“Good Country People”: Exploring Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia and Milledgeville
|August 19, 2012||Posted by Josh Boldt under Arts & Humanities, Education, Teaching, Writing|
The shaded gravel road ambles off 441 just north of town. It’s easy to miss, I learned. “If you see the Walmart, you’ve gone too far.” I turned around in the parking lot and headed north again. This time I finally spotted the small sign, almost hidden during the summer by overhanging trees. You wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it. Which adds to the mystique of the place really. I’m willing to bet very few people visit the estate on a whim.
Within seconds, the canopy enveloped my car and I was creeping up the steep hill towards an old farm gate which marked the property entrance. Gravel popped under my tires as the car crawled forward into the green abyss. Rural clamor of cicadas swallowed me. I stopped at the gate and turned the engine off to listen. It was impossible that a busy highway was only 200 feet behind me.
As I rounded the bend, the deciduous undergrowth opened to a clearing and there, at the top of the hill, overlooking an open field and a serene pond, sat Andalusia. I instantly understood how it was that Flannery O’Connor had produced her life’s work here in her short years of prolific creativity. The property was beautiful and peaceful, and although it was only a few short miles from the center of Milledgeville, it was an isolated writer’s haven that breathed literature.
The estate is now managed by the Andalusia Foundation, Inc., as it has been since it was donated by the surviving family members years ago. On the day I visited, a knowledgeable historian gave me a tour of the place and shared with me some interesting tidbits about the property. I knew, for example, that Flannery O’Connor was in the advanced stages of Lupus during much of her time here, but I didn’t realize that the second floor of the home was almost never used, though that would make sense. She and her mother converted the living spaces of the first floor into bedrooms so Flannery would never have to negotiate the stairs. It was definitely strange to see a bedroom directly off the main entryway. The late author not only slept here, but she also penned most of her short story catalog in this room, which had a door leading directly to the bedroom of her mother for easy access to her necessary care.
The other front room of the house thus became both the dining area and also the living room, meaning that it had a large table and also pieces of parlor furniture like a couch and chairs squeezed into it. You can see from the picture that the couch looks oddly forced into the arrangement behind the dining table. According to my historian tour guide, this is the original furniture the O’Connors used in the fifties and sixties.
As Flannery O’Connor became less and less mobile, she withdrew into her writing and her natural surroundings. Most people who know her are familiar with her peacocks. On the property of Andalusia, she had several peacocks roaming the grounds, to which she looked for companionship and inspiration. Though her fowls are now gone, the Andalusia Foundation has preserved the tradition and keeps three peafowls in the rear of the main house. Of course, I desperately wanted to see the full plumage, but alas, I couldn’t solicit a performance.
Touring the house and wandering solo over the hundreds of lush acres was an incredible experience for a Flannery O’Connor lover like myself. I’ve read every piece of fiction she ever penned and I teach at least one of her short stories every semester. Her 1952 novel Wise Blood, which she finished here in Milledgeville, is one of my top three favorite novels of all time. But even the casual reader of southern literature would love this experience. It is certainly worth the trip. Be sure to make a donation to the foundation, or to pick up a couple books and/or paraphernalia during your visit. Flannery O’Connor is one of our lesser known American greats and we need to do our part to keep her memory alive. To show my support, I snagged a copy of Brad Gooch’s 2009 biography, which I’ll review here eventually.
Flannery O’Connor’s Milledgeville is Cool—Who Knew?
Being only a couple miles from town, I decided to venture into Milledgeville and see some of the Flannery O’Connor city landmarks, like Georgia College & State University where she received her bachelor’s degree in social sciences. I assumed it was a smalltown, three-stoplight kind of deal due to the fact that it’s basically in the middle of nowhere Georgia. I was totally wrong. It is a smallish town, but Milledgeville has an awesome and hip culture. The downtown scene, where the college is located has a strip of local restaurants and hangouts like Blackbird Coffee, where I slipped in for a delicious cup of Tanzanian. College students were milling around and playing music on porches. To my surprise, it was a really happening scene.
I tracked down the Visitor’s Center where I met the very helpful and friendly Linda Bailey, who set me up with a map and a rundown of the Flannery O’Connor landmarks in town. The college, for example, has a room dedicated to her life and work. Though the room leaves a lot to be desired, I did snap a shot of her original typewriter upon which she composed much of her work.
I think my favorite stop on my self-guided Milledgeville-O’Connor tour was Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 110 N. Jefferson. This is the church Flannery and her mother attended for mass. If you’ve read even one short story by her, you know she was deeply influenced by her religious upbringing in the Catholic church. Almost all of her stories wrestle with the concept of religion and its impact on American culture, in particular southern American culture. As a fellow southerner with a religious upbringing, this theme really drew me into the writer and sparked my fascination with O’Connor’s literature. So, naturally I wanted to see the church in which she was taught.
I was amazed to find the church unlocked and completely vacant in the middle of the day. I haven’t set foot in a church in probably a decade. It was eery. Completely silent. Like so silent, it was loud. I’m sure you know what I mean by that. I slipped into one of the pews and scanned my surroundings. The massive organ pipes, the wall hangings that all seemed to subtly suggest I was in some way inadequate. It brought back a lot of memories. Sitting alone in that sanctuary as the afternoon sun streamed in through the glass, I felt I could connect with O’Connor and understand the deeply-conflicted internal struggle she was seeking to exorcise through her words.
My walkabout ended at Memorial Hill Cemetery, where Flannery O’Connor rests since succumbing to cancer on August 3, 1964 at age 39. The cemetery recalls the grotesque images of her literature, the Southern Gothic elements of her birthplace a few hours away in Savannah. A paint-chipped whitish gazebo with rickety stairs displays a map and marks her grave, just one of many others. There is certainly no fanfare or special markings. In fact, it took me quite awhile to track down her marker amongst the hanging trees and raised headstones. Only a couple of dead flowers and trinkets adorn the grave of one of America’s greatest writers. Her grave could belong to anyone. Quiet and unassuming, just like the unmarked gravel drive on the outskirts of town which led to her home.
See Also: “Poetry is for Wusses” and Other Myths