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A Good Writer Is Hard To Find: The Search For Flannery O’Connor

by Linda McGovern

To try and get more from a writer than what you see on the page, depends on the writer and their ability to make you see, and of course your own imagination. When that work is so distinct and the characters so clear, you sometimes think you know something about that writer and who they were. It could be argued that a writer can be found in their words, but a good writer may be hard to find in those words which may often confound the reader rather than betray the writer.

One writer that invites you to go beyond words is Flannery O’Connor. The contradictions of violence and faith in her fiction distinguishes her among Southern writers and makes one wonder who she was and where she was from. I had always wondered what her South was like, and was it at all like the way she had written about it. Questions like these, were the motivating factors behind a recent Literary Road Trip I took with my husband through the Southern United States.

I can’t say that I was sure what we might find. Part of me half expected to see strange preachers of even stranger churches, like Haze Motes of the Church Without Christ, or maybe a peacock or two, but hopefully we wouldn’t turn off any side roads and encounter a Misfit, or violent supposed Christ-like figures. We did hope to visit her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia where she lived the majority of her life and was buried, her grave site, the Flannery OConnor Memorial Room at the Ina Dillard Russell Library at Georgia State College, possibly Andalusia her home, and finally her birthplace and childhood home further south in Savannah.

Finding Flannery O’Connor’s essence in the South was not an easy feat, for unlike most of the writers from the South that my fellow literary traveler and I encountered, we found many small obstacles in this stretch of our journey. In retrospect, I suppose Flannery probably would not have wanted to be found. She was rather quiet in her lifetime and enjoyed the solitude of her home in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Maybe she would have had a good laugh over it. After reading some of her letters to her literary friends and after digesting her fiction, one can see the humorous side she pokes at the world and herself. Her writing, often deep, dark and violent has a flip side, a humorous yet serious commentary on humankind. She remains a powerful voice in literature today.

Before her tragic death which claimed her young life at the age of 39, she had written two novels and thirty-two short stories, as well as commentaries and reviews. She died from Lupus, the same disease which shortened the life of her father.

We stayed just outside of town at a motel where people talked in the hallways all night. After a night without much sleep, we wanted to start our day in Milledgeville in the most appropriate way we saw fit. We decided to attend a local Baptist church in the center of town. Though neither of us were Baptists, we felt it proper to see religion from an outsider’s perspective–maybe the way Flannery had seen it as a Southern Catholic.

Milledgeville was a picturesque town with many flowers in bloom, giving the feeling of proud small town life. Many small towns portray a surface glow which tends to hide their reality under a well-groomed exterior. The red brick and white steeple of the large church shone brightly in the late morning sun. After the service we met the pastor who encouraged us in our literary venture and told us that we should visit her grave that was, coincidentally, across the street in the Memorial Hill cemetery.

We then attempted to find her grave stone in the cemetery which was rather large, very pretty and peaceful. The rows of gravestones were close together and well populated. The center of the cemetery was shaded by trees, and as it widened out, the stones were open to the sky. We started in the middle and worked our way out to the edges. After about a half hour, we finally decided to split up, each covering a different section. It was a very warm day and I had little patience in the relentless sun. We found it odd that there was no marker to claim her resting place, no plaque commemorating her that read, “Flannery OConnor,” unlike the signs we had seen for many of the other Southern writers on our trip. We found this odd for such a prominent and distinctive Southern writer. Was this another way O’Connor was laughing from beyond? I finally decided I would ask a local resident coming out of church. She was an older woman who was friendly and smiled when I mentioned that I couldn’t seem to find Miss O’Connor’s grave site. Maybe she had had experiences of this nature before. She motioned her arm toward the front part of the cemetery and repeated, “along the fence, I think, along the fence”. So I returned to retrace my steps and this time I searched until I came upon the O’Connor’s grave site, first spotting Regina O’Connor then Flannery.

I was moved as the first thing I noticed were several tokens on her grave site and I knew that others had made this sojourn like myself. I called to my husband and I was thrilled to have finally found it for we spent close to an hour searching. Her grave had no distinctive marker; it was a plain flat white marble slab which blended in with the others around her. She seemed to have retained her humble and rather reserved demeanor all the way to the grave. Known for her obscure, complex themes and rather difficult stories, she left a legacy of mystery behind. Appropriately, Margaret Earley Whitts, Understanding Flannery O’Connor has a picture of Flannery in a lined, puzzle-like image on the front cover of the book. Whether it is trying to uncover the deeper, often hidden religious symbolism in her work or trying to understand the behavior of the characters and their larger meaning as a whole, it is never easily achieved. O’Connor’s work has not always been understood completely and appreciated for its uniqueness and powerful themes.

Many critics did not receive her first novel, Wise Blood, positively because of its seemingly strange themes and characters. The unfavorable reviews did spur one positive review as well and resulted in a lasting, meaningful friendship between writer and critic. Flannery was elated to hear that there was someone who understood her novel and liked it, therefore, she wrote to Brainard Cheney to thank him herself. Many times the Cheneys, would visit Flannery at Andalusia, her mother’s home just outside Milledgeville or Flannery would repay the visit at their home in Smyrna, Tennessee called Cold Chimneys. They exchanged many letters between them on various subjects, many times it was reading and giving feedback to each other’s work. Not only did they share their love of writing and learning, but they were “Catholik interleckchuls” in the heart of the South. Flannery had been a devout Catholic all her life yet was raised in a predominately Protestant geographical area. The Cheneys were relatively new to the world of Catholicism since their conversion and kidding between them would often take place. Brainard Cheney had been an ex-Protestant and ex-agnostic who found his way back to “The Church.”

O’Connor’s stories integrate her Southern cultural heritage and its people behind her veil of religious and biblical imagery as well as violence. There seems to be no middle ground for her. Things are black and white according to O’Connor; there is a road to be taken and one that should be avoided. O’Connor’s world is easy that way, it does not waver and become gray. In this sense, it is simplistic to either live truly and according to one’s convictions or not. She also exposes the deceit and hypocrisy in religious institutions through her characters. Hazel Motes, the protagonist in Wise Blood, cannot live (literally and metaphorically) in both worlds; he must live truly and not superficially in his convictions and therefore in his behavior. He is, like many of her characters, an extreme character, for O’Connor is using him as symbol to illustrate this point.

O’Connor uses other characters to illustrate this point, for instance, in The Displaced Person and Revelation. Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. Turpin are hypocrites who live in one world full of hate and vanity, and project an entirely different one. There are brutal and severe consequences for the individual who tries to live in two worlds or seems to lack that essential trait O’Connor is examining in human behavior. Through the dark humor and comical overlay of her stories, lies a stark-naked, poignant meaning. The violence, at times, seems as if she were using it to exaggerate her point. In other words, she was trying to shock one into awareness to see a larger, more important truth. Yet at other times the violence comes as a complete surprise, almost senseless, unnecessary.

O’Connors writing style is unaffected and unadorned like many of the Southern towns, characters and townspeople she writes about. However, her subdued style delivers a pointed sword in the readers conscious, as a result, making you look closer at what she is trying to convey. To me, it is a strange mixture for a devout Catholic to write about such oddly grotesque and violent characters who appear to have no conscience and no spiritual light to guide their actions.

After visiting her grave site and exploring the town of Milledgeville, we attempted to the visit the Ina Dillard Russell Library at Georgia State College (which was formerly GSC for Women) to visit the Flannery O’Connor Memorial Room. The room is furnished with pieces from Andalusia, which were gifts from her mother Regina Cline O’Connor. Here again we reached a slight problem; we were visiting on a weekend and found the room to be closed.

We then debated finding and driving past Andalusia, which is now a private residence, but we hoped to make it to Savannah later in the day to visit her childhood home at 207 East Charlton Street. We decided that we didn’t want to lead other literary travelers to Andalusia if they might be turned away because it was now someone’s private residence. We thought that it best to head south to Savannah where we might learn more about Flannery’s early life.

Savannah is approximately 160 miles from Millidgeville and possesses all the beauty and charm of an antebellum city with its striking architecture and layout of walkable, friendly streets. The streets are built around and connect to twenty-four squares. It is a town worthwhile to explore for its rich history as well as its beauty.

Flannery O’Connor’s former home is a simple home just across from a quiet square. The top floors and basement are rented as apartments and the first floor is a memorial site. The rental income helps to pay the mortgage on the home which the O’Connor Foundation owns and which was purchased in 1989. It is a non-profit corporation funded only by donations with an all-volunteer staff. We climbed the steps with anticipation after finding a parking space directly in front, and attached to the door we found a white piece of paper telling us “Closed for the month of August.”

We were beginning to seriously believe that there was a reason why the grave site, library and homes were so difficult to get at, beyond just bad luck or bad timing. There seemed to be a part of O’Connor that wanted to remain mysterious or unfound. Prior to our arrival at her childhood home, we had tried several times to call in advance, but ignored the fact that there was no answer. Nonetheless, I am glad we decided to make the journey to the city with its picturesque carriage rides and sloping trees draped with Spanish Moss that appear almost as ornaments.

The home is directly across the square from the looming presence of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. It possesses a majestic character and demands a kind of reverence. It seems obvious why Catholicism was so predominant in her life and her work. Her parents were parishioners of St. John the Baptist. As a young girl, she attended parochial schools at St. Vincent’s Grammar School and Sacred Heart. When you stand in front of the Cathedral you can witness the overwhelming effect it has on the senses by its height and Gothic architecture. Flannery, as a young girl, must have been impressed by its constant presence each day.

O’Connor’s stories are not quickly forgotten. Many times her characters leave an aftertaste that is at once uniquely and indescribably different. You may catch yourself rethinking through plots and scenes after some time has passed since first reading them and coming to very different conclusions the second time. Her characters play over in our minds, confusingly simple yet complex. They can be grotesquely uncouth and hideous yet there is something compelling about them. The recurrent theme of violence does not always make sense but one could read her stories as one might view a modern abstract painting, often difficult to understand the first time you see it, convoluted yet all the pieces integral to the whole.

Flannery must have been lonely, for she rarely had visitors to Anadulsia and had very few friends. Her debilitating illness was probably a major part of her separating from others to lead such an isolated existence. Possibly embarrassed and humble, not wanting sympathy because of her disease, she kept others away. One can see why she wrote about the handicapped: the physically or mentally impaired. Most likely it was a theme that personally resonated for her.

Josephine Hendin, who wrote the book The World of Flannery OConnor, writes about how she felt while visiting Andalusia, “Sitting on this porch, I felt for the first time that O’Connors disease did not radically change her life. Its horror was that it prevented her life from changing at all. The loneliness it dictated for her was too familiar to the “shy, glum girl” whose feelings had been under control, who seemed so essentially alone everywhere. Her illness seems only to have reinforced and cemented an isolation that always existed, a feeling of being “other” that she could sometimes accept with wry good humor.” (p.9)

Whether she adopted the “Southern Way” as Pat Conroy speaks of in The Prince of Tides, hiding and closing off one’s true feelings, there was a suffering she endured underneath that persona. “In all that cheerful patter, you miss entirely the sense of suffering that must have been its ultimate source. The country diction is oddly mute about the anguish of a woman feeling the slow violence of disease.” (Hendin, p. 11) From a Jungian perspective, her persona was so overly used to mask her physical and emotional pain that the theme of violence in her stories seems appropriate and understandable release given the shadow aspect of her personality had to manifest itself somewhere. Carl Jung talks about the necessity of balancing both aspects of the personality: the Persona and the Shadow. Possibly, the violence in her stories was the darker side of her personality which was released within the safety and boundaries of her art.

Lupus was in control of her fate. What kind of strange disease attacks itself, its own living cells? As an artist, she must have thought about this disease differently than her doctors. Violence on its own life-giving system is not only frightening but it does not make sense.

Although O’Connor was a devout Catholic and claimed her work was religious in nature, her work can be interpreted in many ways. Many critics have only seen her work in a religious context and I think that is quite limiting. Hendin makes this point clearly, “I do not think O’Connor’s fiction can be explained by her Catholicism alone.” Regardless of your religious point of view, O’Connor’s work is worth investigating and making your own conclusions.

We spent the rest of the day in Savannah and there was something satisfying about the city. When we walked back to our car parked in front of her childhood home, we had mixed feelings of incompleteness and satisfaction about this stretch of our journey. We had been able to pay our respects and visit the places she was from, but we were left feeling that the one thing we had wanted to take with us, some first hand understanding of place in her work, was beyond our reach. Maybe we did learn one thing, that Flannery O’Connor, her work, and that place beyond words, are all hard to find.

More On the Web
The Flannery O’Connor Collection
At Georgia College & State University

FLANNERY O’CONNOR ANDALUSIA TOURS

The Flannery O’Connor Andalusia Foundation is proud to announce that Andalusia, the beautiful farm where Flannery O’Connor lived and worked, is now open for trolley tours booked through the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). Andalusia is located in Baldwin County, Georgia about four miles northwest of Milledgeville, on the west side of U.S. Highway 441. Public tours are offered the third Saturday of each month at 11:00 a.m. For more information about the tours and schedules, contact the CVB directly at 800-653-1804 or visit them through their website below.http://www.andalusiafarm.org

Please help us build a Flannery O’Connor links page. Send us your suggestions for O’Connor links@literarytraveler.com