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A literary pilgrimage to O’Connor’s ‘the middle of nowhere’

By Jay Atkinson
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2010

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MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. - Tattered cotton balls on withered stalks appeared in the fields, and then a row of weathered signs advertising “moonshine jelly’’ and “fried pecans’’ as we reached the outskirts of Milledgeville. In the hard, unforgiving light of a winter afternoon, we drove between the small, cottage-style homes banked up on either side, past the Piggly Wiggly, and after making our way along the ubiquitous retail strip, located the entrance to Flannery O’Connor’s farm, Andalusia.

At sundown, a herd of whitetail deer was grazing the brown fields beside the house. “This is straight out of O’Connor’s stories,’’ I said to my traveling companion.

A short story writer and novelist, O’Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah and moved here to the family farm as a young woman. The author of Southern Gothic classics including “Wise Blood’’ and “Everything That Rises Must Converge,’’ O’Connor, who never married, wrote some of her best work at Andalusia and died at 39 from lupus in 1964.

Before heading to Georgia with my old college roommate and rugby pal, “Surfer’’ John Hearin, I also stopped in Gainesville, Fla., to see my mentor, the acclaimed novelist Harry Crews. Seated in his living room, Crews, 74, noted that the best photographs of O’Connor are like those portraits of the Byzantine Christ.

“She stared right into the camera with that baleful glare,’’ Crews said. “Break your back with that stare.’’

I read just about everything O’Connor wrote because of Crews, and went to Georgia to plumb the roots of a great American writer. The O’Connor residence, which was built in the 1850s, is situated on a rise a quarter-mile from the main road. The 544-acre complex includes the main house, the 30-foot water tower and well, and several dilapidated outbuildings. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the one-time dairy farm is maintained by the nonprofit Flannery O’Connor - Andalusia Foundation, which opened the site to visitors in 2003.

The next morning we were greeted at the farm by Mark Jurgensen, 52, who works for the foundation. Jurgensen explained that Andalusia was purchased by O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, in the 1930s and that she “knew this place as a child.’’ Cline willed part ownership of the farm to O’Connor’s mother, and she and her daughter came to live here in 1951, after O’Connor had earned her master’s at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and had begun suffering from lupus.

O’Connor’s illness progressed to where a sitting room on the first floor was converted into a bedroom. Her crutches, single bed, and a typewriter and writing desk similar to the one where she completed both her novels and many of her stories are part of the exhibit. In 1957, O’Connor sold the TV movie rights for her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ to the Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars, whose production starred Gene Kelly and Agnes Moorhead. The tale concerns a one-armed itinerant who goads a farmer’s widow out of an old car in exchange for marrying her mentally retarded daughter.

The Hollywood people changed the ending to a happy one, which was opposed to O’Connor’s grimly comic point of view.

“It really vexed her,’’ said Jurgensen, adding that the money allowed O’Connor to buy the Hot Point refrigerator-freezer that still stands in the kitchen.

“Flannery wasn’t going to compromise,’’ said Jurgensen. “She said she could wait a hundred years to be understood.’’

O’Connor’s fiction is populated by freaks, criminals, evil-minded children, and religious hypocrites, and there are still some people in Milledgeville who resent those depictions. Oftentimes, however, an artist will clarify a particular region by distorting it and O’Connor herself, speaking of her penchant for exaggeration, wrote, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.’’

From Andalusia, Hearin and I headed over to “downtown’’ Milledgeville, a quaint collection of shops, restaurants, and cafes beside Georgia College & State University, or GCSU. (It was known as Georgia State College for Women when O’Connor received her bachelor’s degree in social studies here in 1945.)

Blackbird Coffee on West Hancock Street is a narrow, funky place, decorated with pastels hanging suspended from the ceiling. There we made the acquaintance of the proprietor, Jimmy Holder. Holder, 33, a playwright and stage actor who has performed on Broadway, is a small town impresario right out of Southern fiction: He co-owns Blackbird, manages a nearby pizza pub, and is studying for his master’s degree at GCSU.

“Ten years ago, Milledgeville wasn’t such an attractive place,’’ said Holder, who arrived here from New York in 2001. He said things got better when the college strengthened its liberal arts program, “improving the sort of people who hang out here.’’

Hearin and I ambled through the neighborhood that figured prominently in O’Connor’s life and work; past Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where she attended Mass; the Confederate monument, so common in these Southern towns; by the Old Governor’s Mansion (Milledgeville was the capital of Georgia until the Civil War); and over to the Cline Mansion on Greene Street, where O’Connor lived when she attended college in the ’40s and where her cousin Louise Florencourt still resides.

At lunch, we were joined at the Metropolis Cafe by Holder and Bruce Gentry, 56, a professor of English at GCSU who teaches a course devoted to O’Connor. Over a platter of Middle Eastern delicacies, Gentry agreed with Holder’s statement that “there are locals who aren’t proud of O’Connor being from here.’’

“Nobody’s shoving Flannery O’Connor down anyone’s throat,’’ said Gentry, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on O’Connor’s religion of the grotesque. “Flannery used to joke that [the town] is in the middle of nowhere, but the world has come to Milledgeville.’’

Gentry noted that “certain people have a stake in their own personal reading of O’Connor’’ because she puts “the sins of the region on display.’’ He insisted, however, that O’Connor “was an original. She was a rule breaker. I think she was a genius.’’

Afterward we paid our respects at Memory Hill Cemetery on Franklin Street, where O’Connor is buried among her kinfolk. From there we drove east to Savannah, blasting Johnny Mercer tunes from the ’40s. Inside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, across from “the house [she] was raised in’’ and where O’Connor worshiped as a child, I lighted a votive candle for my late parents, recalling the Misfit’s speech from O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find’’: “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead. And He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.’’

Jay Atkinson, who teaches journalism at Boston University, can be reached at jayatkinson.com.

If You Go

Andalusia

Milledgeville is about 90 miles southeast of Atlanta, on Highway 441, north of the Wal-Mart.

Mon., Tues., Thurs., Fri., and Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., or by appointment

www.andalusiafarm.org

Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home

207 East Charlton St.

Savannah

912-233-6014

www.flanneryoconnorhome.org

Fri.-Wed. 1-4 p.m. Adults $5, ages 12 and under free.