Friday, November 25, 2016

First There Is a Mountain, Then There Is No Mountain, Then There Is

On this holiday weekend, revisiting this essay from Jimmy Dean Smith on his family and a trip to Andalusia seems fitting. All of us here at the farm hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.
-Daniel Wilkinson, Blog Editor

November 8, 2014: Today is my son Brendan’s thirtieth birthday. A few weeks before he was born, the obstetrician snooping around my wife, Sharee’s, belly via sonogram grinningly asked whether we wanted to know what it was, boy or girl. For reasons that were explained to us much later by friends who were appalled that two such innocent people could cross streets by themselves much less be allowed to procreate, the question itself and the doctor’s absolute certainty about its answer told us, or would have told us if we were marginally sentient, all anyone with a lick of sense really needed to know. (In those prehistoric days, before 3D sonograms removed much of the mystery, boy-fetuses would sometimes arrange themselves so as to, ummm, protrude demonstratively. Embryonic girls were capable of all sorts of things, but not this singular feat. That is, being absolutely sureabout the baby’s sex = protrusion. That is, thirty years ago the ob-gyn saw the kid preening like an Andalusian peacock. )

But No, we said. We want it to be a surprise. We very likely grinned adorably and gazed into each other’s eyes (which we still do, by the way). What our willful ignorance meant was frustrating the dickens out of well-meaning sex-role-determining relatives who were intent on color-coding the little miracle’s blankets and onesies according to sex. Should Gramps buy a teensy baseball glove or an eensy doll-baby? Should Aunt Myrtle get him a He-Man poster or get her a Strawberry Shortcake print? Hammers or teacups? It also meant that Sharee and I pored over every single page of Three Thousand Names for Baby, a pocket-sized booklet we found in the checkout aisle at the Westgate Winn-Dixie. It cost $1.95 and was scripture for the month or so we sat up in bed marking it with a blue Bic pen, a checkmark for Maybe, an X for No, an obliterating scratchout for Consignment to Baby Name Limbo (farewell forever, Eloise). Sure, we gave thought to time-honored family names, but we kept coming back to the baby book for ideas.

We finally made a decision, mostly by tossing the invaluable book (too many choices!) and winging it. Since you are the kind of smart person who logs onto the Andalusia Farm blog, you must already have figured out where this story is going. If we had a boy, we decided, we would call him Brendan (which we did, and which we did). For a girl’s name, we picked Flannery. I have no recollection at all what her full name was to be: Flannery Grace? Emma Flannery? I am relatively certain that it would not have been “Mary Flannery,” though a double-decker Southern name like that is the norm in my family (see my very own name). At that time, I am almost positive, I had no idea of O’Connor’s first name.

I am also almost positive that “Flannery” was not actually in the baby book. Instead, I had read a few of her stories when I was an undergraduate in South Carolina who came to her for “Good Man” and stuck with her for what I mistakenly took to be a punk ethos. (The two photo post cards on my office bulletin board are of Flannery seated beneath her self-portrait and Patti Smith from the Horses cover.) I often heard her name when I was studying in the Hollins College graduate program in ‘83-4. O’Connor had done a reading at Hollins during the last year of her life, and her opening remarks before reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” are gathered, as “On Her Own Work,” in Mystery and Manners. One or two of the professors who taught me—John Rees Moore; somebody else (?)—had known her. A classmate whose specialty was screenwriting came up with a totally copyright-violating script based on “Good Country People” (though in her improved version Manley Pointer absconded with Joy-Hulga’s glass eye). Another classmate, one who claimed to have met Ric Ocasek of the Cars in a men’s room and Joey Ramone at a bank of payphones and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“So I said, ‘Hey, Flea’”) in a Columbia, SC, bar, told us the story of how he and his dad drove over from South Carolina to Milledgeville one day in the early eighties and jumped the fence to Andalusia. Those of us in the grad student lounge said, “Wow.”

Sometime around the beginning of February (I just did the calculations), Brendan was conceived in an apartment complex on Robin Hood Court right outside Roanoke, Virginia. And then he was born, and then he grew up, and then he earned a Masters of Theology from Loyola of Chicago. And now he lives in Auburn, Alabama with The Wonderful Amy, who I was about to joke “is too good for him.” But they are actually exactly good enough for each other. (Hi, Amy! We love you. Make Brendan call home. His mom wants to hear from him.)

Last time I saw Brendan, who was on the way to Edisto Beach with Amy, we toured the sites of Milledgeville. Early in the afternoon, we went to the O’Connor gravesite and played Memory Hill Bingo, wherein you get a point for each grave marker that has the name, either first or last, of an O’Connor character. We peered through the windows of Sacred Heart, and I showed him where the Sanford House used to be and where the restaurant up and went to. But Andalusia, as it is for so many devout readers of O’Connor, was to be the high point. And, except for a few minutes when Brendan’s know-it-all American lit professor dad nearly got into a shouting match with a know-it-all medieval history professor who was telling the folks in his group that the boy in “The River” is an orphan, the visit was ideal. We watched The Displaced Person, simultaneously shouted “Samuel L. Jackson!!” at the same time when we recognized him in the cast, and spent the next few minutes amusing ourselves doing Sulk’s dialogue as Snakes on a Plane-era censor-approved Jackson: “I have had it with these monkey-fighting peacocks in this monkey-fighting barn!” (I sincerely apologize to the O’Connor Estate.) We toured the grounds, eying the barn’s loft with literary appreciation and an empty Schlitz Tall Boy can in the refuse heap next to the equipment shed with confusion. Because I am developing an article about the “creeper child” in O’Connor and other Southern writers, I looked for places where Sally Virginia Cope would’ve hidden. We stared at the treelines, and the trees stared back.

At last we rocked on the porch, talking with a local visitor who was up to speed on a lurid murder trial going on nearby, hankering to see a sunset that was still four or five hours away. “Look at the mountains,” I told Brendan and Amy. Of course, there are no mountains to see at Andalusia, but you might think there are if you imagine that every O’Connor story can be explained by what she saw from that same front porch, which some people apparently do. A visit to Andalusia is a brilliant way to spend several hours, but it doesn’t tell you why there’s a mountain in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” or The Violent Bear It Away.

To think: Brendan could have been Flannery Smith! Instead, that lovely name is still up for grabs. It’s yours, Dear Reader. Take it. Or maybe unused baby names go off someplace like the souvenir jerseys and t-shirts for losing Super Bowl and World Series teams that are boxed up and delivered to poor people in third world countries. Maybe, right now in some distant country, there’s a thirty-year-old woman wearing a “KC Royals World Champs 2014” hoodie while sipping cool water out of a President John Kerry commemorative tankard, and her name is Emma Flannery Grace Smith.

Jimmy Dean Smith was a scholar at the NEH Institute “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor” held at GCSU last summer. He writes about British, Southern, and American Literature and has developed a specialty in Appalachian literature and pop culture since moving fourteen years ago to Barbourville, Kentucky, where he lives halfway up a stripmined mountain with his wife, Sharee, and three or four sketchy dogs and some feral cats. He chairs the Department of English and directs the Honors Community at Union College. His first grandchild, Keats Gregory Smith, was born last month and is doing fine.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Supper Time on the Farm

If there’s one thing this November has shown, it’s that a Bon Vivant’s work doesn’t slow down with the falling of leaves and the long-awaited arrival of cool weather. Hot on the heels of the Bluegrass Festival, tonight, November 18, marks the first of three Supper Clubs at Andalusia, in which eight of our most generous friends are invited to dinner and rousing conversation at Flannery’s table. I, once again, get the fun work, in which I get to plate and pour (and sample) the efforts of chefs from all over Georgia and from various culinary backgrounds. In the interest of full disclosure, I also “borrow” recipes without any shame in the slightest and thereby take some of the dinner home, eventually.

The variety of cuisine at these events has been the real treat: Asian fusion, Texas briskets, and back again. The most recent dinners were provided by the good folks at Dovetail and Grow Cafe in Macon, a locally owned establishment specializing in farm-to-table dishes. (That boiled peanut hummus of theirs made an appearance at a gathering of my own friends and has caught on beautifully.) This season, Gregory Thigpen of Southern Creative Catering here in Milledgeville will join us, and already tonight’s pork loin is looking to be worth washing a dish or two.

Nearly all of the ingredients served at any Andalusia Supper Club have been sustainably sourced. These efforts get back to the true “farm” of Andalusia, when homegrown food was a matter of course and sustainability was no mere policy proscription or buzzword. So too, it’s no accident that locally grown food simply tastes better. I think back to all those peaches from my childhood that grew in an orchard across the road from my neighborhood. Even ones from the best grocery store produce section didn’t compare with the peach stand.

I rather like having my own preparations for Thanksgiving begin with a dinner for our donors at Andalusia, for we really cannot thank them enough. Their generosity keeps the farm, a physical sense of Flannery’s legacy, alive. Dinner amongst good company is but a small way of displaying our gratitude for the big help and inspiration they are.

Daniel Wilkinson will host the three Supper Club dinners at Andalusia this season and fondly remembers Chef Vivian Lee's family-style Korean Christmas pictured above. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Bluegrass 2016: Mixing the Local and Literary

Concerning last weekend’s Bluegrass Festival, I can only offer gratitude to those who came together to put on the event. One needs only to look at numbers to realize the success of their efforts and this year’s concert. Before the first band, Good Country People, even took the stage, we had broken attendance records. By the time the Skilletlickers gave way to Packway Handle, the record for attendance had almost been doubled: over 1200 people (performers, attendees, volunteers, vendors, staff, and Bon Vivants) piled onto Andalusia’s grounds.

The festivities did not have to wait until 5:00, either. Amateur musicians brought their guitars, fiddles, dulcimers, even flutes and saws for ad hoc performances on the Hill House porch. I particularly enjoyed an “I’ll Fly Away” with our friend Andy Adams, who has lent his talents to our stage at previous festivals and to the local theatre troupe. Melanie Devore led a pair of trail walks, and those who had not yet wandered around the farm came to a new appreciation of what we have to offer other than literary pilgrimages.

What the Bluegrass Festival offers, more than anything, is what the museum world calls a chance to make “friends.” The people who attend the Festival tend to be from close by Milledgeville and are, usually, infrequent visitors to the farm. The concert marks a fairly rare opportunity for those newcomers and the dyed-in-the-wool Flannery and Andalusia fans from all over the country to mingle a little bit. The folks who live here get a chance to present their town to visitors from all over the country, and Milledgeville is far richer place for it, I wager.

I’m not sure if Flannery would enthusiastically receive the banjos and fiddles, given the unanimity of classical music in her record collection, but I bet she’d be more than pleased to see such a number of people contributing to the preservation of her homeplace. With more friends (and neighbors, at that), keeping this place alive and well becomes, if not easier, more of a certainty.

Daniel Wilkinson, Bon Vivant, served as the Master of Ceremonies at the three most recent Bluegrass Festivals.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Real Hillbilly Girl

I wanted to write about Flannery O’Connor around the time of the Bluegrass Festival. She did not herself have tons to say about the music, though I found the following paragraph when I went looking for the word “banjo” in her letters: “We have got the bull, this one from Perry, the Mulachee Farms … My mother has named him Banjo. I couldn’t say why. I always thought that if she had a dog she’d name him Spot—without irony. If I had a dog, I’d name him Spot, with irony. But for all practical purposes nobody would know the difference.” So, there you are: a precedent for banjos at Andalusia.

It is commonplace to say that one does not know O’Connor’s fiction till one has visited Andalusia. It is true that you will see a number of sights that have inspired some of the greatest fiction in American history: the barn, the tenant house, the artificial pond, the sunset, the woods, the ladder leaned against the barn. What you won’t see, however, are mountains. I’ve looked and looked and once startled a prominent scholar (sorry, Bob Donahoo) by appearing out of the Milledgeville night and asking, “Where is the nearest mountain?” Yet O’Connor carefully sets a great deal of her work in the mountains or makes mountaineers her protagonists. What I mean is that the very absence of mountains at Andalusia makes you think that O’Connor must have put them in her fiction for a reason: the facts were not enough for the truth she needed to tell. Thus, in both of her novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, psychopathic mountain boys with preacher complexes descend upon modern cities where they homicidally albeit futilely resist God’s call. In the short story with the purposefully offensive title “The Artificial Nigger,” an old man and a boy come from the mountains to a city and in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a con man whose name may be Shiflet (or that may be an alias) invades a mountain farm where two morally lost women sit looking at the same sunset and same mountains every day.

A promising new writer in 1956, Cecil Dawkins attracted the attention of O’Connor, who was typically generous with her advice as well as with her constructive criticism. Dawkins had drafted a short story, “Eminent Domain,” in which two African-American characters travel from Alabama into Appalachia. O’Connor liked the story very much, but she had concerns about it as well:
When I read [the story a second time] I realized something else. Negroes just don’t go live in the mountains. At least there are no Negroes in the Georgia or North Carolina mountains. Negroes never lived in the mountains in slavery times and now most mountain people are hostile to them. … In Georgia the sun doesn’t set on a Negro in a mountain county. The people run them out.
I want to reach into the past and correct O’Connor vis-à-vis the demography of southern Appalachia. African-Americans “never lived in the mountains in slavery times”? But of course they did, as some of Appalachia’s most impressive historians (Gordon McKinney, Wilma Dunaway) have conclusively shown. But I want you to focus not on O’Connor’s factual accuracy but on the certainty with which she posits the myth. What does the stereotype of a monocultural Appalachia, full of violent whites (the term sundown town hovers near the surface of the quotation I just read) tell us about why O’Connor sets stories in a region she never lived in, that she passed through mainly in transit on a train? Why does it matter that The Grandmother grew up in a “hillbilly dumping ground” and that The Grandmother’s beau, “Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden” hailed “from Jasper, Georgia”—that is, from a “mountain county”?

On May 18, 1955, O’Connor was preparing to travel to New York City for an appearance on Galley-Proof, an “NBC-TV” television program hosted by “Mr.” Harvey Breit. In a letter to Robie Macauley, O’Connor pretended to be an American comic archetype, the backcountry yokel:
Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist, but I will probably not be able to think of anything to say to Mr. Harvey Breit but “Huh?” and “Ah dunno.” When I come back I’ll probably have to spend three months day and night in the chicken pen to counteract these evil influences.
Excellent analyses of this passage, like the one Jolly Kay Sharp does in Between the House and the Chicken Yard, focus on the variables in the “hillbilly nihilist” / “hillbilly thomist” binary. For a few paragraphs, however, I want to focus on the constant, on the word hillbilly. The construction of my phrase “hillbilly novelist” is designed to evoke O’Connor’s own phrases and her humorous rejection of nihilism for her Thomist form of the moral uplift of literature and also to focus attention on the word hillbilly that O’Connor playfully deploys in anticipation of how an urban audience will see her or any of the rural folk who slackjaw their way among city sophisticates.

If we understand the great American writer “Flannery O’Connor” as one of many personae deployed by Mary Flannery O’Connor—daughter of Ed and Regina, born in Savannah in 1925, baptized and christened at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, domestic fowl enthusiast, died in Milledgeville in 1964—then we can also recognize the letter-writing Andalusian O’Connor as a persistent wearer of masks, one of which is the hillbilly. In her collected letters, she uses the term, per Billboard magazine’s usage, to refer to what came to be known as “country music,” adopting a particularly winsome tone when she paraphrases a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle who compared her first book of short stories to “’a superior hillbilly concert.’” O’Connor drily adds that “the fellow obviously adores hillbilly concerts and advises everyone to read the book” (early 1958, to Maryat Lee). Of more note are the occasions when, as with “hillbilly nihilist/Thomist,” she assumes a performative stance to recognize, ridicule, and disarm the perceptions of outsiders. Thus, for her friend Betty Hester, she describes a radio program she had recorded for broadcast on an Atlanta station, during which O’Connor read from one of her rural fictions:
The recording is supposed to be played November 23 (Friday) 7:30 p.m. station WGKA (FM). It is very bad. [The recorder] played some of it over for me but I couldn’t stand much of it. I sound like a very old woman with a clothespin on her nose and her teeth in a dish beside her. Flat ain’t the word. Dead is better. The voice is a great deal better in the dialogue as I actually sound like a real hillbilly girl.
(It is worth mentioning that, on recordings I have heard, O’Connor’s accent seems perfectly normal to me, an Upstate South Carolinian.)

Another roughly contemporaneous letter—this one also addressed to her friend Betty Hester, with whom O’Connor was alternately playful and deadly serious—likewise hints at an anxiety—or is it a mordantly comic pleasure?—about being exposed to the sophisticates of New York:
A letter from my agent today announces that “The Life You Save” will be presented February 1 on the Schlitz Playhouse at 9:30 New York time. My eager beaver friend in NY keeps sending me clippings of gossip columns, one announcing that [Gene] Kelly will star in Flannery O’Connor’s “backwoods love story.” … Kelly says “It’s a kind of hillbilly thing in which I play a guy who befriends a deaf-mute girl in the hills of Kentucky. It gives me a great chance to do some straight acting, something I really have no opportunity to do in movies.” See? He ain’t had the opportunity before. … [My] NY friend … thinks this is all hilariously funny and keeps writing me, “Has dignity no value for you?” etc. It will probably be appropriate to smoke a corncob pipe while watching this.
I should point out that she seems to be referring to the Schlitz Playhouse when, in a letter to Betty Hester, she jokes that “I am writing my agent to make haste and sell all my stories for musical comedies. There ought to be enough tap dancers around to take care of them, and there’s always Elvis Presley.” (I don’t know about you, but I would kill to see a young, sexy, scary-charismatic Elvis playing one of O’Connor’s rural sociopaths. Manley Pointer leaps to mind.) I should also point out that O’Connor, consistently sneered at the Gene Kelly production, which performs the neat trick of giving a happy ending to a story by Flannery O’Connor, though playing the “real hillbilly girl” this time earned Flannery enough money to buy Regina a refrigerator.

Jimmy Dean Smith directed the Union College (KY) Honors Program from its birth till its demise in 2016. More than 75 students, many of them first generation, benefited from membership in the Honors Community. Sic transit gloria. He has published on T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, and the Soldier-Poets of the Great War. More recently, he has published on Ron Rash, Frank X Walker, Loretta Lynn, and other icons of Appalachia. He edits the Kentucky Philological Review.