Tuesday, June 24, 2014

All Flannery All the Time

I have to say that I am so enjoying life on the farm. Well, not life as in the kind of day-in-and-day-out life that Flannery and her mother lived at the farm, but the kind of work-a-day life that characterizes a professional career in the museum world. Those of us who work at historic house museums and historic sites know well the ways in which ALL aspects of the place seep in to your consciousness. It is a daily delight for me, as I go about 'bidnis' at the farm, to experience themes and images from Flannery’s writing (fiction and non-fiction) that was so shaped by place: Andalusia, Milledgeville, and Middle Georgia. Some of the behind the scenes tasks of ‘opening up’ the farm for visitors take me directly into Flannery’s fiction and her letters. When I swing open the big door and enter the now defunct milking parlor in the Cow Barn the ghosts of cows with names like Scotty, Big Margie and Primrose seem to lurk at the edges. I think of Flannery’s short story “Greenleaf’ and the consternation of the self-righteous Mrs. May when she realizes the ‘white trash’ Greenleaf boys have a better milking parlor than she does. The protagonist is grappling with the post-war breakdown of social stratification and the threat of ‘progress’ and new technologies on the old comforting ways. The themes coursing through this story, and others, can be read in the remnants of the Cow Barn, the materials in the Equipment Shed, and in the early 1950s newspapers that line the walls of the rooms where farm workers lived. "Jobs...and the Air Age! No spot on earth--however isolated by land or water barriers--is inaccessible to the airplane."  

When I walk across the barnyard to open the Hill House for the day, I can feel the former activity of the farm with tenant workers, hired hands, local vendors and casual visitors. It is true that I have been doing nothing but reading Flannery O’Connor for the last six months and I was thrilled to take Bruce Gentry’s O’Connor class at GCSU, so naturally all of these connections are in the forefront for me. What about our visitors? Do they get it? They run the gamut. There are devotees who have traveled far to visit the place and easily mine all these connections from every aspect of the house, the vestigial farm operation, and the landscape. There are hipsters sporting peacock tattoos and “Flannery’ messenger bags who want to know everything about the super cool artist who, at about age 25, had to go home to live with her mother. There are folks on their way someplace else and stop by Andalusia because they saw the characteristic brown highway sign “Andalusia, Historic Site” and pulled in. There are local residents who report they “have lived here all my life and never been to this place” and those who come every week because the “kids love the peacocks” or they walk the trail for exercise. Some have read everything Flannery, others have their favorite story they read in high school, some have never read her work, and some admit they really don’t understand or like her writing. 

We welcome all of these people. We want all of them to ‘make the connection’ between the place and Flannery’s writing, because that is why we are here after all. We do this in active ways, verbally in tours through the main farm house, and in passive ways, through signage and exhibitions on site and through social media for Andalusia’s world-wide audience. Now that I have been here six months and cleared my eyes from my celebrity crush on Flannery, I am fully aware of the challenges of stewardship of this place. There are of course all the many preservation and conservation needs of buildings and land. If we didn’t pay attention to this there would be no Andalusia and no connections to make. A tandem challenge—interpreting Flannery and helping our wide range of visitors make the connection between this place and her writing—is in fact one of the most compelling of opportunities. It is exciting work and requires smarts and creativity, innovation and imagination in order to reach each and every one of the thousands of visitors with a message about the value of literature and of reflection on the array of themes that Flannery explored in her too short life. For us at Andalusia, it is all Flannery all the time! 

- Elizabeth Wylie, Executive Director 
The Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation

Monday, June 16, 2014


“Just wait until July and August.” This has been the frequent refrain as I have mentioned my interest in exploring the idea of going without air-conditioning at Andalusia. A 1962 photograph of the farm house shows a window air conditioning unit installed in Flannery’s room but surely this was a recent addition (the first window unit was introduced in 1939 but just 10 percent of U.S. homes had air conditioning as late as 1965). Instead, we can imagine Flannery and her mother ‘operating’ the farm house in a classic manner. This meant minimizing heat gain by working with the original climate-specific vernacular architecture of the 1850s plantation-style house. The high ceilings, tall windows, deep roof overhang and cross-ventilation were designed for the middle-Georgia climate. 

Many of us remember our grandparents keeping the house closed in the day and then opening it up in the evening to cool off. Shutters played an important role in this dance as did behaviors: one would be early to rise to beat the sun. Lots of outdoor work happened early in the morning before it got hot. Mid-day ‘dinner’ was the main meal and was typically followed by rest, or at the very least low-impact activities performed inside or in the shade. Once things cooled, folks would go back outside until sun-down. A light evening meal (‘supper’) would close out the day. This kind of schedule encouraged lively civic engagement with lots of porch sitting, strolls in the town square, and conversation. The human body is also remarkably adaptable. If we were to dial back air-conditioning, we might start to question our assumptions about what is comfortable and can (re)learn how to live in the environment we have. 

Today, 90 percent of U.S. homes have air-conditioning. Commercial spaces are typically over-cooled and who can say they have not had to ‘layer-up’ in response to what I call the ‘tyranny’ of air-conditioning in office buildings and commercial spaces. The associated impacts from refrigerants and fossil fuel energy use are contributing to climate change. Going without air-conditioning at Andalusia is certainly a preservation strategy as we demonstrate mid-century life ways, encouraging porch sitting, etc. But revival of the original design intent at the house also underpins a conservation story, one of environmental stewardship and resource efficiency. There is for sure a critical need for climate controlled spaces (for those sick or vulnerable, as Flannery was for example) so I don’t imagine we can or would jettison air-conditioning altogether. Still, Andalusia is valued as a place of beauty and serves as a snap shot of mid-century farm life. It is the place that inspired and supported an original and influential artist; part of our job is to tell the story of how she lived there. That means going without air-conditioning (or trying to anyhow!). What say you? Could you eliminate or minimize your air conditioning use?

 Photograph by Joe McTyre. Note the red arrow that points to Flannery's A/C unit. 

- Elizabeth Wylie, Executive Director 
The Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Worth Its Weight

There is something special about Southern cuisine and its foodways, so much so that there is even an organization, The Southern Foodway Alliance, wholly dedicated to the study, documentation, and celebration of the food of the American South. Pound cake is a distinctively Southern dessert that is a favorite amongst many Southerners, and apparently Flannery O’Connor’s own mother, Regina, was quite fond of pound cake. In an interview with Sarah Gordon, Professor Emerita of English at Georgia College & State University, writer Louise Abbot discusses her friendship with Flannery, and the first time she met Regina:

[Regina] said, “Well, tell me about your husband.” And then she said, “By the way, I’m going to send you home with some slices of pound cake that I made the other day.” I said, “Oh, my husband will be so excited. He loves toasted pound cake for breakfast.” That was what impressed Regina. So I was the friend of Flannery’s whose husband liked toasted pound cake for breakfast. And we talked pound cake. We talked it into the ground. 

With as many variations of pound cake as there are, with different types of crusts, etc., it is no wonder that Louise Abbot and Regina had so much to talk about. As I have gone through some of the objects in the laundry room at Andalusia over the course of the past few weeks, I happened upon the label of an entirely different type of pound cake - a ready-made frozen one from Sara Lee. While I can’t tell you whether Flannery ate any of this particular cake, I do find that this premade packaged food does reflect a broader shift in Southern foodways. With the introduction of refrigeration, and the rise of industry in post-World War II America, the nation began to shift toward mass consumption of factory to table food. 

Do you recall how the shift toward mass produced food altered your own family’s foodways? For those of you who are Southern, do you have memories of homemade pound cake? Or did your family serve the frozen sort one had to thaw before eating?

April Moon, Operations & Visitor Services Manager
The Flannery O’Connor – Andalusia Foundation

**Louise Abbot's interview is one of several featured in At Home with Flannery O'Connor: An Oral History, edited by Bruce Gentry and Craig Amason.