You’ll find her along the fence line of Memory Hill Cemetery, to the left. The grave sits in a family plot. There are Treanors and Clines—relations of her mother’s—and then, finally at the edge, O’Connors. A low, flat, plain marble gravestone, next to two just like it belonging to her parents. The etching, too, is plain: a cross, trimmed with “IHS,” and beneath it her full Christian name, Mary Flannery O’Connor, the day she died (August 3, 1964), and the day, only 39 years earlier, when she was born: March 25, 1925.
It was tempting, when I was a pilgrim in Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, to think of what might have been for her. And it is tempting now, on her birthday. Lupus, the same disease that claimed her father, hobbled her then took her life long before she had tested the limits of her genius. Today, she would have been 83—six years younger than Doris Lessing, who won this year’s Nobel Prize and is still writing.
But what O’Connor left behind remains vibrantly alive. Two gawky, if brilliant, novels, and two collections of nearly immaculate short stories that dig into the deepest spiritual truths. A posthumous collection of essays, Mystery and Manners, that remains required reading for any aspiring, or established, Catholic writer. And an anthology of her correspondences, The Habit of Being, which is hilarious and humane, and one of the most entertaining documentations of Southern life in twentieth-century American literature.
Milledgeville, Georgia is a town of about 16,000, two hours southeast of Atlanta. It’s where O’Connor lived, mastered her craft, died and is buried. The town remains a Flannery kind of place, slightly grotesque in that rural Georgia way that courses through her works (and that was shed long ago by larger cities like Atlanta and Augusta, where I live). Oddities abound, of a peculiarly Southern hue—tiny churches poke through the woods on the edges of town, and advertisements line the roads for psychics and an exterminator business called Bug House.
Up Columbia Road a few miles from the cemetery is the library of Georgia College and State University. Flannery went to school here, when it was still called Georgia State College for Women. A party was thrown for her in this library upon the 1950 publication of Wise Blood, her first novel. Today it holds many of her original manuscripts under lock and key, available only to scholars who give at least a week’s notice. On public display, they keep a few of her most important possessions: a grand typewriter (kept under glass) where she wrote and re-wrote; her baptismal gown; books she owned by Faulkner and works of Christian apologetics.
To Hell With It
The walls in the exhibition room are lined with her citations, mostly Literary Achievement Awards from the Georgia Writers’ Association. One from 1960 praises her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, for its portrayal of “Christ and the sacraments, including…the bread and wine of Communion”—an innocuously Protestant statement that must have drawn one of her typically wry pronouncements. This, after all, was a woman fiercely devoted to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. “If it’s a symbol,” she once quipped, “I say to hell with it.”
Further north, Columbia Road becomes U.S. 441 and the strip malls fan out on both sides of the highway. On the left side up a hill is Andalusia, Flannery’s home, which sits back along an unpaved road away from the ugly commotion. Pulling up the driveway, it’s easy to imagine the amusement O’Connor would have felt today, knowing she lived across the street from an America’s Best Value Inn, and next door to a Wal-Mart.
Stately But Modest
The pine trees rise up over the road to Andalusia. The hills slope down towards a cow pond and a pen where an old burro named Flossie grazes lazily on brown grass. The house is a two-story, white, stately but modest. A huge tree trunk shades the covered porch, where ten rocking chairs wait for guests. O’Connor resided here for the last twelve years of her life with her widowed mother, who worked it as a dairy farm.
Flannery’s room is the first on the left through the door, and the tour guide is quick to assert that it looks much as she left it: her crutches lean against a book shelf, an old spread covers the bed. A replica typewriter sits on a desk near the window, which looks out to the burro’s pen.
Sitting on a bench outside the house, you’ll see none of the peacocks that used to roost everywhere, including on the water tower behind the house. The birds are gone, and house is in greater disrepair, because shortly after Flannery’s death, her mother moved back to town, and the home sat empty for many years.
Otherwise, life here looks as her essays depicted it over forty years ago. Here, far from the manicured lawn of the cemetery, and the too-quiet hallways of the college library, you come closest to Flannery’s presence. The yard remains much as it was, and surely marks the spot where many of her twisted Southern figures were born. People make pilgrimages to Andalusia hoping that it will illuminate her remarkable characters, and by the end of my stay, I was certain I’d found the pecan tree where Parker sobbed in “Parker’s Back;” the hay loft where Hulga had her prosthetic leg stolen in “Good Country People;” and the pastures where the bull got loose and gored Mrs. May in “Greenleaf.”
But just as the place illuminates the world of O’Connor’s stories, the stories illuminate the place. Once you have entered Flannery’s fictional world, it forever colors the Southern landscape, extending out from the pages into life. On the old farm in Milledgeville, you can look out at the same rows of pines as she once did, and see what she saw: a world in disrepair, haunted by a Christ she called a “ragged figure who moves from tree to tree” in the mind. O’Connor’s images are impossible to shake, and you’ll leave Andalusia feeling haunted yourself. It can’t be helped. Her voice follows you along the Georgia backroads, all the way home.