Newly opened to the public, Flannery O'Connor's Georgia farm provided ideas, characters, and scenes for much of her distinctive fiction.
"See that wide stitching on those drapes?" asked the helpful woman who approached me on the screened front porch as I stared into the room where Flannery O'Connor once slept and wrote. "That's Regina's stitching... Flannery's mother. She could sew tighter stitches, but remember, Regina was a very busy lady. She ran this farm."
After a few beats of conversation, I discovered that my "acoustic guide" to the vintage drapes was Mary Barbara Tate, the last living member of an every-other-Wednesday-night reading group that used to gather in the early 1960's on this porch in central Georgia to discuss everything from Kierkegaard to Kafka with their local author.
As we sat in a line of white rockers in the late afternoon heat, staring down a sloping front lawn and its numerous oak trees, Tate recalled, "In town in those days, she was simply referred to as Regina's daughter, Mary Flannery."
The occasion for our instant intimacy was the public opening of O'Connor's farm, which, as she described it in the spring of 1955 to Ben Griffith, a professor from a nearby women's college who was planning to visit, is "4 miles from Milledgeville on the road to Eatonton in a two-story white farm house. The place is called Andalusia. Any time in the afternoon would be fine."
This rural address, with its exotic moniker evoking Moorish Spain, was a 544-acre dairy farm 150 miles from Atlanta to which O'Connor retired with her mother, Regina, in 1951. Diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had taken her father's life, O'Connor decided to devote whatever time she had left to her work: for three hours every morning she would sit at her typewriter. When, later, she had to reduce the regimen to one, she told a friend, "I et up that one hour like it was filet mignon."
O'Connor's life over the next dozen years was a minor miracle. Secluded from literary society, in late 1952 she started turning out one signature story after another—"The River," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "The Displaced Person." In 1955 she published a short-story collection with one of the most famous titles in American literature, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, followed by the novel The Violent Bear It Away, and her posthumous collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. O'Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39.
With the opening of Andalusia in 2003, the refresh button has been pushed on the O'Connor legend. "We had 2,500 visitors last year," Craig Amason, former librarian and history instructor, and now the executive director of the Flannery O'Connor Andalusia Foundation, told me. "They express everything from idle curiosity to deep, poignant feeling." A bookstore in the rear of the main house offers a shelf of volumes by and about the author, calendars, bumper stickers, and a touch of light reliquary, including 75-cent vials labeled red georgia clay from andalusia, home of flannery o'connor.
Belying the notion of O'Connor as a recluse gazing out a single windowpane onto a quiet pasture, Andalusia is a large, teeming canvas of rolling hills divided into hay fields, pastures, man-made and naturally occurring ponds, and forests. The farm complex includes a dairy-cow barn, equipment shed, horse stable, pump house, milk-processing shed, water tower, the so-called Nail House in which the O'Connors parked their Chevrolet, and the cottage of Jack and Louise Hill—African-American workers whom O'Connor spied on affectionately in detailed letters to her friends.
On the 85-degree June afternoon I drove up the corrugated red-clay road to the 19th-century Plantation Plainstyle main house, the general buzz of visitors caused me to remember that O'Connor's letters—collected in The Habit of Being, and a perfect Baedeker for a literary tourist to Andalusia—are full of tales of comings and goings. Some high-profile: Katherine Anne Porter is caught in the crosshairs of O'Connor's sharp sights as she "plowed all over the yard behind me in her spike-heel shoes." Others concern the kind of people she called "folks": the telephone repairman who, when faced with the unfurled tail of one of her posse of peacocks, said only, "Never saw such long ugly legs."
On the Saturday of my visit, two women in matching straw hats rocked on the screened front porch. An artist from town arrived in a red pickup to complete his pastel sketch of the barn. A direct descendant of one of O'Connor's "burros," Flossie, swatted flies with a brush of her tail. The only exclamation point occurred when a prop plane flew overhead and a plainclothes fireman arrived with news of a possible brush fire in the outlying woods. Amason burst from the front screen door and rushed off to check.
Walks on the Andalusia grounds induce fantasies of traipsing through O'Connor's imagination. The distressed barn with its hayloft reached by a ladder is so obviously where Joy-Hulga lost her prosthetic leg to the seductive Bible salesman Manley Pointer in "Good Country People." Asbury must have caught the bug that felled him in "The Enduring Chill" from non-pasteurized milk produced in the red-clay-tile milk-processing shed. As Amason puts it, "Andalusia is more than just a place where an author wrote fiction. It was an inspiration for that fiction."
Eventually circling back to the main house with its red tin roof and dark blue shutters, I rejoined Mary Barbara Tate on the porch, and she led me through the rest of Andalusia, where I saw such antiques as the Hotpoint refrigerator O'Connor bought her mother in 1956 with proceeds from the TV rights to "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The soul of this house, of course, is O'Connor's bedroom, preserved with her aluminum crutches and a typewriter, just as she described it, set on a "large ugly brown desk."
Its opening puts Andalusia on a map that already includes at least 170 such secular shrines to authors marked by architecture styles and regional shadings as distinct as the voices of the writers who once inhabited them: James Thurber's unpretentious 1870's house in Columbus, Ohio; Hemingway's Spanish villa in Key West, Florida; Willa Cather's prairie home in Red Cloud, Nebraska; Edgar Allan Poe's row house in Baltimore; and, perhaps closest in spirit to Andalusia, Faulkner's Greek Revival mansion in Oxford, Mississippi.
O'Connor could be sly about her own nearby town, Milledgeville. As she wrote to her friend Cecil Dawkins in May 1957, "Milledgeville is a Bird Sanctuary, population 12,000 (people, not birds)." It was the capital of Georgia from 1807 until 1868, and its checkerboard pattern preserves a layered history in which O'Connor's family were significant players. The Cline-O'Connor-Florencourt House at 311 West Greene Street—her first home after her family's move to Milledgeville from Atlanta when she was a teenager—was briefly the governor's mansion, in 1838 and 1839, and is one of the town's poster antebellum houses, with Ionic columns hewn from timber and a distinctive widow's walk.
O'Connor attended mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, built in 1874 on land donated by her great-grandmother. Most afternoons, she and her mother would lunch at the Stetson-Sanford House tearoom (today owned by the Old Capital Museum Society), where O'Connor's favorite dessert was peppermint chiffon pie. She graduated from Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University), which preserves the writer's tall walnut bookcases and her personal library. O'Connor's flat gravestone in Memory Hill Cemetery is often covered with peacock feathers left by fans. To walk down South Liberty Street, a stretch kitty-corner to the O'Connor home that was spared torching by General Sherman during his brief occupation, is to experience a rare lineup of intact antebellum and Victorian mansions with pine columns, fanlight doorways, and trellised balconies.
O'Connor long resisted returning to Milledgeville, having planned a life as a New York writer. Yet she would write to Cecil Dawkins in 1957: "I stayed away from the time I was 20 until I was 25 with the notion that the life of my writing depended on my staying away. I would certainly have persisted in that delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my writing has been done here."
ANDALUSIA, 2628 Hwy. 441 N., Milledgeville, Ga.; 478/454-4029; www.andalusiafarm.org; Thursday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
BRAD GOOCH is writing a biography of Flannery O'Connor.