January 30, 2023
The sign on the west side of U.S. 441 on the outskirts of Milledgeville, Ga., is small, inconspicuous, bounded by woods. The driveway turns into a rough, potholed dirt road that winds a few hundred yards into a clearing in front of the house. The Andalusia farm was the home of novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor for the last 13 years of her life. She died in 1964 of lupus. She was 39.
Behind the house are a dozen outbuildings of the property, once the O’Connor dairy, then beef farm. One of them is a pen resembling a chicken coop, the home of two full-grown peacocks, a male and a female, who spread their gorgeous fan-like tails for us. O’Connor owned peacocks, ducks, ostriches, and other birds and cared for them through her years at the farm.
O’Connor’s father died of lupus when she was 16. Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, then moved to the farm with her daughter and managed it in the years the two women lived there. When Flannery died Regina moved into Milledgeville and turned the property over to a family member, who managed it until 2003. It then was donated to a foundation and in 2017 became the Andalusia Institute of Georgia College in Milledgeville.
O’Connor wrote two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, 31 short stories, and hundreds of book reviews, letters, and commentaries. She has become a kind of cult figure, her work branded as “Southern Gothic,” an ambiguous label loosely attached to dozens of writers mostly from the South whose work dwells on the violence, backwardness, or just strangeness associated with small Southern towns. A term often applied to the work of Southern Gothic writers, including O’Connor’s, is “grotesque,” referring to their settings, characters, and themes.
O’Connor wrote that “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” She writes about bizarre, ignorant, demented, and racist small-town farmers, businessmen, the physically handicapped (like herself), and others who commit or are victims of crime, indifference, and cruelty. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” she tells of an ignorant, racially bigoted woman whose son accompanies her on a bus ride and who is himself cruel and unfeeling towards his mother. Other stories describe her characters’ selfish, criminal, racist, or hypocritical behavior. Eventually—always—unfortunate consequences follow.
Some critics have suggested that O’Connor’s use of the n-word in her characters’ dialogue reveals her own racism. But then, she was a Southerner in the mid-twentieth century Deep South. She knew and understood, and wrote about her world.
Yet she finds in the horror and tragedy of her characters and settings an opening to grace. O’Connor wrestled with reconciling her devout Catholic faith with the ugliness of life. She was a scholar, an intellectual, but one who knew farmhands, small-town businessmen and political hacks, and both ignorant and well-educated racists, not only in the South, but in New York and elsewhere. As she struggled with the devastation and pain of her disease, she recognized faith as the path to enduring and overcoming human weakness.
We arrived at the house on a gray, oppressive afternoon. At first we saw one person, a young bespectacled woman in a long overcoat and wool hat, who somehow reminded me of O’Connor. She sat on the wide porch at the front of the house, waiting for the tour. She smiled and introduced herself, she was on a road trip from Minnesota. She had read all of O’Connor’s work.
A half-dozen others showed up for the tour, conducted by a young man employed by Georgia College, O’Connor’s alma mater when it was called Georgia State College for Women. He led us through the austerely furnished rooms, which have been preserved as Regina Cline O’Connor left them, down to the spices in the kitchen spice rack.
The arrangement of furniture in Flannery’s room shows the accommodation of her disease. The single bed is pushed against a desk, a chifforobe is within arm’s length. Here she worked on her writing three or four hours each day in the last years of her life. Two of Flannery’s 1950s-style dresses hang on forms, made for her by Regina, who sewed all her daughter’s clothes. Half of the room is empty, allowing her space to maneuver with her crutches, which lean against the bedframe.
We walked through the study and the great room to the wide front porch that faces a broad lawn and a grove of trees. Down a long slope is a pond, built to water the cows while Regina and Flannery lived there. The dairy and cattle business provided income but not wealth.
Milledgeville is a pretty town of about 17,000. Until 1868 it was the state capital. The college, now part of the University of Georgia system, counts some 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Besides O’Connor, the town claims as its own oldtime funnyman Oliver Hardy and, on the other extreme, is the birthplace of far-right Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green. Driving there is a wearying slog on winding local roads past woods, fundamentalist churches, and strip malls. The way out meant a couple of hours more zigzagging through deep-rural central Georgia.
The town, far off the beaten track, brings to life the beauty and moral complexity of O’Connor’s work, her pain, her stunning intellectual vigor, her perception of the role of faith in human existence. She is buried in town, but her life and work still inspires and touches visitors to Andalusia.