A View of Flannery O’Connor’s Woods

(Based on a lecture presented at “Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery O’Connor Conference,” at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, April 20-22, 2009)

American author Flannery O’Connor completed the short story “A View of the Woods” in September 1956, three years after the major electrical utility company in Georgia finished construction of a dam on the Oconee River, which winds it way south through Baldwin County, Georgia, and cuts a path just east of downtown Milledgeville. There are interesting similarities between the circumstances in O’Connor’s short story and the developments that were taking place in the Milledgeville area where O’Connor was living when she wrote it. To some degree, O’Connor’s story envisions the rapid commercial and residential development that would eventually threaten the landscape of Andalusia, the family farm operated as a dairy in the 1950s by O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor.

Flannery O’Connor moved back to Milledgeville in 1951 from Connecticut, where she had been living with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald since September 1949. Andalusia is located directly on the north-south highway passing through Milledgeville, which was officially designated U.S. Highway 441 in December 1948. The dam on the nearby Oconee River created Lake Sinclair, covering over fifty square miles with approximately six hundred miles of shoreline in three different counties. Within a short time, residential development began to claim sections of the lake’s shoreline as families started investing in weekend cabins at first, followed by increasingly lavish permanent homes. Greater interest in lake recreation brought the construction of marinas, boat ramps, fishing supply stores, camping facilities, and parks. Highway 441 was the major artery connecting the town of Milledgeville with the growing lake community and points farther north with larger highways leading to the state’s capital, Atlanta.

Lake Sinclair
Lake Sinclair

Government officials and a good portion of the electorate across the rural American countryside in the 1950s and 60s were ravenous to “catch up” with the big cities and attract jobs, build infrastructure, and provide new and improved services to their communities. Milledgeville was no exception, and the creation of Lake Sinclair paved the way. Textile manufacturing plants began to move in during the late 1940s when construction of the dam was underway; the first drive-in theater opened in 1950; the local telephone company was purchased by an outside conglomerate to expand service in 1957, the year that “A View of the Woods” was published. In that same year, Milledgeville experienced its first modern expansion of the city limits, moving the northern boundary just a mile from the driveway to Andalusia.

Beginning in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story, the reader is presented with circumstances that mirror Milledgeville’s mid-twentieth-century progress. After explaining the family dynamics that will ultimately drive the story to its shocking conclusion, the narrator provides details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Fortune’s windfall. The power company’s dam floods much of the countryside, providing Mr. Fortune with lakefront property. He knows there will soon be commercial development, creating even greater demand for his land.

Mr. Fortune’s idea of improvement includes paved highways filled with new-model automobiles and flanked by supermarkets, gas stations, motels, and a drive-in theater. His vision is inspired by the success of a nearby entrepreneur identified as Tilman, whose very name invokes an inherent conflict in the story between plowing the land and manning the till or the cash box. Tilman’s eclectic country store is complete with a barbeque pit and is reminiscent of many establishments that populated rural highways in the United States sixty years ago, and in some areas, still exist today. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor included a similar roadside establishment called The Tower, where Red Sammy Butts sold his famous barbeque in a combination gas station and dance hall.

In her typical fashion, O’Connor offers marvelous and visually descriptive language to profile her characters and to punctuate their traits. Tilman’s evil nature is clearly identified with an appearance that invokes mythological satanic images. Mr. Fortune’s deal with Tilman to sell the lawn that provides his daughter’s family with a view of the woods is an obvious reference to Faust’s pact with the devil from the classic German legend, an observation made in early critical works on O’Connor by Frederick Asals and other scholars. Like a demon being promptly transported back to hell after shaking Mr. Fortune’s hand on the transaction, Tilman slouches back under the counter.

O’Connor presents Mr. Fortune as an ambitious landowner, driven by pride and domination, whose hunger for progress and personal acclaim blinds him to the pure beauty of the natural world. Mr. Fortune’s canvas of the future is painted with deception, revenge, and even violence. The story pairs reckless commercial progress with greed and avarice, contrasting the irresponsible destruction of natural resources to the stewardship of preserving the rural landscape. In describing the disintegration of a cow pasture into a red-clay pit by the heavy machinery in the beginning of the story, O’Connor uses the words “disembodied,” “nausea,” and “revulsion,” analogous of an assault by a deadly disease or virus. Later in the narrative, Mr. Fortune envisions the woods and trees being drenched in blood from the wounded, barely visible sun setting behind them, the mysterious sacramental image that O’Connor repeated many times in her fiction.

The critical literature provides an abundance of commentary on the personification of landscape and the role of nature in O’Connor’s fiction, from Carter Martin to Christine Flanagan. We recognize that Mr. Fortune’s lack of apprehension is manifested in his inability to appreciate the mysteries of creation that literally surround him. The woods in this story provide a backdrop for a small sanctuary, “the lawn,” where the Pitts children can play in safety, a respite from the otherwise contentious and even threatening environment that is ever present. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester dated December 28, 1956, O’Connor made the analogy conclusively when she compared the woods to Christ. They seem to walk on water and are surrounded by light. O’Connor associates the forest with purity.

Mr. Fortune’s obsession with obliterating the pastoral setting and beginning construction of his commercial empire is a rejection of purity and an abuse of innocence, an evil intention that is also reflected in his disintegrating relationship with his granddaughter, Mary Fortune. He considers the child his protégé, or even a prized possession; however, his ambition goes too far when he announces his plans to destroy the lawn. As the tension grows to hostility between Mr. Fortune and the child, she calls him the “Whore of Babylon,” and indeed he has become a prostitute by selling off the family property. After all, he is “pure Fortune.” When the child becomes an obstruction to his strategic plans, his fixation turns to rage and results in the horrible murder of his granddaughter.  The old man’s damnation is sealed.

To translate O’Connor’s theme in this short story as a summary condemnation on all commercial development would be a careless overstatement. Mr. Fortune’s daughter and son-in-law are by no means portrayed as altruistic or even humane. At the same time, the old man’s intentional conversion of land and trees to pavement and buildings, with total disregard to the desires of his family, characterizes him as irresponsible, if not evil. His hasty decisions and actions are illustrative of many mid-twentieth century landowners in America who sold property that had been in their families for several generations, placing their birthrights in the hands of developers who were delighted to build and pave over the woods and fields.

Many Americans, including elected officials, are starting to understand that unrestricted and mostly unregulated urban expansion has led to the destruction of the natural landscape that characterized rural America: the lawn where we play, where we graze our calves, and where we look at the woods from the porch, in Mary Fortune’s words. It is only in recent years that government agencies have started to encourage landowners to preserve their holdings, even providing tax incentives to keep land undeveloped.

Flannery O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, purchased the Andalusia property in the early 1930s and later acquired more land adjacent to the farm, which remained undeveloped for many years as a haven for wildlife. Such was not the case for so much of the land adjacent to Dr. Cline’s property. Perhaps it wasn’t O’Connor’s intention, but her story ends up being a prediction of the disappearance of the countryside that once surrounded Andalusia. Her forecast came true to some degree, with the eventual expansion of Highway 441 that carved away two acres of the east boundary of the family farm. The encroaching commercial development that followed was inevitable, including the Milledgeville Mall, which was constructed a mile south of Andalusia only eight years after O’Connor’s death. The next two decades would see the proliferation of fast-food and franchise restaurants, retailers, motels, convenience stores, car dealerships, nightclubs, and the king of capitalism, Walmart. The concentration of this rapid growth was located within a two-mile radius of Andalusia.

The Woods of Andalusia
The Woods of Andalusia

While opinions vary widely on what constitutes good stewardship of the land and protection of the environment, Andalusia’s caretakers have been able to take advantage of urban encroachment while still providing a view of the woods for the many visitors who have made their way to the property since it opened to the public in 2003. Although Milledgeville is in a very rural area of the state, Andalusia’s location on a U.S. highway brings travelers right to the driveway. Most American tourists reach their destinations in automobiles, and when they arrive, most of them expect accommodation and comfort. Abundant businesses within one mile of Andalusia’s entrance are more than capable of meeting the basic needs of travelers, including fuel, food, lodging, and entertainment. However, the farm structures of Andalusia are positioned a few hundred yards from the highway with a buffer of trees on all sides. This limited isolation allows visitors to make their way up the driveway to the main house, where their imagination can easily transport them back in time to 1964, as if Flannery O’Connor had just departed Andalusia for the last time.

Certainly, Andalusia is off the beaten path, and O’Connor’s readers who truly desire to experience the countryside that inspired some of her best fiction must leave the city and the interstate highways. The rewards for making that departure are certainly worth the effort. The current owner of Andalusia is Georgia College, the liberal arts institution in Milledgeville descended from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women. I am hopeful and encouraged that the College is committed to preserving the view of the woods at this internationally significant landmark, a proper memorial to such a gifted writer.

Andalusia pond and main house
Andalusia pond and main house

So Many Books, So Little Time

The title of this post is familiar to reading enthusiasts. We have seen it on mugs, posters, social media memes, etc. I once had a tee-shirt with the slogan printed in multiple colors on navy blue fabric. Serving as a professional librarian for fifteen years of my career, peddling books was my trade. Librarians everywhere through the years have repeatedly attempted unsuccessfully to dispel a popular myth about the profession: librarians spend all their time reading. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no more time to devote to reading than most other professionals. We spend our time, talents, and energy making sure that our patrons have what they want to read. Libraries have certainly undergone major changes in recent decades, but the central mission of making information available to users is still the same as it was when the Library at Alexandria was established over 2,000 years ago.

I was fortunate to have family members who read to me as a small child and instilled within me an appreciation for books. We had a set of the World Book Encyclopedia even before I started school, and as I learned to read, I spent an increasing number of hours browsing through the volumes. In elementary school, my teachers appointed me as a student library assistant, which probably gave me an early understanding of the importance of libraries.  I was turned on to reading on my own with our Weekly Reader elementary magazines in school. I went through the comic book phase that most young boys did during the 1960s but eventually moved on to science fiction novels as I moved into adolescence. The first lengthy novel I can remember reading in high school was Jaws by Peter Benchley, published in 1974. From that point on, I began to move away from science fiction and toward mainstream fiction. I am forever thankful to my mother for driving me to the central branch of the public library and allowing me to spend so much time perusing the shelves for the next reading adventure.

In addition to three wonderful English teachers in high school, I had several professors in college who helped me develop a thirst for literature. My undergraduate degree was in English, and after going on to get an MA in history, I started my first full-time job in a public library. A few years later, I earned a degree in librarianship. I continued to read classics in literature while also adding works by contemporary writers of serious fiction, with the occasional nonfiction book thrown in as well. It was during this period of my life that I made a conscious decision to devote most of my valuable reading time with either literary classics or contemporary award-winning books. I am willing to spend two or three hours watching a movie just for fun, but typically I want more than just entertainment when committing over ten hours to a book. The major exceptions to this rule are audiobooks and titles associated with my profession, gardening, religion, and science.

As is true with so many aspects of our lives, modern technology has had a tremendous impact on the practice of reading. From the early experiments with electronic books in the 1970s to the e-readers of today, the definition of the book is constantly evolving. My wife bought my first Kindle in 2008, and as much as I love bound pages of print, I was enamored with the device from the moment I downloaded a title, which was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. To read a review of a new book and have it in my hands ready to read in less than 60 seconds is miraculous to me. Yes, there are some disadvantages to e-readers, but to my way of thinking, the benefits far outweigh the shortcomings. For readers who also enjoy traveling, the ability to carry multiple books in the palm of your hand is just about perfect. I am on my fourth Kindle so far.

Book collection
Book collection

In 2010, a dear friend introduced me to Goodreads, my first social media site for readers. To date I have added to my profile 559 books completed over my lifetime, 190 of those since I joined the site. Goodreads is a web community that allows members to share with Friends what they are reading, look at book descriptions, read and write reviews, and see author’s profiles. The site boasts 80 million members worldwide. I primarily use Goodreads to track my own books and to write reviews of what I have read. I also share my reviews and recommendations on other social media sites, primarily Twitter.

I have never been ambitious enough nor had the attention span to have two books going at once — until last year, when I became an Audible subscriber. A subsidiary of Amazon, Audible is an online portal for purchasing, downloading, and listening to audiobooks. It allows customers to search for or browse a large collection of audiobooks, which they can buy using money or membership credits. Users can listen to downloaded titles on computers or mobile devices. I spend a significant amount of time driving, and my car is equipped to play audio files from my phone through its speakers. Now, while I am reading a book in print or on my Kindle at home, I am also listening to an audiobook when I am away from the house. With this new reading approach, I have drastically increased the number of books I am completing. From 2010 to 2017, I was averaging about fifteen books per year. In 2018 alone, I read or listened to 63 books.

According to Forbes magazine, there are anywhere from 600,000 to 1,000,000 books published in the United States each year. Only a small percentage of those will become best-sellers. A much smaller fraction will win the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry, such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Even with the expanded capacity provided by audiobooks, I struggle to keep up with reading each year what I consider the best books published that interest me. I have to pick and choose from the award-winners and highly-recommended titles, while working through classics from the past that I still haven’t read. This is a frustrating process for everyone who loves books, but it is a sweet dilemma that comes with the passion.

 

Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

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

What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage

Advanced communication is one of the achievements of human beings that sets us apart from the rest of the living world.  To paraphrase one of my most influential college professors: “Language is what separates us from dogs and cabbage.”  As humans, we have fairly sophisticated language skills that take the form of speaking, singing, gesturing, signing, etc.  But other members of the animal kingdom possess forms of these skills too, and some of them have surpassed our own capabilities.  What truly distinguishes us intellectually as a species is the higher brain function we have acquired, and I believe the best illustration of that gift is in written communication. The ability to pass along information from one person to another through writing was one of the hallmarks that transformed homo sapiens into civilized human beings and paved the way for rapid advancement.  Sadly, literacy is a privilege that is terribly under appreciated in this country, especially when we consider that 774 million adults around the world cannot read or write.  In the United States, most people over the age of fifteen can read and write at a very basic level, but we live in one of the most advanced countries in the world.  Shouldn’t we expect much more than just basic written communication skills?

Most of us know that, in order to write well, we must read — a lot.  To write better, we need to read more and read good writing (this is beginning to sound like a first-grade reader, in fact).  I think it is at this crucial point that we fail.  I am shining the light primarily on the United States, although this problem likely extends to a good portion of the developed countries around the world.  In this country, the masses don’t spend much time reading at all.  There are far too many other sources of information and entertainment available other than the written word.  I am not referring to the Internet necessarily, because there is plenty of writing, and even good writing, available on the Web.  Then again, the Web offers so many alternatives to writing also, which do present quite a distraction.  I am certainly not referring to e-books either, which in spite of their dubious reputation in the eyes of some traditionalists and obsessive bibliophiles, are another source of writing.

So now let’s narrow it down to the folks who DO like to read.  According to Pew Research Center, as of January 2014 some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year.  The typical American reads about five books a year, which isn’t extremely impressive, but at least they’re reading . . . something.  However, 24% of Americans don’t crack a book at all, and the number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.  Again, we have more distractions to pull us away from reading.  As the comedian John Caparulo says in one of his more ridiculous routines, “Books suck!  That’s why they invented movies.  Who the hell reads?”

Now, before the 76% of American readers starts to get too cocky, I will make one final disturbing observation, and it relates to Caparulo’s point.  Most Americans who read do so only for one purpose: to be entertained.  Before going further, let me say that reading should  be entertaining, but if reading is going to continue to raise us above the levels of dogs and cabbage, then what we read should do more than just entertain us.  It should change us, challenge us, move us, and sometimes even call us to action. This standard not only applies to nonfiction — it goes for novels, short stories, poetry, and drama.  The embarrassing truth is that far too many Americans judge the merit of a book by whether or not it has been made into a blockbuster movie. I would venture to say that the majority of people who went to see the movie The Color Purple when it came out in 1985 had not read the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Alice Walker, but after seeing the movie praised the book as a masterpiece.  One has to wonder if Gone with the Wind would still be the best-selling book of all time if it had not been made iconic by the motion picture that followed.

We have access through numerous vehicles to the world’s greatest works of literature — from ancient sacred texts to modern classics from various cultures.  Why would we waste what little time we have in this life on anything less precious?  Of course, I phrase that question knowing full well that I am guilty of seeking shallow entertainment all the time, but I have not forsaken the pursuit of fine literature in the process.  We can have both.  But, to spend a lifetime completely absent of serious writing seems to me such a tragic existence for a species with the mental capacity to appreciate it and pass it on to the next generation.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Reading is easily one of my favorite activities.  Outside of newspapers, magazines, and websites, I tend to read more novels than anything else.  I like the immersion experience and the sense of accomplishment after finishing a well-written novel.  However, I do enjoy nonfiction works, and I gravitate toward works on history, religion, and natural science.  I am also fascinated by human origins, evolution, and anthropology.  There are a few books I can recall that truly had a life-altering effect on my way of thinking.  One of those was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by the late Carl Sagan and co-authored by Ann Druyan.

First published in 1992, this book is an exploration of who we are and how human beings have been shaped by the development of the planet over millions of years.  The authors explore origins of traits central to our current predicament: sex and violence, love and altruism, hierarchy, consciousness, language, technology, and morality.  It is easily the best book on human origins and anthropology for the lay-reader that I have ever read. I’m sure some scholars in the field are still not fond of Sagan’s work, but he really did a good job of making science accessible and fascinating for the rest of us.  For that effort and accomplishment, I am grateful.