“Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” This may have been Flannery O’ Connor’s terse judgment on the constricted confines of her family home, Andalusia, a few miles north of the Georgia town of Milledgeville. But in a small bedroom of that house, at first on a battered typewriter and late in life on a new electric, the writer created a world of the hardest edged and most memorable characters in all of American fiction.
Born in Savannah, most of her teen years were lived on Greene Street in Milledgeville. It was only a few blocks to her college, Georgia State College for Women, but it was a distance that less than a decade later she would find intolerably painful to walk. After college, O’Connor studied writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was resident at the artists' colony Yaddo in upstate New York. The New York intellectual community, including Robert and Sally Fitzgerald with whom she briefly lived in their Connecticut garage apartment, quickly embraced her for her distinctive literary voice. He was a poet and brilliant translator of Greek and Latin classics; O’Connor was writing her first novel Wise Blood. She reworked its storyline to incorporate the guilt-ridden character Hazel Motes’ self-inflicted blinding with lime as a parallel to the Oedipus Rex translation that occupied Fitzgerald.
In December 1950, still only twenty-five, O’Connor was forced to return to Milledgeville with a diagnosis of acute lupus, the disease that had killed her father nine years before. Until her own death at 39 in 1964, she traveled little beyond surprisingly frequent readings and lectures on the college circuit. Even negotiating the steep front porch stairs of Andalusia was onerous. She entered and left the house by the rear porch.
The very steep stair risers to the upstairs bedrooms became impossible to climb so she spent most of her last decade living and writing in a converted downstairs sitting room, an exception being a trip she made to Europe that included a pilgrimage to the healing site of Lourdes. Her mother, Regina, ran a successful dairy farm on the 550 acres of Andalusia, which had been in the family since the 30s. At Andalusia O’Connor collected dozens of pets, mainly birds and fowls, a habit she began in childhood:
"When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it, too, with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”
At one point she had over fifty peafowl that wandered freely on the farm’s grounds. Their shrieks were heard for miles. Today, a wire pen houses the two hens and a single cock.
In late March, I drove from Atlanta, where I am shooting a film, to Milledgeville, to visit Andalusia to soak up the spirit of O’Connor, a writer whose work I have known since my high school years. (O’Connor was a devout Catholic writer; the nuns who taught my own high school English classes all knew her work, though they may have been shocked by its dark, intense rigor and tormented vision of spiritual redemption.) I have always had an unresolved relationship with her fiction as well. Arriving in Milledgeville, I met up with my longtime camera assistant, Clyde Bryan. He is a passionate scholar of both O’Connor and Faulkner. At the end of our visit he gave me his copy of the recent, much lauded biography of O’Connor by Brad Gooch:
It had rained hard the night before and it was still raining lightly when I arrived. The lowering clouds and chill of late winter seemed to inhabit the trees, even seeping into the main house itself.
The director of the O’Connor Foundation, Craig Amason, gave us a tour and allowed me to take photos. A somewhat yellowed, framed photo of O’Connor hung on one wall.
On an Internet search I found this same photo and one of O’Connor reading at age three. The cracked plaster and chipped paint reflect the ongoing struggle for the farm’s restoration. The photo was taken before much recent work was undertaken.
Beyond the kitchen, which still contains appliances that O’Connor bought her mother with her early royalties, is an orientation room with a few chairs and a short video narrated by Dr. Sarah Gordon. I met Sarah, whom I had not seen in decades, when I drove recently to Athens, Georgia to see my sister-in-law, Betty Littleton who was visiting her friend Sarah. Not knowing that Sarah had written many books about O’Connor, I told her I was considering a visit to Andalusia. She regaled me with anecdotes about the author and gave me copies of her O'Connor books. For years, Sarah had been editor of the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin and had taught at the same Milledgeville College that the writer attended.
Another of Gordon’s books is a selection of O’Connor’s linoleum cut cartoons, many of which she produced while a student at Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville.
After the visit to Andalusia, while going through photos I had taken, I thought about how this place felt like more than the home of another dead American writer. It radiates a metaphysical presence that began to haunt me even as it raised questions. Dr. Gordon agreed to answer a few of my questions about this mysterious author who created such a distinctive American voice. Some of the photos from that day are included here, placed between Sarah's comments. She speaks eloquently of O’Connor’s intricate visual sensibility, of her ferocious spirituality, and of her influence on several generations of American novelists and contemporary filmmakers who followed her.
John Bailey: “Travel” is often cited as an imperative for developing writers to expand their understanding of the world and of themselves. When Flannery O’Connor came home to Milledgeville in late 1950 at the age of 25 with a diagnosis of acute lupus, her physical view of the world was mostly reduced to the narrow perimeters of the family dairy farm and that of a small Georgia town. Yet she is regarded as a writer who possesses an almost cosmic understanding of her fellow man and his place in the universe. Is there a seeming disconnect here?
Dr. Sarah Gordon: Reading was O’Connor’s passport out of Milledgeville and small-town life, both before her time away from Milledgeville and after her return to it. She read avidly, fiction and philosophy and theology, regularly reviewing books for the diocesan newsletter, in fact asking to do so. For many of us who grew up in small southern towns, books were the means of imaginative escape.
Certainly O’Connor’s profound Catholic faith enabled her to see life sub specie aeternitatis, and we now know that from as early as her teen years O’Connor believed that she had a vocation as a spiritual writer. If one studies the typescripts of Wise Blood, her first published book, one recognizes her very conscious attempt to create sharp and compelling images that shock the reader; later she wrote that, when the writer can’t assume that the reader holds her views—and in her day she felt she was essentially writing for non-believers—the Christian writer has to use shock tactics: “For the hard of hearing you shout,” she wrote, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
As for her life on the farm, where she was, in her words, an “armchair farmer,” she saw the microcosm of the macrocosm. I’d recommend The Habit of Being, O’Connor’s collected letters (1989), as a real window into her daily life at Andalusia. These prize-winning letters are alternately humorous and insightful and quite moving in their observations of human nature. One sees there a delightful wit that adapted rather quickly to her forced return to Milledgeville and soon came to find material there to inhabit her fiction for the rest of her life.
Descriptions of nature are often imbued with an almost metaphysical presence in her stories. Where do you think this comes from?
Many of O’Connor’s descriptions of the external world are not pretty; cities, for example, don’t come off well at all. One finds in O’Connor the rather traditional agrarian idea of the coldness and soul-shattering anonymity of the city, contrasting, of course, with the potential goodness and simplicity of life on the land. That goodness, however, is only potential, for in O’Connor’s view we are all original sinners and thus capable of all sorts of mischief and meanness. The loveliest and most memorable descriptions of nature are, to my way of thinking, found in “The River,” which concerns the importance of baptism. That story shows the clear influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ idea of inscape, the idea that all of God’s creation is imbued with the divine. The river itself is a shining revelation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. If one thinks of Hopkins’ wonderful short poem “Pied Beauty,” one gets a real sense of what O’Connor was about in “The River.” She even uses his words “dappled” and “speckled” more than once. Other stories that are centered in the natural world are not as lyrical. “A Circle in the Fire” alludes to the Old Testament, especially in its ending, which is harsh and purgatorial. “A View of the Woods,” a late story, presents a memorable image of bloody trees, which we are meant to see as Christ’s sacrifice in the world. Here the narcissistic and greedy old man (aptly named Mr. Fortune) who is at the center of that story can’t see God’s presence in the woods or in his own children or grandchildren. The story ends in the woods and ends violently. The world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” have we but eyes enough to see.
|He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:||
|GLORY be to God for dappled things—|
|For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;|
|For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;|
|Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;|
|Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;||
|And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.|
|All things counter, original, spare, strange;|
|Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)|
|With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;|
Animals abound in O’Connor’s work. Often, like the land, they seem to have a preternatural presence. She tended many personal animals beyond the ones that were husbanded for the farm. Peafowl, cocks and hens wandered the grounds by the dozens. How do animals, especially the unusual peacocks, fit into the world of her writing?
Oddly enough, O’Connor never owned kitties or puppies. Chickens and peafowl were her choice of pets from an early age, and I suspect that her mother, Regina, whom I knew rather well, did not want to fool with cats and dogs, especially any animal that Flannery might have been tempted to want to keep inside. The chickens that young Mary Flannery owned in Savannah were kept outside, of course, including the one that she taught to walk backwards. That curious feathered talent attracted the attention of Pathe News, which actually photographed the child with her chicken doing its thing. As for the peacocks, I recommend what I believe is one of the best essays ever published, O’Connor’s “King of the Birds,” which appeared in Holiday magazine in 1961. It’s a splendid piece of writing and revelatory of the use to which O’Connor puts the peacock in “The Displaced Person,” the only story of hers that uses the bird as a significant part of the narrative. Classical and Christian associations make the peacock an important vehicle in “The Displaced Person,” again suggesting God’s mysterious presence in the world.
Many of the Catholic writers and thinkers that seem to have influenced O’Connor carry their religion, and their dogma, on their sleeves. I think of Teilhard de Chardin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Thomas Merton. O’Connor’s religion is mostly hidden in the recesses of her pockets. Yet she was a devout Catholic who attended Mass and took the Eucharist almost daily. How is her fierce religious belief made manifest in her work?
Certainly in her fiction O’Connor’s Catholicism is not very evident. Only a couple of stories have what one might call an obvious Catholic component, “The Displaced Person” and “The Enduring Chill.” Her early readers were often baffled by the rather cryptic allusions to Christian belief. However, when O’Connor’s collection of essays and lectures (Mystery and Manners) appeared in 1969, some five years after her death, readers experienced “aha!” moments, as she elucidated her aims in fiction, her Catholic beliefs, and her relationship to her country—that is to say, the South as a microcosm of the modern world, “territory held largely by the Devil.” I don’t mean to suggest that nobody “got” O’Connor’s work without her own prose commentary; many readers, of course, had readily understood what she was about. With the publication of her letters in 1989, O’Connor’s fiction received additional illumination. One of the great paradoxes that I’ve noted in the reception of her work is that she, as a student of the New Critics, always insisted that a work of fiction be taken on its own terms, without reference to biographical commentary or the author’s explanation. We don’t want to commit “the intentional fallacy,” as New Criticism termed the habit of reading an author’s stated intention into a work. The work should stand on its own. O’Connor’s work, however, has not been allowed to do that. How can a reader possibly refuse to acknowledge what O’Connor herself offers in the way of commentary on her narratives? For many of us that has been a great struggle. For Christian readers especially, there has been a tendency to turn the stories into something akin to sermons; for others, the stories become theology. O’Connor would have hated that.
If I appear to have digressed in answering this question, I do so only because the issue has been uppermost in my mind through nearly fifty years of reading this author! It’s a conundrum. O’Connor wanted first of all to be a good storyteller; she would never have wanted her stories to become allegories or exempla for the Christian (Catholic) faith.
Andalusia, and the life there, by most descriptions was benign, and the farm itself was relatively successful. But many of O’Connor’s fictional characters are misfits, drifters, losers, and retards who barely survive from day to day. Where do such imaginative characters, so different from her own life and friends, come from?
In addition to her avid reading of fiction and theology, O’Connor loved the newspaper, especially both the Milledgeville Union Recorder and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Newspapers gave her prompts, for sure. The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” arguably O’Connor’s most famous story, was inspired by a newspaper account of a bank robber in Georgia who called himself The Misfit; at the time of her death O’Connor was working on a third novel called Why Do the Heathen Rage? based on a series of newspaper advertisements of a fundamentalist sort that ran in the Atlanta paper.
Milledgeville itself provided interesting material for O’Connor, and certainly not always of the respectable, proper sort. The horrifying Stembridge murders that occurred during Milledgeville’s sesquicentennial were fodder for “The Partridge Festival,” one of O’Connor’s least successful stories (in my view). Milledgeville is the home of Central State Hospital, once the largest mental hospital in the world, and tales of its patients were common fare in O’Connor’s day. Furthermore, the eccentricities of Milledgevillains (as I like to call them) fascinated O’Connor; some of her mother’s friends and acquaintances actually inhabit the fiction, their features writ large in O’Connor’s wildly comic renditions. O’Connor had a fine ear, attuned to the banalities of everyday exchanges, and clearly that attribute is everywhere evident in her stories. In “The Displaced Person,” a farm hand announces, “I aint gonna let no Pope of Rome tell me how to run my dairy,” and in that same story the farm hand’s super-provincial wife asks her employer, Mrs. McIntyre, “You reckon [the displaced person and his family] will know what colors even is?”
Of course, aside from observation of the local scene, scouring the newspapers, and reading, O’Connor had a vivid and active imagination. Who can possibly assess the value of that to a writer of her caliber? (I would add that the question of source material always seems to arise with women writers, not with men. It’s true that women writers—were, and in some cases still are—limited in experience of the world and access to it, but the power of the imagination is limitless. O’Connor was writing wild and strange stories even in her adolescence.)
O’Connor is the first post-war woman writer to be honored by a comprehensive volume in the Library of America series. Yet she is not regarded as a “popular” writer; in fact, she is held by many to be “difficult,” even antithetical to what some feel is the proper role of a “woman writer.” She broke that cliché wide open. Why do you think she is so highly regarded by many critics and her most dedicated readers? Is it all there in the drama of the work or is the drama of her own painful life a part of it?
Readers are attracted to O’Connor for a multitude of reasons. Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O’Brien wrote college papers on her work. Bruce Springsteen was drawn by those large and startling figures at the center of her stories and the wild, often violent plots and has cited her as an influence on his own "Nebraska" CD. Filmmakers seem to love the vividness of her imagery, the zany characters, and the startling endings. Visual artists find her descriptions of the natural world irresistible. One artist from North Carolina did a series of prints of only O’Connor’s “long line of trees,” often the locus of climactic action in her stories; a British artist was compelled to do etchings of her most memorable characters. Many Christian readers, for better or worse, are attracted to the spiritual dimension of the narratives, particularly as the central characters grapple with the question of belief. Other Christian readers deplore the harshness of the world as O’Connor depicts it, a world essentially bereft of human connection, love, and joy. Literary critics are often mixed in their responses to O’Connor. Some find her much too overtly and stringently Catholic, others object to what they feel is a sort of predictable violence, but still others praise the writing and place O’Connor among the great American fiction writers. Scholars in what is now called Disability Studies are concerned not only with O’Connor’s illness but also with the way she presents physical deformity and illness in her fiction. There are, of course, many readers who identify with O’Connor’s personal suffering, her long struggle with lupus. Some of these people visit the gravesite and leave notes and mementos. I know of one Milledgeville woman who believes that O’Connor or her spirit guards the four main highways into the town and protects it from evil. I’ve often noted that, unlike other modern writers, O’Connor has many devoted admirers who approach the city of Milledgeville as they would a shrine, their manner worshipful. I don’t think the enthusiasm, indeed the Flannery Fervor, is likely to abate anytime soon.
Today, Andalusia, like many of O’Connor’s human characters, is weathered, broken down, struggling to keep itself together. This is despite the work of its foundation and the dedication of Craig Amason. When O’Connor died, her mother, Regina, moved back to the family home on Greene St. in Milledgeville. But she continued to return on an almost daily basis to maintain the farm. Andalusia seems to be more than a physical place, the home of a dead artist.
When Flannery O’Connor and her mother lived at Andalusia, it was about five miles out of town, really in the country. Today it’s surrounded by motels and big-box stores; even highway 441, the north-south road on which the farm is located, has been widened and now is busier than Flannery and Regina could ever have imagined. Even so, the farm possesses a quietude, a peace that I find remarkable. Many visitors do. It’s the site where O’Connor wrote her best work, the home to which she returned in illness, and the place where her imagination, disciplined and fierce, was, perhaps surprisingly, free. I think there were at least three lives that Flannery led at Andalusia: the quotidian one with Regina, filled with hired hands, domestic issues, visits from her and Regina’s friends, and the occasional small-farm drama; the writerly one, in which Flannery devoted each morning to her work, in spite of her illness or interruptions, and the afternoons to reading and resting; and the spiritual one, in which Flannery attended morning Mass each day, said her prayers, read theology (especially St. Thomas Aquinas), and, in her letters and essays, wrote about matters of faith and belief. Many of her readers who visit Andalusia today seem to have a sense of the difficulties and perhaps strange rewards of O’Connor’s life in this place. They are often especially moved as they stand at the door to her very plain bedroom (in a very plain house) and see her old manual typewriter and her crutches, propped against that clunky old classroom desk. This sight in particular evokes the simple but powerful force of her gift and the amazing stamina O’Connor possessed, signaling—for many of us—the presence of grace.
John Huston was a director who was fearless in taking on some of the great American novels, among them Moby Dick (Melville), Under the Volcano (Lowry), The Red Badge of Courage (Crane), Reflections in a Golden Eye (McCullers), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (B.Traven), as well as working with then contemporary writers such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal. Huston’s valedictory film was from James Joyce’s short story The Dead. But none of these movies is as haunting and strange as his 1979 low budget feature filmed in Macon, Georgia, from O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood.
A Criterion Collection DVD of this iconic film contains helpful extras, including interviews with actor Brad Dourif and screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald, sons of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. There is also a discussion with Huston by Bill Moyers made in 1982 at Huston’s seaside retreat near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he filmed Night of the Iguana.
An audio reading by O’Connor of her most famous short story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, is a rare bonus on the Criterion DVD; it is the only extant recording by the author, made at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University on April 22, 1959. In her introductory remarks to the audience O’Connor says of the critics’ notion of “Southern Gothic,” grotesque fiction, that it makes her “feel like B’rer Rabbit stuck on Tar Baby.” Her lilting Georgia accent is strong but clear, not at all the near incomprehensible one that biographer Brad Gooch alludes to when O’Connor first met Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Paul Engle in the fall of 1945. After several failed efforts to have her repeat her questions, Engle handed her a pad to write down what she wanted. The twenty year old wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writers’ Workshop?”
The trailer for Wise Blood captures some of the askew humor and satire of the film but little of the darkness that finally overwhelms Brad Dourif’s character of Hazel Motes, founder of the “Church of Truth Without Christ.” The film is considered a faithful rendering of the novel even though its director was, as stated by Dourif in the supplemental interview, a “devout atheist.” Only the unfortunate satiric musical score gives away Huston's view. The writer brothers say that Huston made a film about faith and redemption in spite of himself. He admitted to them that "O'Connor won." The film of Wise Blood does not appear often on TV and screenings are also rare. Once again, Criterion has made a difficult film accessible.
The uncanny mix in O’Connor’s work of iconoclastic and schizophrenic Southern Gothic, of down home country wisdom, and of a near revolutionary Christian theology embodied in Jesuits like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Teilhard de Chardin, constitutes one of the most fervent, yet glacial voices in all of American letters. It may be futile to speculate, yet who can suppress guessing, what complex portraits of Americans may yet have come from the pen of O’Connor had an incurable, inherited illness not cut her life short at age 39. She may well have been that American millennial voice that never actually came forth, a voice to give us understanding of our nation’s tormented psyche, especially now when religion and reason seem to have run off onto separate, irreconcilable rails.
Recently, while lunching in an Atlanta downtown pub, I looked up and saw a familiar face, a portrait painting of O’Connor, the artist unknown to the wait staff.
Flannery O’Connor surely would have been pleased at seeing her likeness posted on the wall of an Irish pub, right next to a dartboard.
My profound thanks go to Dr. Sarah Gordon of Athens, Georgia, for her enlightening thoughts on O’Connor’s singular voice, a voice whose timbre year by year grows richer in the chorus of American literary song.
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