Sunday, February 26, 2017

And the Award Goes To:

I must confess: I’ve never been an avid Oscars watcher. Likely stemming from a tendency to stay away from movie theaters, the awards have always been more of a news item to read during the following Monday morning than appointment viewing. I’ve always been one to wait a while and watch a movie from the comfort of my own couch than to head off to the cineplex, save for a now yearly convoy of several friends to the latest Star Wars release.

One might think that teaching would put me in a theater seat more often in order to stay apprised of new developments on the adaptations front, but literary adaptations have not done well for themselves in recent years, especially adaptations of Southern literature. I think immediately of James Franco’s attempts at As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury; Faulkner is hard to even read, much less to put on camera. I have to go back to No Country for Old Men for the last time a Southern work made award-season hay, and even then I have to stretch a good bit to put Cormac McCarthy into the Southern canon. 

I am cautiously optimistic about the forthcoming version of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” being written by Benedict Fitzgerald, the son of Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. As far as literary adaptations go, Fitzgerald has a writing credit for John Huston’s Wise Blood and a wonderful TV miniseries version of Moby Dick with Patrick Stewart and Gregory Peck, so I’m hopeful for this film. However, the most engaging moments in “A Good Man” take place on a back road and in dialogue between only two characters, and all the while some starkly violent things are happening off in the woods, largely out of our view. It will require some, shall we say, interesting directorial work to film a story about a whole family’s getting murdered while dealing with some rather deep theology at the same time.

Adaptations of Flannery’s fiction have been hit-and-miss over the years. As much as Brad Dourif has spoiled me with his Hazel Motes from Huston’s Wise Blood, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite “sing” like the novel, but I suspect I am biased in favor of prose. My favorite remains The Displaced Person filmed at Andalusia, and not merely because the farm is featured in it. Glenn Jordan’s direction mirrors our view of the farm, I think; he employs long, sweeping shots of the house and landscape that show off our pond and the rolling pastures. Indeed, the production crew even refilled the pond for us at the bottom of the hill for a wonderful shot of the house. The main house and the Hill House look lived-in, but comfortable. The plot itself is quite faithful to the story, down to Mrs. McIntyre’s self-assurance and Mrs. Shortley’s fatal indignity.

Flannery’s stories, I suspect, may be rather difficult to film. That narrator of hers, at times caustic but always honest with us, is hard to replace with a camera. Actors, too, will have a tough time beating out the ones she’s put in my head. I’ll prefer, at least for the time being, to head out to the farm and have the “play” of the story set before me in the landscape.

Daniel Wilkinson is an Instructor of English at Georgia College, Bon Vivant at Andalusia, and a huge fan of Roger Ebert. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

On First Looking Into Flannery's Homeland

The first time I visited Andalusia, I was a high school student from an adjacent county; the trip was organized, and likely funded, by my free-spirited, flower child GT teacher, and while I am sure we were assigned at least one Flannery O’Connor story, I don’t think I understood a single thing about her work. It was probably “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and since I knew where Toomsboro was—my father took us through there countless times when tracking down a genealogical lead or a good fishing spot—I probably responded with a “Cool” and thought very little about the brilliant and formidable writer from the next county over. In the late seventies, her name was floated around our rural community, but few of us were aspiring literary researchers, and even fewer of us thought writing a viable career path.

We were practical, the progeny of agrarians, or career military men, our mothers were at home cooking cornbread, and even those of us who wanted to read and write “literature,” stored those ideas for some future in which aliens from another solar system cured cancer with light sabers. The name Flannery O’Connor echoed quietly, like Culver Kidd, or Aaron Burr, who purportedly spent the night in the Warthen jail. It was not as common as “Silk Stocking Street,” or the official “Georgia Plate” designs--our own county’s claims to fame. O’Connor made a little rumble, but even in Milledgeville five to ten years later, O’Connor’s work and reputation seemed something stored in small pillbox, silver and velvet lined and valued, but also hidden away with the good silver and protected by those with the access key.

This woman whose writing I came to know, was still on the other side of the river. And on that day, my first time to visit Andalusia, I had to cross that river, the Oconee, and a greater, more treacherous river, the one running so swiftly, so filled with eddies and currents that it might pull me under--that river which stood between the real world and the writer. So: there the river—and me in my little high school row boat.

Across the river were the lucky few, the writers, and they weren’t real, not real like those of us who rode a schoolbus, and went fishing with our grandparents and came home covered in redbug bites. Not real like the hopeful older brothers who thought the kaolin mining industry was the new salvation.

But there I was, and there she had been—from my father’s generation, and she saw the same “Jesus Saves” signs and we both had driven through “Goat Town” and had watched the hydro-electric dam being built. The same flood of technology swept our lives, shifted our stable one-income homes, pulled our mothers into the workforce and independence.

We watched the same suffering of poverty and racial inequality rip our cultural fabric, and we watched with bulging eyes and gasping breaths as our grocery stores and our schools became barricaded, our many divided institutions rumble toward a solid and integrated system, like an earthquake reversing itself.

What do I remember of my visit to Andalusia that day? Only a few peacocks, people still farming, I think. I remember a tractor running, but maybe it’s only in my imagination, whetted by my much later reading of “The Displaced Person.” Time—even now—seems convoluted; how could I have gone there, and not seen some likely spot for Mr. Guizac’s end, or the very cow from which Asbury’s undulant fever ensued? Historically, I wasn’t so far from the years O’Connor conceived and wrote those narratives. But that first day, I knew nothing, really, of O’Connor’s characters or fictive world. And yet---

I remember rust on some of the screens, a wooden table with a cloth that partially covered it. I remember being introduced to Mrs. O’Connor, her offering us lemonade from the table in the yard. I remember her demeanor, one of kindness and suffering, of a kind of earned pride. We did not go inside. I remember a breeze , gauzy, cotton curtains flowing into the dark and hidden rooms.

I remember the sensation of being somewhere important, somewhere that was changing me, almost like a birth. I felt the way I have felt many, many times since--when reading her stories and novels and letters.

I have visited many other times, often alone, but at times with friends or family members whom I forced on pilgrimages, willing them to feel the sacred in every board or feather or pinecone (which I just now remembered calling “pinecombs” as a child). Several times, when the farm was closed to the public, I drove out highway 441, and parked somewhere close, walked back down to the entrance and touched the chain that held the sign reading “Private Property.” Once, I climbed under the chain and negotiated the dirt drive, weaving in and out of the trees to conceal myself, just to get close enough to see the house. (Gosh, I hope the statute of limitations has run out on being prosecuted for this crime--involuntary as a sneeze as it was.)

Something of Flannery still moves here. I can see it when I follow the tours, the most recent of which was with the National Endowment for the Humanities scholars this past July. The first time I touched that soil, something grew in me. Something still grows in me, a hunger for more than just her words. Her vision, I think.

Next time I visit, I plan to take off my shoes, grind the dirt between my toes, and find, once more, some molecule of the world that Flannery O’Connor wove into being. I urge anyone reading to visit. But be careful. You won’t be able to go just once. Even if a chain and sign do go up again.

Sue Whatley is a native of Georgia, transplanted to East Texas, who consoles herself on the inferior Texas versions of her beloved Georgia pine trees and red clay. She teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and coordinates the Christian Writers Fellowship, a long-time writer’s support group there. Her BA from Georgia College, her MA from Northeast Louisiana University, and her PhD from Texas A&M, Dr. Whatley has proudly engaged Flannery O’Connor’s work with every step of her travels. When she retires, she intends to follow Flannery’s pursuits—writing and working with other writers, making people laugh, and raising peafowl, though she has no plans for teaching any of them to walk backwards.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Valentine's Day on the Farm

Valentine’s Day this year falls on a Tuesday. I have a standing trivia contest engagement each Tuesday evening, so I personally am unbothered and rather thankful that I’ll be occupied. It’s cheaper that way, to say nothing of less stressful. That does not mean, however, that I can completely avoid matters of the heart, in that the farm can be a rather romantic place. Museums have long been a solid choice for an afternoon out with a loved one, and Andalusia is no exception.

A reader of Flannery’s fiction doesn’t have to concern themselves too frequently with love stories, except for those who enjoy the travails of Manley Pointer and Hulga Hopewell. A tour of high-school students this past week was particularly well-read, and they took special enjoyment of the cow barn, having previously looked at “Good Country People” in class. They also inquired, as one would, of Erik Lankjaer, Flannery’s occasional visitor and correspondent. So much “young adult” literature is rife with thin characters and completely impossible and sickeningly sweet love stories, and it is refreshing to see those kids read and get something out of a “date” that goes so badly awry.

For all its literary significance, local and repeat visitors of Andalusia most often bring their pets and the family and focus on the scenic beauty of the place. In years past, I personally have brought a picnic and a story to share with my company; those with little or only a passing interest in O’Connor invariably came away a fan. (Or either I just read it well.) A certain set of peafowl are also a wonderful attraction; Manley Pointer I once proffered a companion of mine a fanning of his feathers and a dance, and I'll be forever grateful.

Thus, while your Tuesday may be filled with flowers and chocolates and gourmet dinners, I hope the days leading up to your February 14th can have at least one long walk and a good story. After all, flowers wilt and chocolates melt, but the company they’re enjoyed with will make them last. Cheers!

Thanks again, MP! 

Daniel Wilkinson edits Andalusia's blog when not entertaining the farm's guests and teaches English at Georgia College. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

(Mis)Adventures in the Arts

I have, in recent years, avoided New Years resolutions altogether. Usually, a vow to lose weight and read more of the untouched or unfinished books on my shelf ends up broken in circumstances that clearly are never my fault whatsoever. I end up feeling bad about it all twice over: I remain too well-fed and less well-read. This time by, I broke down and hopped back on the resolution bandwagon, intending this year to end my estrangement from the world of the visual arts. With my coworkers at Andalusia having a past in the art scene, I’d best figure it out. A visit to the Columbus (GA) Museum of Art in my younger days did not provide the revelations I had wanted. Perhaps I was too young.

To this point, then, my relationship with visual art has been fraught, to say the least. I’d like to think I’m a decent reader with a fair set of interpretive standards. I can’t seem to bring them to bear on the visual art world, however. I’ve got a very weak standard for visual art: Do I like it? For every artwork that I can get my word-addled noggin around, there’s a dozen that completely flummox me. A deceptively simple “What does it mean?” can render me completely nonplussed. The Rembrandts and Van Goghs can already stump me; by the time the abstract modernists come along and start seemingly just flinging paint at canvases, I’m hopelessly lost. Perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions.

Critics haven’t been much help to me, either. Modern art criticism has fallen on the same tendency that so bedevils modern literary criticism: impenetrability. Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word tried its level best to provide some sunlight-as-disinfectant in 1975 with a more simplistic analysis of modern art and its critics, but left me with little to go on as far as how to understand works of art. The Painted Word was, however, a master class in crankiness, and for that I am grateful.

Flannery herself might help; we do have a reproduction of her self-portrait hanging on the wall in the front parlor, after all. Between the paintings and her cartoonist gig for the Georgia State College for Women newspaper, I suspect she’d be a good sounding board if nothing else. Unfortunately, Mystery & Manners contains only literary (and avian, if you like) criticism.

Thus, I approach our first guests to Andalusia’s February Four lecture series with a little hope in mind. Flannery’s Farrar, Strauss & Giroux paperback covers by June Glasson and Charlotte Strick have proved a striking and welcome change, and I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing how these ladies can merge the “What does it mean?” of narrative and visual arts. I’m hoping that getting inside a creative process for these artworks will give me a little help in understanding other ones. When pressed again, I want to have something a little more substantial to say than “Isn’t that nice!”

Daniel Wilkinson teaches English (fortunately for his students) at Georgia College and is a Visitor Services Assistant and Bon Vivant at Andalusia.