Friday, June 24, 2016

The Mentor in Milledgeville: Caroline Gordon at Andalusia

“Whenever I finish a story I send it to Caroline before I consider myself really through with it,” O’Connor once wrote. “She’s taught me more than anybody.”1

 My current research project is an attempt to reassemble the unpublished correspondence between Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, one of O’Connor’s most influential artistic mentors.

In unpublished letters, Gordon writes that she feels foolish—even presumptuous—critiquing O’Connor’s stories. Yet the letters she writes are expansive, illuminating letters.

Gordon wrote to O’Connor from Princeton, Minneapolis, Paris, Rome, and Seattle.

O’Connor wrote to Gordon from Andalusia.

Gordon’s first letter to O’Connor was written in 1951; Gordon didn’t visit O’Connor at Andalusia for eight more years. By then, they had exchanged over 48,000 words of correspondence.

In October, 1959, Gordon arrived in Milledgeville with Ashley Brown.

Flannery O’Connor’s mother, Regina, clashed with Caroline Gordon. While out on a drive with Regina at the wheel, Gordon saw a dog that (she believed) needed rescue. Gordon wanted to bring the creature safely to Andalusia. Regina refused to stop. Later, Gordon convinced Ashley Brown to go back out and search for the dog. The dog, Gordon said, could remain in Brown’s car overnight if Regina didn’t want the dog at Andalusia. (Regina didn’t!) Brown humored Gordon. They searched. But he was relieved when they could not find the dog, and he told Regina he would not have allowed the dog to stay in his car. Later, in a conversation about farm business, Gordon and Regina disagreed about artificial insemination. Gordon, the Catholic convert, opposed it as unnatural; Regina, quite pragmatically, felt otherwise.2
On Sunday, Gordon gave Flannery O’Connor feedback on her final draft of The Violent Bear it Away “several hours lecture on my prose,” said O’Connor. “I have just corrected the page proofs and I spent a lot of time getting seems and as-if constructions out of it. It was like getting ticks off a dog. I was blissfully unaware of all this while I was writing it.”3
Gordon and Brown departed. Regina told Flannery that she understood why that man (Allen Tate, Gordon’s husband) would want to divorce Gordon.

Despite Gordon’s strong personality, Flannery fully grasped the value of these critiques. To a friend, O’Connor said of Gordon’s comments: “It would have done your heart good to see all the marks on the copy, everything commented upon, doodles, exclamation points, cheers, growls. You can know that she enjoys reading it and reads every word.” 

Gordon next descended on Andalusia in September, 1960.

Writing to Lon and Fanny Cheney, O’Connor said, “I had a call from Mrs. Gordon Tate Herself from Princeton saying her aunt in Chattanooga had summoned her and she would like to come see us on her way back. She said she would come on the following Tuesday but arrived instead on Monday. She stayed until Wednesday and we haven’t heard from her since she left. However, the people over at Wesleyan are having one of those Arts Festivals that no college can now do without and have invited her to be on the panel (me too) and she wrote the man she would come down as she would be glad to continue her visit with us. So it appears we are to be honored again.”5
The October, 1960, Wesleyan Arts Festival featured O’Connor and Gordon alongside Katherine Anne Porter and Madison Jones, all “paid (well) to swap clich├ęs about Southern culture.”6

After the conference, Gordon and Porter planned to visit Andalusia. O’Connor predicted (with her usual dry humor) that the occasion would be something to see: “According to Ashley [Brown], these two have not confronted each other for fifteen years.”7 

The highlight of the weekend, however, was when “Katherine Anne remembered to inquire about a chicken of mine that she had met here two years before,” said O’Connor. “I call that really having a talent for winning friends and influencing people.”8 

Meanwhile, Caroline Gordon read a draft of A Memoir of Mary Anne and, after admiring it, urged O’Connor to find a secular publisher.9 

Gordon’s next Andalusia visit was the following year in July, 1961.

O’Connor was working on “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Gordon’s feedback was characteristically blunt. The story wasn’t dramatic enough, Gordon said. O’Connor was writing too many essays and it was affecting her style.

O’Connor acknowledged that Gordon was correct in her analysis. And there were “a million other things that I could have seen myself if I had had the energy,” O’Connor said. “So much of my trouble is laziness, not physical laziness so much as mental, not taking the trouble to think how a thing ought to be dramatized.”10 

After the visit, O’Connor said, “Ashley and Caroline were strenuous, as usual.”1

 For many writers, extended isolation (such as O’Connor’s at Andalusia) fuels uncertainty and darkens the maze of revision. Detailed, thoughtful critique from a trusted reader—however humbling—offers explicit relief. Despite O’Connor’s occasional wicked and unsparing characterizations of Gordon, O’Connor clearly found Gordon’s comments illuminating, generous, and life-affirming.

Among Gordon’s circle of friends, O’Connor was one who knew of Gordon’s painful personal struggles. When one person harshly criticized Gordon, O’Connor outlined the details of Gordon’s struggles and insisted: Pray for her.12 

During the July, 1961 visit, O’Connor noted that Gordon had stopped drinking—not even a glass of sherry. O’Connor thought that Gordon (divorced now) seemed much improved.13 

That would be Gordon’s last visit to Andalusia.

It remains noteworthy that Gordon’s earliest critiques of O’Connor’s work (in 1951-52) coincided with O’Connor’s move to a new home, Andalusia. A landscape of sprawling pastures circled by jagged pines. From her first letter to her last, Gordon told the young writer to expand her use of landscape and nature, to enlarge her fictional settings and reflect O’Connor’s Christian vision of an eternal God.

Year after year at Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor would place Caroline Gordon’s letters to the side—then get back to work.  

Christine Flanagan, MFA, is an Associate Professor of English at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery, Brainard Cheney, and Frances Neel Cheney. The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Cheneys. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 1986.

O’Connor, Flannery.  Collected Works. Library of America, 1989.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

1 Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 22 December 1957 (Habit of Being 260).
2 Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester, 31 October 1959 (Habit 336) and (Unpublished excerpt of letter, Betty Hester Letters, Emory University).
3 Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 31 October 1959 (Habit 336).
4 Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester, 28 February, 1959 (Collected Works 1088).
5 Flannery O’Connor to Brainard and Fanny Cheney, 15 September 1960 (The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Cheneys page).
6 Flannery O’Connor to John Hawkes, 9 October 1960 (CW 1134).
7 Flannery O’Connor to Brainard and Fanny Cheney, 22 October 1960 (The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Cheneys 122-23).
8 Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 8 November 1960 (CW 1135).
9 O’Connor to Robert Giroux, 4 November 1960 (Habit 415).
10 O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins, 17 July 1961 (Habit 444-445). 
11 O’Connor to Betty Hester, 22 July 1961 (Habit 445).
12 O’Connor to Betty Hester, 6 November 1958 (Unpublished letter, Betty Hester Papers, Emory University).
13 O’Connor to Betty Hester, 22 July 1961 (Unpublished excerpt of letter, Betty Hester Papers, Emory University); also O’Connor to Brainard Cheney, 23 July 1961 (The Correspondence 138).

Friday, June 17, 2016

There And Back Again: An Author's Itinerary

There were few things that the young Flannery O’Connor feared more in this life than living in Georgia for the rest of her days. She elaborated on these fears in a biographical sketch she wrote as a master’s student at the University of Iowa. Her education in Milledgeville, she feared, had prepared her for one thing only: to teach English to ninth-graders in Podunk, Georgia, for $87.50 a month. Her words, not mine.

But of course Flannery O’Connor did come home to Georgia for the rest of her life, and the story of her homecoming is one of the most significant homecoming stories in the history of American literature. As a child and student, O’Connor moved from Savanna to Atlanta and then to Milledgeville. As an aspiring writer, she moved first to Iowa City for the university’s writers workshop; then to the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs; from there to a walk-up apartment in Manhattan; and from there to a room above a garage in Redding, Connecticut; and then, finally, back to Milledgeville, to the farm that would inspire much of her life’s work: Andalusia.

Each of her life’s stops added a new aspect to her art: the grotesque, the satirical, the tragic, and the graceful. These aspects would ultimately converge at Andalusia, from whose porch and fields O’Connor witnessed the whole world.

O’Connor developed her interest in the humorous, bizarre, and grotesque as a child in Savannah, where she grew up enjoying gruesome stories from Poe’s Humerous Tales and telling her own tales to friends whilst seated, surrounded by sprinkled flowers, upon the toilet in the family bathroom on the third floor of her house on Lafayette Square (she required that her audience sit attentively in the tub).

O’Connor honed her skills as a satirist and regionalist after moving to the Cline family home on Greene Street in Milledgeville to attend high school and college. At the experimental Peabody High School, O’Connor’s individualism was nourished and she was encouraged to do such things as sew clothes for her pet birds for class exercises. O’Connor, not surprisingly, writes that she hated the school and wished the place had forced her to learn the classics. In her many publications at the Georgia State College for Women, O’Connor developed her skills of regional observation and satire in cartoons, poems, essays, and stories that lampooned her fellow students, Milledgeville’s gentility, and, especially, the U.S Navy WAVES who had invaded the wartime campus.

O’Connor brought these formidable skills with her to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her fellow students—mostly men and veterans—were in awe of the quiet little southern lady in the Georgia Bulldogs sweatshirt who sat against the wall. O’Connor by then was already a published author, and while at Iowa she sold two more stories and won the workshop’s Rinehart-Iowa prize for the first four chapters of Wise Blood.

This early work, though, is not the complete O’Connor package. A story such as “The Crop,” for instance, possesses all of O’Connor’s satirical, regionalist style but little else. In this story Miss Willerton sets out to write a “social problem” novel focusing on the wretchedness of the rural poor. She writes only three sentences before she stops writing and gets lost in a daydream about her sharing a torrid life with her abusive protagonist, Lot Motum. When she returns to those three sentences, the problems of the rural poor no longer interest her. So she decides to write a story about the problems of the Irish instead. Ba dum.

“The Crop” is funny, but it lacks two essential components of a true O’Connor tale: a classical, often tragic structure, which O’Connor learned while living with the Fitzgeralds in Connecticut; and a religious sensibility, which O’Connor would fully explore after her return to Andalusia.

While working on Wise Blood in the attic at the Fitzgerald’s house, O’Connor for the first time in her life felt secure enough to express her religious views in her fiction. However, like a medieval scholar, she needed the Greeks to help her communicate those views. O’Connor figured out how to write the ending of Wise Blood—a novel she had started a half-decade earlier and was struggling to finish—from her host Robert Fitzgerald, a Harvard professor who was translating Sophocles. O’Connor read Sophocles for the first time in Connecticut, and when she read Oedipus she knew that Hazel Motes, too, must blind himself. O’Connor uses the imagery of Greek mythology in several of her stories, and she follows the arc of Greek tragedy, of proud people brought low, in many of her plots.

With the tragic gravity of the classics finally acquired, O’Connor returned home for Christmas in 1950. Her lupus erupted during the train ride, requiring emergency surgery. She would never leave home for an extended period again.

It was at home at Andalusia that O’Connor ultimately found the subjects for much of her mature fiction, in the life of the family farm, her mother Regina, the local newspaper, even the phone book. The Misfit is based on a real bank robber; General Sash and his granddaughter are based on real people whom O’Connor thought were ridiculous; the Displaced Person is based on a Polish refugee family Regina invited to Andalusia; the bull in “Greenleaf” is based on the neighbor’s bull; the boys in “A Circle in the Fire” are based on runaways from the local juvenile boot camp; and so on….

O’Connor eventually recognized that her return to Andalusia was the completion of her journey as an artist. She explains her sentiments in a letter to her friend Maryat Lee: “This is a return I have faced and when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be resigned to death, and largely because I thought it would be the end of any creation, any writing, any WORK from me. And as I told you by the fence, it was only the beginning.”

When you visit Andalusia, go to that fence (any will do) and follow its rails to a point on the horizon. There you will discover where the routes of O’Connor’s life’s journey converged, the many aspects of her artistry became one, and her true work began.

Doug Davis is professor English at Gordon State College in Barnesville, Georgia, a short drive west from Andalusia. He is currently editing a special issue of The Flannery O’Connor Review on the topic of science and technology in O’Connor, which will be the subject of his next Andalusia blog post.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Magical and Mysterious Milledgeville

What an honor – I walk the same streets as she did, study at the same college as she studied, and subtly stare at the same types of people she stared at not too long ago. This feeling is magical, though Flannery O’Connor might have made fun of me for saying that. Living in Milledgeville, where O’Connor spent some of her most productive days, is an adventure in itself. But studying O’Connor at her alma mater, frequenting Andalusia, her beautiful and quaint family farm, and working closely with her manuscripts is all part of a real adventure. 
When I was first required to read Wise Blood in my senior year of high school, I hated it. I had trouble understanding how the parts of the novel fit together. I loved the language, specifically the Southern colloquialisms, but I wanted clear answers after reading. I wanted to understand why O’Connor wrote in detail about a mummy and a gorilla suit, and why there wasn’t much actual blood. I loved the grotesque elements in the novel but I still wanted concrete answers. 

When I re-read Wise Blood in the sophomore year of my undergraduate program, everything had changed. Slowly but surely, the symbols became more apparent and the words on the page started dancing like some of my favorite poetry. I looked around the streets in downtown Milledgeville and suddenly saw O’Connor’s characters: a ragged-looking lonely young man simply trying to survive without his mother, a well-dressed older man preaching his beliefs to those who didn’t care to listen, a scantily-clad woman, leaving passersby with questions as to her occupation. I was here. I was in Taulkinham, Tennessee. 

 I was also here looking at a barn in which a Bible salesman stole the prosthetic leg from an intellectual woman after seducing her. I was driving down the dirt roads which would lead me to a murderer I’d heard about in the news. I was in the woods watching a wild turkey, I was visiting Atlanta for the first time with my grandfather, I was working as a farmhand, I was attending the Partridge Festival, I was drowning in the river. And I was doing all of these things here, in Milledgeville, Georgia.
There is a lot to be said about Flannery O’Connor and her works, career, family, beliefs, disease, and her heart. It’s a lot easier to say those things when you’re in it – when you’re surrounded by some of the same images she was once influenced by. I know this feeling is not unique to only me – many people have felt it before me and I pray to Flannery’s God that I will not be the last to feel it.

Catherine Bowlin is a graduate student at Georgia College & State University and writing her Master's Thesis on O'Connor.