It's cold in Bellingham, 20 degrees in mid-afternoon, and the downtown library, where I'm writing this, is overheated. That's the sum of my complaints, yet it's one of those days when everything seems wrong, a good day to remember Flannery O'Connor, who carried on when very little was right.
Last summer I attended an Image Magazine seminar taught by Bret Lott in Charleston, South Carolina. Afterward, my husband and I travelled to Savannah, Georgia, where we visited, among other places, the house Flannery O'Connor lived in as a child. On Lafayette Square, the house is modest but solidly middle-class, grander than the prospects of Edward O'Connor, Mary's Irish, salesman father, would have suggested, provided for them by an aunt. It satisfied O'Connor's mother, Regina Cline, for a while.
O'Connor's bedroom in Savannah
While Mary Flannery, as she was called then, certainly invited friends over, the twin beds in her bedroom are a little misleading, suggesting a kind of slumber-party life that she did not have. Her mother was particular about whom MF befriended, and MF herself was shy. She was more likely to be writing in the margins of her books, or drawing, or in the backyard teaching her pet chicken to walk backwards (a feat that was filmed and shown in pre-movie newsreels in 1932) than socializing. She attended the not-so-modest church across the street, where she preferred the adult to the children's services, and the parochial school next door to the church. She also spent a fair amount of time parting the curtains at the window that looked out on Lafayette Square, taking in the movement and talk outside--although this last has the ring of legend.
The church across the street: the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Regina pushed for a move to Atlanta, but MF wasn't happy in school there, and her father fell sick with what turned out to be lupus, the disease MF herself would later contract. Regina cared for Edward in the Cline family home in Milledgeville, about two hours inland from Savannah, until his death in 1941, when MF was 15. MF attended college in Milledgeville, then graduate school in Iowa City, where she first enrolled as a journalism student, but soon switched to the new MFA program, the first one in the U.S.
O'Connor found Iowa City, crowded in 1945 with returning veterans, a little "blank."* After graduating, she spent time at the Yaddo writer's colony and in the home of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, The blankness of Iowa City gave way to fellowship with other writers, yet she wrote in 1948 that "there is no clearcut road for [the young writer] to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process; lifelong and lonesome."* Before 1951, when she too was diagnosed with lupus and resigned herself to returning to Georgia to be cared for by her mother, she had written the novel Wise Blood and some of the short stories that would make her reputation. She managed to live away from Regina for only six years.
Regina had inherited a dairy farm from an uncle. When Mary Flannery, now just Flannery, took up residence there, she mysteriously named it Andalusia.
The farmhouse is unoccupied now. We found a tiny sign marking a left turn about two miles from central Milledgeville, out a road lined with strip malls. A foundation is fixing what's broken, returning the farmhouse, the hired man's house, the barns, the pump house, the grounds to the way they looked when Flannery lived there. When Warren and I visited, four peacocks (maybe some were peahens) lived inside a pen behind the house. I don't know if anyone ever let them out, as Flannery did hers, taking them for strolls on the grounds, walking with the help of arm braces. The braces stand upright in the bedroom where she spent much of the rest of her life, 13 years, dying at 39. During that time she wrote more stories, collected in Everything That Rises Must Converge, and the novel The Violent Bear It Away.
|Flannery's room at Andalusia|
I'm sorry you can't see more of the bed. It's a twin again, but with no partner.
Reading O'Connor's fiction gives me no pleasure. Her characters suffer beyond reason. The grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," that old bat, is a manipulator and a narcissist, but should she really end up dead, and responsible for the deaths of her whole family? I tremble, reading O'Connor's stories--surely what she intended. I also see where they came from.
*See Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.
Color photos by Warren Miller.