Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.

Gardening Comes Second Only to Reading

Many years ago, my two sons gave me a special gift for Father’s Day that I am still using now, all the time, 365 days out of the year.  The gift was a fabricated flat, natural-looking stone that is engraved with the sentence: GARDENING COMES SECOND ONLY TO READING.  It was the perfect present because, for me at least, that declaration is quite true.  I would argue that my family actually comes first (I hope they would agree!), and I could certainly make the case for several more seconds and thirds, with music taking a prominent place near the top of the list.  Both of my boys knew then, as they still recognize now, that gardening is a passion for me — something on which I am willing to spend plenty of hard-earned dollars.  I have lived in three different locations since they presented me with that engraved stone, and it is still part of the hardscape of my gardens today.

Entry way garden
Entry way garden

I became interested in landscaping and ornamental gardening in 1987, shortly after my sons’ mother and I bought our first house.  I had started working in a public library two years earlier, and I was fascinated by gardening magazines and books that I was cataloging.  I wanted to have a yard with more than just an expanse of grass and a few foundation shrubs around the house.  I wanted to create a little oasis!  I started building my own personal library of gardening books, learning as much as possible about soil condition, hardiness zones, watering, fertilizing, and plant identification.  I didn’t have much disposable income in those years, so I started out small and concentrated on a few specific areas, such as the side entrance to our house that we used most often.  A few years later we started a family and moved into a larger house on a steeply sloping lot.  It was a challenging yard, but over the years I began to mold it into something that I could work with and make attractive.  One of the most successful projects was the creation of a lush entry-way garden leading from the parking area to the front door, which is pictured in the photograph above.  Before moving away from that house, I also created two azalea islands under oak and sweet gum trees in the front yard, a pathway leading through ornamental trees and shrubs in the backyard, and my first small pond with a waterfall. (See my post from May 17, 2016 to learn more about the waterfalls and ponds I have designed through the years.)

Pond garden at sunrise
Pond garden at sunrise

When I met my second wife, she was living on a lake in central Georgia.  When we married, I moved in with her.  The previous owners of this lake house had invested considerably in the landscape, but my wife had made several improvements before we were married including upgrading the irrigation system, replacing an old patio, removing pine trees, and installing ornamental shrubs and trees.  We decided to have our wedding ceremony on the patio overlooking the lake and a small pond and waterfall that I finished just a few days before the big day.  Over the next two years I added plants and landscape lights around the pond to make the area into a separate garden spot, complete with a bird feeder and a bench.

Patio lake garden
Patio lake garden

The new and expanded patio was a perfect place to add a container garden, so we began looking for interesting pots, such as the sculpted face pot and stand that we affectionately named Annabel — the face on the pot looks melancholy and reminds us of the subject of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee.”  The patio container garden was framed by a beautiful stand of Loropetalum shrubs that my wife had planted shortly after she moved into the house.  This garden was completed by a chiminea and a hot tub, which is just out of view at the lower left corner of the photo above.  The gently sloping grass of the yard and the view of the large cove beyond were a perfect backdrop to this little slice of paradise just outside the sliding glass doors leading from our master bedroom.

Front island garden
Front island garden

In 2013 we moved to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Georgia.  This part of the state is in a different plant zone than our previous location.  As such there are some semi-tropical species that we can no longer have in our yard, but other ornamentals that need cooler temperatures are perfectly at home here.  Our growing season is a week or two shorter also, but climate change is bringing earlier springs and extended autumns as the years go by.  The previous owners of this house did a fine job of building the “bones” of this property, with a large planting island in the front yard and a fairly deep shrub bed in front of the house.  We have made a few changes, such as adding some annual planting beds and thinning some of the dwarf Nandina on the side of the house.  We have also added to the plants in the front island (pictured above) and covered it all with a healthy layer of wood chips.  The greatest addition we have made to the property is the installation of an in-ground swimming pool with a waterfall, providing us with yet another opportunity to create a new garden oasis.  Although I did not build this “pond,” my wife and I did help with the design.  We have worked very hard over the last two years on the landscaping around the pool by installing a river rock border, bringing in new plants, and arranging container plantings around the decking. The sound of running water is such a pleasant feature of this space, which of course, is also a perfect area for enjoying my first passion . . . reading.

Pool waterfall garden
Pool waterfall garden

Art and Social Change

Do artists have a social responsibility?  That was the question posed for discussion to participants in lunch breakout sessions at the recent Symposium on Arts and Social Change sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of  Piedmont College, a small private liberal arts college in Demorest, Georgia.  The Symposium, titled “Between Dream and Reality,” focused on public art as an inspiration for social change and was held at the college’s second campus in Athens, a town dominated by the presence of the University of Georgia.  Each breakout session had no more than a dozen people, so the conversations were manageable but lively.

Jen Delos Reyes
Jen Delos Reyes

The Symposium featured keynote speaker Jen Delos Reyes, Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. Her practice is as much about working with institutions as it is about creating and supporting sustainable artist-led culture. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially-engaged art that has been active since 2007 and hosted conferences in two countries at locations including the Queens Museum in New York.  In her early-morning presentation, she highlighted three artists who are also community activists, people who have used creative approaches to address serious challenges in their neighborhoods with projects such as restoring row houses to safe, habitable homes that had become drug-infested death traps.

Other featured speakers at the Symposium included Ellen Elmes, a retired college art instructor who has painted twenty-five plus murals in several different states that celebrate community. Another presenter was Hope Hilton, an Athens-based artist, educator, designer, and writer who works with communities and students of all ages to inspire and facilitate a sense of place, history, and agency.  Broderick Flanigan is a freelance artist in Athens who is a community activist and the founder of Flanigan’s Portrait Studios.  The event was moderated by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College and author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World.  All of the presenters at this Symposium are devoting significant time and energy in their capacity as artists to promote, encourage, and facilitate positive social change.

Symposium logo
Symposium logo

Throughout her career as a writer and humanitarian, Lillian Smith examined how the arts engage people around issues of social injustice, segregation, and isolation.  Art was her passion, and she held a deep conviction that the artist has a responsibility to engage her audience in the conflicts and struggles of her generation, an opinion not necessarily shared by the students of The New Criticism movement, the literary theory that dominated the mid-20th century.  Smith emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation laws and practices.

During the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, when lynching, convict labor, and Jim Crow laws were still casting dark shadows across the South and African-Americans all over the country were pleading for justice and equality, there were plenty of elected officials and prominent leaders who were endorsing a patient, moderate approach in addressing the crisis.  Lillian Smith was not one of them. In a speech prepared for the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change on the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Lillian Smith wrote these words:  “You have done many good things, down here in Montgomery.  But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge.  The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist?  The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”

In a powerful essay titled “The Creative Process” written in 1962, James Baldwin made the following observation:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

There can be little doubt that, through her novels and nonfiction works, Lillian Smith was indeed trying “to make the world a more human dwelling place.”  Does art exist in a vacuum?  Should the artist seek to be completely separated from society, unattached and oblivious to the pressing social issues of the day?  The answers to those questions can be debated over and over again with no real resolution.  What is clear, however, is that art has the mysterious power to transform minds and emotions, to spark imagination, to inspire collaboration, and to motivate people to act.  Once the work is done and that power is unleashed, the artist has very little control over the ultimate impact of what she has created.  Perhaps recognizing that indisputable truth is where the responsibility of the artist begins.

“To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; the place where fantasy and earthly things are metamorphosed into a work of art . . . this is what man’s journey is about, I think.” –Lillian Smith, The Journey

Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting.

.

The Independent Bookstore: A Reader’s Oasis

The last Saturday in April is designated as Independent Bookstore Day, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, bookstore sales increased 2.5 percent from 2014 to 2015. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent sellers, reported 1,712 member stores in 2015, up from 1,401 in 2009.  These figures should put to rest the notion that books made of paper are soon to be replaced by electronic forms.  I realize there are plenty of readers who still hold great affection for traditional books — the paper kind.  There are scholars who have argued that reading physical books is a completely different experience than reading eBooks.  Most bookstore owners would probably agree.  Both formats seem to be doing fine, which should be good news to all readers.

Once a medium of information is introduced, it tends to survive no matter what other “new and improved” medium follows.  Some platforms may become obsolete (stone tablets, 8-track tapes, Beta videotape, etc.), but in general, new forms of information delivery don’t dispatch previous ones.  The written word has never stopped people from telling stories or stage acting. Motion pictures certainly didn’t do away with reading.  Radio didn’t destroy movies, television didn’t stop radio broadcasts, and the availability of videos hasn’t destroyed the television industry.  One could argue that computers have only facilitated many of these delivery methods rather than replacing them.  More importantly, none of these has killed the book, regardless of how we decide to read.

There is no question that the last few decades have been tough for small, independent bookstores.  Many of the ones that survived the advent of the mega-bookstores were finally wiped out by the online providers.  Electronic books no doubt delivered another crushing blow to bookstores, but the truly creative entrepreneurs figured out a way to stay relevant and competitive as a niche market.  One approach is to create a salon-type atmosphere that welcomes the reading shopper and provides a sanctuary, a respite from the fast-paced grid that characterizes so much of our society.  Nicole Sullivan, owner of Denver’s BookBar, was quoted in a recent article in The Denver Post.  “As it gets harder for brick-and-mortar businesses, hybrid businesses become more important,” Sullivan said. “It’s either get it fast and cheap online, or come into a store and have an experience. That’s what indies have to offer, a more personalized experience and that sense of community we’ve lost a lot of over the years.”

I have fully accepted the convenience of eBooks and have been an Amazon Kindle customer since the first year they came on the market.  I’m sure some of my library colleagues were horrified by the introduction of virtual books, but now eBooks are a big part of library holdings.  For fiction and other books that rely very little on illustrations or graphics, I actually prefer eBooks.  However, I treasure the large, hardbound gardening, history, and travel books that fill our shelves at home.  Not even iPads or desktops are acceptable for those titles for me.  I also prefer to browse through slick-paper magazines by physically turning pages, not touching a screen.  Because we live in a rural area, the chances of an independent bookstore surviving for very long are slim, so we order many of our books online.  We also go to the web to shop for household goods, clothes, and equipment.  But, when we travel to places like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, I almost always make a point to visit an independent bookstore.  To me they all seem to have their own “personality” that makes them unique.  If a book is the door that leads to imagination, then a bookstore is a hallway with almost endless possibilities.

Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, GA
Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, GA

Restoring My Soul

Sometime in February while I was scrolling through Facebook, someone posted a short video of himself playing his guitar.  In the message that accompanied the video, he mentioned that he was on a solo retreat in a cabin.  It had never occurred to me until then that a weekend of solitude and reflection could be so attractive.  A wise scholar and friend recently observed that, like she and her husband, my wife and I are “well married.”  It’s a phrase that we had not used before but now fully embrace.  We are indeed well married.  We have been together nine years and married for eight of them.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We like working at the same place, coming home for lunch together and having dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant.  We love to travel; we love to hike; we love working on projects; we enjoy our time at home, especially our evenings and weekends.  My wife has some friends and colleagues that she will occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and sometimes she makes it an overnight trip.  It is good and healthy for her to stay connected to these people because they have been so important in her life and her profession.  Sadly, there are more such connections in other parts of the country where she has previously lived, and it is difficult to see them regularly, but she makes an effort to do so when possible.

I have a good friend who lives not too far away from us – someone that I have been close to for over twenty years now.  We see each other about once a year or so, and I enjoy catching up with him.  We also stay in touch by phone, texts, and Facebook.  I don’t have as many good friends as my wife does, that is, people I have maintained a close relationship with through the years.  As gregarious as I probably appear to colleagues and acquaintances, the truth is I am a bit shy around people I don’t know, unless I am speaking to groups professionally or performing music.  I was in a band for ten years, so I’m sure there are folks who would scoff at the idea of my being bashful in any shape or form.  There are times, and only for brief periods, when I truly cherish being alone.

When I saw that Facebook video post, I began to think about what it would be like to have a solo weekend, something I have not done in decades.  I started thinking about what I would do for 36-48 hours away from my bride, my sons, my job, our home – away from anyone I know.  I could read, write, study, play music, think . . . and think some more.  I was a bit nervous about pitching this idea to my wife, because the last thing I wanted her to think was that I don’t adore her company.  This woman who clearly loves me unconditionally thought the idea was marvelous and whole-heartedly supported my decision to find a cabin in the mountains for an early spring mini-sabbatical.  Now, as I write this blog entry, it is Saturday afternoon.  I am looking out the window of my retreat cabin in the high country of North Carolina less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, checked in with the inn keeper in town, drove a few miles to my cabin, settled in quickly, poured a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and headed to the front lawn to relax in a comfortable chair and take in the view.  I followed the inn keeper’s recommendation for dinner at a local bistro, which was an excellent choice. I bought just enough provisions at the grocery store to keep me satisfied for 24 hours, and then I came back to the cabin and sipped more whiskey.  A storm came through last night and dusted the surrounding hillsides with snow, just enough to make it pretty but not so much to make it a nuisance.  I got up a little before 8:00, put on the coffee, and started reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I read many years ago and have mostly forgotten.  I have been reading news and op-ed pieces from the New York Times.  I have had a fire in the fireplace for the last couple of hours, and I have played songs on my guitar that I haven’t attempted in years.  I don’t intend to leave the cabin until heading out for dinner this evening.  I am enjoying a full earth’s rotation of intense relaxation.

Relaxing by the fire
Relaxing by the fire

Just now, as I sat down to reflect on this opportunity and record it, I was reminded with great humility and appreciation of just how fortunate I am.  When people from my past ask me if I’m happy, I usually reply, “I’m the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.”  I am lucky to have a wife who ignores my inadequacies, my rough edges, my occasional crudity, and loves me with a devotion that is almost frightening.  It is also a gift to love her more than I have ever loved another woman.  I am lucky that my sons seem to be stable and healthy in spite of great tragedy and loss they have endured.  I am lucky to have extended family who may not always understand me and perhaps even worry about me, but who also love me deeply and take joy in my happiness. I am lucky to have been raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged creativity, loved to laugh, believed in the virtue of hard work, and exhibited rock-solid faith in their God and their church.  While not having the advantages afforded by a higher formal education, my parents made the necessary sacrifices to ensure that I received the advanced degrees I desired and that have opened up so many possibilities for me through the years.  I have had some incredibly inspiring teachers.

I have lived almost 56 years with few significant health challenges.  I have some modest talents and skills that are fulfilling to me and that I have been able to share with others.  My wife and I have a standard of living that is not enjoyed by a large majority of the world’s population.  We are grateful, even though we know our generosity does not extend as far as it should.  My career path has presented me with so many memorable encounters and experiences, and I know how rare that privilege is.  Lastly, we have the resources that make it possible for me to rent a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to be self-indulgent for a weekend and to contemplate the precious gift of a good life that I’m sure I don’t deserve but for which I am eternally grateful.  And to my bride, the love of my life: thank you for giving me this place and time.

A Writer By Any Other Name

One of the most gifted short story writers of the 20th century has a name that is rather unusual, although as a tribute to her talent, it is not as uncommon as it was during her lifetime.  There is a growing population of women, most under the age of thirty I would imagine, with the first name Flannery.  Those who are familiar with the life of the famous Georgia writer know that “Flannery” was a family surname and her middle name.  Her full name was Mary Flannery O’Connor.  However, when she went away to graduate school and eventually enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, she decided to drop her first name and began signing all her work simply as “Flannery.”   Further, she requested that friends, relatives, and even her own mother refrain from calling her Mary Flannery, the double-name style that was so typical of women in the early to mid-20th century in the American South.  From that point on, she would be Flannery O’Connor.

It is impossible to know how much thought or even strategy went into Flannery O’Connor’s decision to abandon her first name.  Considering that she was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was a dutiful daughter of the Church, it would not have been a choice made lightly or carelessly.  Indeed, someone so committed to the faith would need a very good reason to drop the name of the mother of Christ, especially considering that she was adopting a much more masculine forename or Christian name — the irony is obvious.  Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, resisted for a while but finally gave in to her daughter’s demands.  Years later, O’Connor claimed that she made the name change primarily for the sake of her career as a writer.  She explained to friends that no one would want to read anything written by someone named Mary O’Connor, which to her sounded like the name of an Irish wash woman.

On second thought, readers of O’Connor know that she was incredibly deliberate in her craft as a writer.  By the time O’Connor hands us a story, there is not a single word or mark of punctuation left on the page that doesn’t need to be there.  Those steel blue eyes served as windows into a brilliant mind with a razor-sharp wit.  Flannery O’Connor had wanted to be a writer from a very early age.  As a child, she wrote stories, illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession.

I am convinced that when O’Connor began writing in Iowa in the mid-1940s, she also started to envision herself as a successful author.  Knowing that she would soon be sending manuscripts off to prospective agents and publishers, she no doubt understood her disadvantage of being a female who wanted to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession.  To avoid having her manuscripts ignored or trashed immediately, she needed for editors to think they were reading the work of a man, and a name like Flannery gave her that edge.  Certainly the content of her fiction would not have given her gender away!  The strategy worked.  Letters she received from editors in response to her early submissions were addressed “Dear Mr. O’Connor.”  One early editor, upon learning O’Connor’s identity, still doubted that the stories were written by a woman at all.

Beyond the androgyny factor, a name like Flannery O’Connor gave the writer another distinct advantage, one that is often fabricated now by entertainers from a multitude of genres.  Having an unusual name goes a long way toward establishing memorable identity.  After all, how many writers do you know named Twain?  Poe?  Steinbeck?  Faulkner?  Of course, those are last names, and isn’t it amazing how often readers don’t refer to O’Connor by her more common last name, but by her iconic first name?  Fast forward to the age of pop culture.  It isn’t difficult to remember names like Cher, Sting, Madonna, Eminem, T-Pain, or Beyonce.  Who needs a last name?  Atypical works, and it works well.

Flannery O’Connor died at the young age of 39 from complications of lupus, the disease that had taken her father’s life when she was only 15.  Her mother outlived her by about 30 years.  I don’t know if O’Connor chose the wording for her tombstone or not.  Perhaps Regina O’Connor had the last word with her only child this time.  Maybe the inscription was dictated by the custom of the Church, the community, or family tradition. Whatever the case may be, O’Connor is laid to rest with her full name restored as a memorial to a literary genius.  Those of us who admire her work will always respect her wishes and remember her as Flannery O’Connor.  A writer by any other name is, well, someone else entirely.

Flannery O'Connor's grave
Flannery O’Connor’s grave

The Reading Spot

If you are an avid reader, then you most likely have a favorite place to read.  I have certainly had some nice ones over the decades: a legless chair on the floor in the corner of my room as a teen, a library study room in college, an office in my first house, a recliner in my second house, a comfy chair in the loft overlooking the lake in the first house with my wife, and now an even more comfortable chair in our living room where I can watch the birds feeding with the forest as a backdrop.  There are loads of Pinterest pages devoted to reading spots, blogs that explore their enchantment, and even an Annual Unusual Reading Spot Contest .

Designating a space for reading gives the activity a certain reverence, doesn’t it?  Not that we can’t do something else in that space, but we associate it with the pleasure of being immersed in someone else’s imagination (and our own), research, or advice.  The reading spot becomes a type of sanctuary, where the reader deliberately separates herself from her surroundings, and when she leaves the spot, she is not the same ever again.  Alice is indeed in Wonderland.

I also, through the decades, have developed the habit of rising as early as I can to read. That is to say, I get up as early as I can drag out of bed with enough sleep to function for the day.  I am most alert early in the morning and can focus on the words.  A cup of coffee and a book are the most perfect early-morning companions, aside from my wife, that I can imagine.

A Passing Literary Glance

The Georgia Writers’ Association held its 1955 annual meeting in Atlanta in early December.  On this occasion the Association honored Lillian Smith (social justice advocate and author of the controversial works Strange Fruit, Killers of the Dream, and The Journey) as the winner of the Georgia Writers’ Award for the best book of nonfiction with the most literary value written by a Georgian in 1954.  She felt the award was overdue but was proud at any rate that the Association exhibited the courage to recognize her importance as an artist.  Smith was terribly amused by the annual meeting – a sentiment I can almost imagine would have been shared by another Georgia writer named Flannery O’Connor who was also in attendance.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith was not invited to speak at the award ceremony; however, after meeting her and talking with her, the organizers decided to ask her to give an impromptu speech the next day, which she did.  Afterwards, an elderly woman in the audience came up to compliment the writer on how sweet and well-bred she was, exclaiming that Lillian Smith must have had the best intentions in the world, regardless of what she may have written in her books.  On the previous day, Flannery O’Connor delivered a luncheon address to this convention titled “Some Problems of the Southern Writer.”  Lillian Smith was at the luncheon, and this is what she had to say about O’Connor’s presentation:

Flannery’s talk was one of the funniest things I ever listened to.  Do you know – I don’t believe she had the vaguest notion how she shocked the crowd.  She told em off; told Georgia off; told the South off; told would-be writers off. . . . The stuffed shirts and the would-be writers (the place was full of them) began listening smilingly because they had heard she was “literary” and “talented” and nothing she wrote threatened anybody, certainly not on the conscious levels of their life.  But after about two paragraphs they realized that a nice little snake was sinking her fangs deep into their complacency and they began to look at each other and shake their coiffured heads and whisper, “Well . . . .what do you know . . .”
(all quotations from How Am I To Be Heard: Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney; The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993)

Smith mentioned O’Connor’s presentation in a letter to her editor at Viking Press, Denver Lindley, who also served as an editor for Flannery O’Connor.  There was a tone of bitterness, if not irritation, when Smith wrote that “these young writers can now say things out loud without any realization, actually, of how one or two of us down in the South opened the way for them.”

As far as I know, this was the only time that Lillian Smith and Flannery O’Connor were in the same room together, although they lived only 150 miles apart.  O’Connor confided to her friend Cecil Dawkins that, although she considered Lillian Smith to be a nice person, O’Connor was not impressed with Smith’s writing.  In a letter dated December 2, 1955, to Lon and Fanny Cheney, Flannery O’Connor stated that, at the Association meeting, Lillian Smith invited her for a visit to her home, but O’Connor declined.  In her essay titled “Flannery O’Connor and Lillian Smith: A Missed Opportunity,” published in the 2007 issue of the Flannery O’Connor Review, Virginia Wray observes that O’Connor’s brief remarks about her fellow Georgia writer in this letter carry with them a tone of sarcastic dismissal.  I know those who have studied O’Connor’s life are shocked by this revelation!  It’s no secret that O’Connor reserved some of her most acidic comments for other writers, especially those close to home.  O’Connor’s comments about Smith were rather tame by comparison.

Lillian Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality.  The last book published before her death came out in 1964, the year that Flannery O’Connor died; however, she continued to contribute to periodicals and newspapers until her own death on September 28, 1966.  One of the pieces Lillian Smith wrote for publication the year before she died was a book review for the Chicago Tribune.  The title of the review was “With a Wry Smile Hovering Over All.”  As fate would have it, Lillian Smith would get the proverbial last word in this evaluation of Flannery O’Connor’s second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge.  It is worth noting that Smith and O’Connor had both developed an admiration for Teilhard de Chardin, although Smith claimed that, in the title story of the collection, O’Connor had twisted the Jesuit priest’s “profound and poetic vision into something small enough for her to smile at wryly.”  With regard to the other stories in the collection, Smith perceived that the author’s point of view lacked compassion and empathy, which should make us all wonder if she read O’Connor’s first collection of short stories.  Still, Lillian Smith considered O’Connor to be a highly gifted writer and described the title story as a masterpiece, where every line counts, every word.  No fan of O’Connor’s work could disagree with that assessment.

A Little Less Anonymity

When I started this blog back in April, I had some misguided notion that I should keep my identity hidden, primarily because I thought that some of the future content would be personal or sensitive, and I feared offending my family, friends, and associates.  What I have come to discover is just how difficult it is to write about my own experiences and opinions while remaining completely anonymous.  There are significant stories and memories that I have had to avoid to stay in hiding.  No more I tell you!

I still prefer not posting my personal information in my profile; however, the stories I tell will definitely reveal my identity to people whom I have encountered over the last few decades.  In so doing, I am accepting a few restrictions: some stories will be better left untold, and I will have to be a bit sensitive and careful in the memories I do elect to share.  Yes, I admit that all of this sounds a tad melodramatic and narcissistic — my arrogance in thinking that this blog will reach such a wide audience that even friends and acquaintances will someday be following my posts.   Even so, getting a little more personal with the details will make for a better journal and, I hope, more engaging narratives.