-old Joe, whose mother has just been rushed to the hospital after being raped, is ushered into a hospital waiting room.  In there he sees a skinny pregnant woman and an older woman who is knitting the thumb of a mitten.  The pregnant woman looks up from her People magazine with Cher on the cover and speaks to Joe. 

"Don't you Indians have your own hospital over there?  Aren't you building a new one?
The emergency room's under construction, I told her.
Still, she said.
Still what?  I made my voice grating and sarcastic."
The skinny pregnant woman resumes her reading.  Before long she looks up and speaks to the knitting lady.
"Looked like that poor woman had a miscarriage or maybe - her voice went sly - a rape.
The woman's lip lifted up off her rabbit teeth as she looked at me.  Her ratty yellow hair quivered.  I looked right back, into her lashless hazel eyes.  Then I did something odd by instinct.  I went over and took the magazine out of her hands.  Still staring at her, I tore off the cover and dropped the rest of the magazine.  I ripped again.  Cher's identical eyebrows parted.  The lady who was knitting pursed her lips, counting stitches.  I gave the cover back and the woman accepted the pieces." (The Round House - pp. 8-9)

Though Joe's actions are not as violent or out of control as Mary Grace's, there are connections to the O'Connor story - intended or not.  Louise Erdrich is one of our most gifted writers and, while she has other aims in her fiction than O'Connor, I just wonder if maybe this isn't a little homage to Flannery that she tucked into the narrative.
- Mark

Friday, April 26, 2013

Under the Big Top

Lest visitors to Andalusia today get the impression that the brothers Ringling have taken up residence, let me assure you that the circus tent pitched behind the main house (which takes up practically our entire parking area), is for the reception we're hosting this evening for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.  Their Spring Ramble and annual meeting are being held in Milledgeville this year and we're honored that they've chosen to have the Friday evening buffet in this bucolic setting.  With an anticipated 450 visitors, it promises to be the largest event ever held at Andalusia.  Prior to these shindigs, there will be an awards ceremony in the Legislative Chambers of the Old Capitol Building at Georgia Military College at which the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation will be receiving an award for the restoration of the Hill House.  Accepting the award for the Foundation will be our Executive Director, Craig Amason.
- Mark

Friday, April 19, 2013

No Georgia Kafka?

Flannery O'Connor claimed that she hadn't even heard of, much less, read Franz Kafka until she went to graduate school at the University of Iowa.  "When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them." (Collected Works p. 950).  Perhaps Flannery was trying to point out the deficiency of her literary education, but the truth of the matter is that O'Connor did read Joyce and Faulkner with enthusiasm while she was at GSCW (and some of her earliest stories show their influence).  I wouldn't be a bit surprised if she hadn't read Kafka, too, before she got to Iowa.  One can certainly find literary parallels in her work and that of the great Czech author.  Caroline Gordon certainly did.  In a blurb on the dust jacket to the first edition of Wise Blood, Gordon compares the novel favorably to the absurdest fables of Kafka: "Her picture of the modern world is literally terrifying.  Kafka is almost the only one of our contemporaries who has achieved such effects." Flannery was not flattered. She claimed she wasn't able to get through The Trial and The Castle.  She once told a class at GSCW that she was "distressed" that others thought she shared the intellectual pessimism of an existentialist like Kafka.  (see Brad Gooch Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor - p. 204).  In a more pointed remark to her friend Ashley Brown she exasperatedly exclaimed, "I'm no Georgia Kafka." (Collected Works p. 911).  I beg to differ.  As is often the case with O'Connor, it is the writers she says she hates (e.g. Erskine Caldwell, Carson McCullers) that have influenced her more than she is willing to admit.
- Mark

Friday, April 12, 2013

Thank you, Mark

Readers of this blog know that our Visitors Services Manager, Mark Jurgensen, is the person responsible for posting here, and he comes up with all the content.  However, I thought I would take advantage of the time while Mark is away on a short vacation (he published a post yesterday before he left) to express my appreciation for all he does at Andalusia.  After a few months of volunteering for the Foundation, Mark began his employment here in October, 2009.  I cannot express how grateful I was and am to the Foundation Board of Directors for making the move to hire Mark as a part-time staff member.  A fairly new reader of Flannery O'Connor when he was hired, Mark completely immersed himself into the author's world, carefully studying her fiction and extensively exploring criticism of her work.  He spent months going over materials I provided for him, and he read the most recent biography of O'Connor by Brad Gooch twice.  He memorized the docent script I provided and soon began to enhance it with his own insights, always taking great care to be accurate and respectful about O'Connor's life and literature.  Within a short time, Mark began giving almost all the tours to our visitors, and though he doesn't like me to say this, he actually gives a better tour than I do.  He also does a marvelous job of managing our gift shop, ensuring that it is well stocked and letting me know when inventories are running low.

In addition to embracing the job as our primary docent, Mark volunteered to assume a crucial chore at Andalusia: taking care of the peafowl.  He cleans out the aviary EVERY DAY that he works.  He makes sure the birds have plenty of food and water, and thankfully, he reminds me to do the same when he is going to be away.  He buys treats for them, and they are so relaxed around Mark that the birds will eat spinach leaves right out of his hand.  Another of Mark's responsibilities that is vital to our success at Andalusia is maintaining the Foundation's donor database, from which we generate mailing lists for annual appeal letters and the Friends of Andalusia newsletter.  If I were to describe all the many ways that Mark has contributed to the Foundation's success at Andalusia, this post would not be in keeping with the succinct and readable entries his readers have come to expect.  The icing on the cake is the fact that Mark's wife, Judy, is always so generous as a volunteer and makes some of the best refreshments you'll find at any reception, anywhere! 

From proofing written materials to moving furniture, from answering inquiries from around the world to sweeping the front porch, Mark never complains about the all-encompassing line in most job descriptions, "related duties as required."  Forgive me for treading on your blog turf, Mark, but I just want everyone to know how grateful I am for your hard work and dedication to Flannery O'Connor and the Foundation's mission at Andalusia.

--Craig Amason, Executive Director

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hold the Icing

Having recently finished Heather King's fine book on St. Therese of Lisieux, I wondered what Flannery thought of the "Little Flower."  Given O'Connor's aversion to the cloying and the sentimental, I wouldn't have been at all surprised if she dismissed Therese simply because most biographies of the saint, who died in 1897 at the age of 24, are unbearably saccharine.   Fortunately, there are exceptions, such as a book on Therese that Flannery had the good fortune to read in 1956.  In a letter to her spiritual director and confessor, Fr. John McCown, she writes "I have just read a very funny book by a priest named Fr. Robo - on St. Theresa Lisieux [sic].  It's called Two Portraits of St. Theresa.  He has managed (by some not entirely crooked means) to get hold of a photograph of her that the Carmelites have not 'touched up' which shows her to be a round-faced, determined, rather comical-looking girl.  He does away with all the roses, little flowers, and other icing.  The book has greatly increased my devotion to her." (The Habit of Being p. 135).  Thanks to the work of people like Fr. Robo and more recent studies by folks such as Heather King, we now have a truer picture of the saint, so different from the idealized statues one sees of her in many Catholic churches.
- Mark

Friday, April 5, 2013

Duck Duds

I don't know if Flannery O'Connor ever had a duck named "Donald," but she kept a small flock of them and, following in her seamstress mother's footsteps, even made clothes for them.  Yes, Flannery was a rare - some might say odd - bird, indeed!  In a home economics class she was taking at Peabody High School, the students were assigned a sewing project.  While most of her classmates went to work right away designing aprons and the like, Flannery procrastinated.  During class time she sat off to the side appearing to be not the least bit interested in what the others were doing.  Finally, the day came when the students were to present and display the various garments they made during the quarter.  According to a fellow student who was there, "On the appointed day Flannery arrived with her pet duckling, and a whole outfit of underwear and clothes, beautifully sewn to fit the duck!  The class in great glee all gathered round and helped dress the duck.  Flannery successfully passed the course."  (see Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor pp. 77-78)
- Mark

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Flannery's Prayers

Surely some of the best selling items we've carried in the Andalusia gift shop over the years have been books about Flannery O'Connor's spirituality - titles such as Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings (currently out of stock) and The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O'Connor, edited by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell.  Visitors ask us fairly frequently about O'Connor's spiritual practices.  Being the devout Catholic she was, Flannery's prayer life was pretty structured.  She prayed portions of the daily office (a replica of her breviary is on the bedside table in her room), did sacred reading ("lectio divina") of the Bible, Thomas Aquinas, etc., and participated in the liturgical life of the Catholic Church through daily mass attendance.  By temperament and personality, she was not drawn to less structured forms of prayer.  However, during the time she was at the University of Iowa in graduate school, O'Connor kept a prayer journal.  The prayers in this book contain some of her most personal devotional writings.  I'm very excited to announce that on November 12th, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will be releasing this journal edited by her friend Bill Sessions.  For a sneak peak click on this link.  While you're there, see if you can spot Flannery in the group photo that was taken with Pope Pius XII during her trip to Europe in 1958. 
- Mark

Friday, March 22, 2013

Walk of Glory

In 1999 the Iowa City Public Art Advisory Committee came up with a great idea to honor the writers - and there are a bunch of them - that are either from Iowa or have connections to the state.  The resulting  Iowa City Literary Walk consists of a series of bronze relief panels by artist Gregg LeFevre that feature quotes from the literary notables.  These panels are set in the pavement along both sides of Iowa Avenue from Clinton Street to Gilbert Street.  Of primary interest to readers of this blog is the one honoring Flannery O'Connor, who lived in the state from 1945-48 while she was in graduate school at the University of Iowa.  We thank Iowa City resident and author, Larry Baker, for sending us this photo of Flannery's panel.  Speaking of walks of glory, I came across a compelling interpretation of O'Connor's story "Revelation" by Kathleen Mulhern.  While I don't usually get into literary criticism on this blog, I think  "Loving Mrs. Turpin, Loving the Grotesque" is worthwhile, especially for those who don't understand why Flannery dealt in the grotesque and why it occupies such a prominent place in her fiction.
- Mark

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Dangerous Proposition

In her blog post last Sunday, my friend Heather King ponders war and peace.  She cites an interview she saw in The Sun with former Vietnam veteran and war resistor, S. Brian Willson.  Here is part of that interview conducted by reporter Greg King:

King: In Vietnam you accompanied a South Vietnamese lieutenant into a village that had been napalmed just an hour before. Burned and blown-up bodies of women and children lay scattered about. But when you broke down, the lieutenant couldn't figure out what your problem was. How was his reaction humanly possible?

Willson: I think we're all capable of being in denial of our humanity. And we're all capable of participating in evil.

When I looked into the eyes of a dead woman I saw there, what I experienced wasn't a thought, it was an overwhelming sensation that hit my body. The lieutenant asked me what was wrong, and my brain and nervous system struggled to come up with words. "She's my sister," I finally said. It was just an interpretation of what I felt. It's like when a father goes home and sees his child and just wants to hug her. It's a response that comes out of your whole being. It's love. It has nothing to do with thought.

After reading this, I responded stating that Mr. Willson's comments remind me of those of the grandmother at the end of Flannery's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Though in a different context, the grandmother views her assailant, the Misfit, through the same eyes of love: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" And we all know what happens immediately afterwards when she reaches out to touch the Misfit's shoulder.  He blows her away. Heather remarked: "Yes, just like they/we blew Christ away...realizing everyone is our sister and brother is an extremely dangerous proposition."
- Mark

Friday, March 8, 2013

Cash Kin

Monday afternoon some visitors stopped by.  I noticed that a young man in the group was wearing a Johnny Cash tee shirt.  I asked if he was a fan of the "man in black."  He responded that not only was he a big fan, but also a blood relative.  While nobody knows if Flannery O'Connor listened to Johnny Cash or had even heard of him, it's not coincidental that fans (and family) of his would be drawn to Andalusia.  I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that there are a lot of parallels in the stories of Flannery O'Connor and the music of Johnny Cash.  Their art can be characterized as gritty and raw.  Because both artists deal with life lived close to the bone, there aren't a lot of "happy" endings to his songs or her stories.  Take for instance, the conclusion of Folsom Prison Blues or any of a number of songs from Cash's great album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.  Furthermore, a dark humor pervades many of these pieces that also resonates through O'Connor's fiction.  As bleak as Cash's music can be, it embraces a vision of life that is ultimately redemptive, as the songs on My Mother's Hymn Book provide ample evidence.  The music in this, Cash's personal favorite of all the albums he recorded, reflects the piety not only of the characters in O'Connor's work, but the people in Milledgeville that she knew.  It is the hymnody of people who wouldn't know a Tantum Ergo from a Gloria Patri, but for all that there is an authenticity and sincerity of devotion in this music that Flannery envied, as it was an element she sometimes found lacking amongst her fellow Catholics.  Finally, and it's just an observation, doesn't this picture of Johnny Cash look like he just stepped out of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?  I bet you can't guess which character.
- Mark