Sunday, February 21, 2010

Flannery O'Connor: Georgia On Her Mind

Magical Mystery and Manners Tour

Maybe I’m just whistling past the Guttenberg Graveyard, but I still like to read black ink on white paper. I am not completely computer illiterate, just a little semi-literate, but gadgets and gizmos and wading through the flotsam in the internet surf just harden my arteries. Entering “Literary Tours” in my browser, I located advertisements for Chaucer’s Canterbury ($3,950), Shakespeare’s Stratford ($6,895), and Proust’s Paris ($5,555). Mark Twain’s Mississippi must include some riverboat gambling ($5,495). Pilgrims for Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia ($1,800) can choose to arrive in Savannah or Atlanta, met by guides who speak the local language and know the roads. Luther’s Literary Landscapes beat that price by half and drove to the front door of my home in the Atlanta area. Luther picked me up in a silver station wagon, large and American.

“Looks comfortable,” I said.

I guessed that Luther had taken to heart a famous book jacket photo and had done his best to present himself after that image, with white beard and bulky turtleneck. As if reading my thought, he said, “Dans argent.” He opened the rear gate of the vehicle and pointed to the third-row seat, which faced backwards. “In case someone wants to take a lingering look at somewhere we’ve already been,” he said. “I call this my frizzled chicken seat, in honor of Flannery O’Connor’s pet chicken that she taught to walk backwards.” Luther guided my small bag to the floor and deftly set-up his laptop computer on the red velour seat. He popped in a shiny disk, pointed and clicked, and the computer screen time-traveled back to 1932. The Pathe newsreel titles identified the adorable, cute five-year-old girl as “Mary O’Connor of Savannah, Ga.”

We drove to a neighborhood not far away, the home of the second pilgrim for the trip, a high school English teacher at a private school with a reputation as a very progressive, anything goes, free-school. “Summerhill,” I said.

Luther said, “We’ll ask her.”

The teacher carried a backpack strapped to her shoulders. Her hair style would have been called a crew-cut on a man, its color peroxide blonde on anybody. Taking the backpack from her, Luther again played the computer disk of Mary O’Connor’s backwards walking chicken.

As the English teacher settled into the car, we introduced ourselves, and I responded to her name, “I lived in Brussels for two years on a beautiful square named for Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon. I believe she was born the daughter of the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire”.

“I am the middle daughter of U.S. Army Master Sergeant Guadelupe Luiz of Ft Benning, Ga.,” the teacher explained. “You can call me Maria.”

I pointed to the small electronic gadget above my ear. “My hearing is provided by a cochlear implant, a miracle but far from perfect, almost human,” I said. “You can call me Rayber, if you want.”
“Tarwater’s uncle, the schoolteacher,” she noted.

“The deaf guy,” I said.

“Why do you think Flannery O’Connor had a pet chicken?” the English teacher asked as we drove off. “Why not a puppy or a kitten, something you could cuddle and hug?”

“Her mother thought dogs and cats were dirty,” said Luther.

“Compared to a chicken?”

“My mother told me throughout my childhood that we could not afford canned tuna,” I said. “I believed the kid I envied in grade school must have been rich, because he brought a tuna-salad sandwich for lunch every day. My mother liked salmon, which she stocked regularly. Imagine my surprise when I grew up and began shopping for my own groceries only to discover canned tuna on sale at a fraction of the price of canned salmon.”

En route to age 90, my mother, without a second glance at a second-opinion, had journeyed as a faith healer, unlicensed counselor, and mystic, but when she arrived in the nursing home involuntary and incontinent, she converted to x-rated declarations of love for Nurse Mary, announcements ever after known in the family as, “Mother coming out of the closet on her walker.”

I entered this long sentence about my mother in the ZIRDLAND.COM ThatFirstLine Writing Contest. When the judges, whose terrestrial address is Oakton, Va., announced the results, I was a top-ten finalist. I congratulated the writer who won first prize and admitted her First Line was more subtle, with powerful aftershocks. First prize was $500. Second through tenth prize was not.

I sent my First Line to the contest just for the fun of it, although I certainly would have cashed the check. If you can’t stop yourself from writing something, nobody else will, but if you are going to let somebody else read it, pray for thick skin and an unbreakable funny bone. According to the rules of the contest, the First Line could be from an essay, novel, poem, anything. Only First Lines were submitted, so strictly speaking, how would anybody know if there was no second line, just a one-liner joke, or another clever opening line with no where to go. Every word of my First Line entry was, as Huck Finn says, “The truth, mostly.”

My mother lived most of her adult life in Atlanta, Georgia. She had five children, including a set of twins, one of whom died as an infant. I was the only boy and the youngest. After her children were grown, my Mother set out to see the world. She traveled coast-to-coast several times via Greyhound Ameripasses, visiting everywhere from the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, and Grand Rapids. She came to Europe, while I was living in Brussels, and we took her to Paris and Amsterdam. She was, as I pointed out in my First Line entry, a person insatiably interested in religion and spirituality. Throughout my childhood, she was a Christian Science Practitioner but was eventually excommunicated from the church due to insubordination, if not outright heresy. For a while, she studied the teachings of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She wanted me to buy her a ticket to Puna, India, to visit him there. This is probably the only thing my mother ever asked me for that I refused. At that time, I was living in Cairo, Egypt. I believed that my mother would be genuinely shocked and inconvenienced by the absence of automatic washers and dryers in Puna. Even more, I knew in my heart she had no intention of studying at the feet of The Master. She would want to point out to him a place, here and there, where he had not gotten it quite right. The followers of Rajneesh eventually founded a settlement in Antelope, Oregon, accessible by Greyhound. However, by then, my mother had moved on to other things, a fortunate circumstance for her, as the Antelope, Oregon, followers fell very seriously afoul of the U.S. judicial system.

My mother later was involved with a group of free thinkers who mixed health food and mysticism, and their headquarters was in the very part of Maryland where I was then living. They planned a retreat in the serene Maryland woodlands in small cabins for single occupants, several days long of fasting and solitary meditation. I drove her to the remote location and carried her bags inside the cabin for her. One of her bags was accidentally dropped upon entering the cabin, and out spilled dozens of jumbo packs of Snickers Bars, one of her lifelong favorites.

“OK,” Luther said. “So what was a good ole Georgia boy doing in places like Belgium, Egypt, and Maryland?”

“I was working for the U.S. Department of State,” I explained. After I graduated from college a long way north of Georgia, I felt like a stranger in all 50 states, so I figured I might as well go ahead and live in foreign countries.”

“Like Calhoun’s aunt said in The Partridge Festival, he’s homeless.”

“Like all of Flannery O’Connor’s college educated characters.”

“Welcome to the club,” Luther said.

Near Macon, we diverted toward Savannah, taking I-16 South, which goes east. We played “My Favorite Flannery O’Connor Character” as 20-questions. The first few pro forma questions narrowed down male, female, evangelist or prophet without honor in his own country shack, Catholic or protestant, farm dweller, traveler to or from the city, college graduate too old to live back home, suicide below the age of reason.

“Does your favorite character have some sort of physical handicap, mark, or blemish?”

“Don’t they all?”

“Careful, now. You’re talking about all my friends and relatives.”

“Does this character have a notable tattoo?”

“An artificial leg?”

“I think that’s ‘Checkmate’,” I conceded.

“Why would a girl be your favorite character?” the schoolteacher asked. “I was actually going to pick Hulga myself.”

“The first time I read Flannery O’Connor, I thought her snotty, college-educated characters laying around mocking the tenant farmhands and small-town southerners had too much of a superiority complex for my taste,” I explained. “When Hulga meets the Bible salesman, she gets what’s coming to her, and Flannery O’Connor wins me over.”

Luther said, “I think a large contingent of Flannery O’Connor admirers are Hulgas and Calhouns, suffering from a little too much education, maybe, too far from a Georgia hometown. There’s us, the academics, and the Catholic intellectuals.”

“I was born a Catholic,” the school teacher said. “I shouldn’t have told you that. Now I can’t select my favorite character from Temple of the Holy Ghost.”

“Flannery O’Connor says in her non-fiction writing that the grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard To Find and her killer ‘The Misfit’ experience ‘grace.’ What is she talking about? All I see is a babbling old lady and a blood-curdling psychopath.”

“Me, to,” said the school teacher. “When Flannery O’Conner says ‘grace’ and ‘mystery,’ I just think she is full of holy water. Her fiction writing speaks for itself. Whatever she or anybody else says about her writing is pretty much beside the point.”

Luther said, “I believe every work of art exists on three levels. May I call it a trinity? First is whatever is in the artist’s mind. Then comes whatever makes it onto paper, canvas, any artistic medium. Finally there’s how the work is experienced by a world full of people exposed to it.”

“I wouldn’t ask Van Gough exactly what he had in mind when he started painting some flowers. What matters is how I react to them.”

GALLEY PROOF, “a program about books,” broadcast by WRCA-TV Workshop, dramatized scenes from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and interviewed its author the week of the 1955 publication of her collection A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND. The actors wore cornpone costumes, and their acting was 1950’s stage style. Between scenes:

Q: Flannery, would you like to tell our audience what happens in that story?”
A: “No, I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like this. I think there’s only one-way to tell it, and that’s the way it is told in the story.”

…I can’t make any intelligent comments about this book any more than I could about the others; but I can register my sensations.
You suffer this like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t…..I don’t know if you intended any of this but it’s the feeling I had when the book was happening to me.-- 1960 letter to John Hawkes.

We picked up a bucket of fried chicken, biscuits, and cole slaw and a gallon of sweet tea at Metter, about 65 miles short of Savannah, and made a picnic at the Guido Gardens, three miles from the Interstate. We sat in the gazebo and enjoyed the peaceful view of the waterways, fountains, and bridges set in a nave of pines. After lunch we walked the paths of azaleas, camellias, and shrubs, including a featured shrub sculptured in the form of “The Sower,” theme of the Guido Evangelistic Association, owner of the gardens, who had also stationed tablets with the Ten Commandments and The Beatitudes, as well as Christ figures along the walkways.

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard of no more; whereas if you are a protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head. –1961 letter to Sister Mariella Gable.

“That was great,” I said as we drove away from Guido Gardens.

“Flannery O’Connor would not have missed it,” Luther said.


An hour later, we arrived in Savannah, where Flannery O’Connor lived until she was 13, in a townhouse at 207 E. Charlton St., overlooking Lafayette Square. Next door was the home of Cousin Katie Semmes. Cousin Katie was a generous and lifelong benefactor, Lafayette Square a genteel, almost old-Europe urban landscape. Newborn Mary Flannery O’Connor was named in honor of Mary Flannery, mother of Katie Semmes.

We climbed the stone stairs to the front door and entered. The living room of the O’Connor house is formal, with antiques and family photos on display. Toby Aldrich, resident manager of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home greeted us. He was a writer himself, and we exchanged Flannery O’Connor anecdotes and conclusions, as he showed us around: the books, school report cards, the backyard immortalized by Pathe Newsreel.

Flannery O’Connor referred rarely to her life in the Savannah house of her father Edward O’Connor, who also died young of lupus. For an autobiographical sketch in college, she described herself in Savannah as “pigeon-toed,” having a “receding chin,” and “exhibiting anti-social tendencies of an only child.” Her mother Regina O’Connor maintained a list of acceptable friends for little Mary Flannery, and admission to a regularly scheduled Saturday morning social event at 207 E. Charlton St. was restricted to that list. In the living room, the children listened to the radio broadcast of Let’s Pretend. Then Regina herded them through the dining room into the kitchen for refreshments.

Also on Lafayette Square was the parochial school and The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a short walk from home for an impressionable little girl. The parochial school is no longer there. The cathedral, once the congregation for more than half the Catholics in Georgia, still dominates the square. On the sidewalk in front of the steps of the cathedral, an artist had set up easels with paintings of the church from different angles, through the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, a concrete urban street-scene, and a spectacular view unavailable at street level but looking down at the spires, the God’s-eye view. One painting depicted a lady ascending the stairs to the cathedral on silver crutches. She wore a gray cloak spread wide at the bottom and layered with festoons of brown, gold, and blue peacock eyes.

“You must be a big fan of Flannery O’Connor,” I said to the street vendor.


The painting was signed, “Wyatt.”

“Are you Wyatt?”

“Nah, but I sell a lot of those for him.”

After supper, I borrowed Luther’s computer and collection of Flannery O’Connor video disks and took them to my hotel room. In addition to the Pathe Newsreel, he had movies and pirated downloads from the internet, including John Houston’s version of Wise Blood, the PBS production of “The Displaced Person,” an adaptation of “A Circle In The Fire” directed by Victor Nunez, and the 1955 WRCA-TV program featuring an interview. There were also some audio-only recordings, but I knew I would be lucky to get anything out of any videos without captions, even if I backed up parts and played them over and over.

In the interview, Flannery O’Connor wore black, or so it appeared in the grainy black and white tv recording. Her shirtwaist dress had short sleeves and pointed collars. She kept stiffly posed, her left hand resting on her right forearm. Today, all the authors appear on tv so glib and relaxed. In 1952, Flannery O’Connor did not even own a television set. She answered pretentious questions with a seriousness they did not deserve but a sardonic edge, from behind which a smile flashed, surprising herself and checking if the listener might smile back. It was a beautiful smile, explosive, deeply believable. I could imagine her sitting at her typewriter occasionally breaking into laughter, shamelessly cracking herself up.


Three hours drive from Savannah via I-16 West and U.S. 441 North took us to Milledgeville. The designers of Milledgeville intended it to be the capital of Georgia, with a broad quadrangle of government buildings, including a Governor’s Mansion, all of which is now part of the college campus that dominates the town. Before the Governor’s Mansion was completed, the large white columned house next door on Greene St. served temporarily as the residence for the Governor. The Green St. temporary Governor’s Mansion a few generations later became the family home of Flannery O‘Connor‘s mother Regina Cline. When the O’Connors moved from Savannah to Atlanta in 1938, Flannery was 13. The adjustment was not successful, and before long Regina and Flannery took up residence in the house on Greene St. in Milledgeville. Edward O’Connor became increasingly incapacitated with lupus, then died still young. Unmarried aunts and her widowed mother lived at the Greene St. house while Flannery O’Connor attended high school and college virtually in the backyard. There were no other children in the house, except in summertime. First cousins Margaret, Louise, Catherine, and Francis Florencourt, visited Milledgeville from Massachusetts every summer, brought by their mother, Agnes, Regina’s sister. Flannery O’Connor was an only child in an old-fashioned Catholic family, extending from 24 siblings of her mother and father.

The Peabody School, which Flannery O'Connor attended on the campus of Georgia State College for Women, left her hostile to progressive education.

Anything having to do with this “learning for life” stuff turns my stomach permanently. I had to attend a “progressive” high school here, one of those connected with a teacher’s college. In the summer all the teachers went to T.C. and sat at the feet of an old boy named William Heard Kilpatrick and those who couldn’t afford that went to Peabody and sat at the feet of somebody who had sat at the feet of William Heard Kilpatrick. In the winter they returned and asked us what, as mature children, we thought we ought to study. At that school we were always “planning.” They would as soon have given us arsenic in the drinking fountains as let us study Greek.--1957 letter to Cecil Dawkins.

Party chit-chat Flannery O’Connor to Russell Baker:
“I read old William Heard Kilpatrick died recently. John Dewey’s dead too, isn’t he?”
“Yes, thank God. Gone to his reward. Ha ha.”
” I hope there’re children crawling all over him.”—1955 letter to Betty Hester.

“She missed the point,” said Maria, the Atlanta progressive-school teacher as we wandered the heart of Milledgeville.

“What was the point?

“She was the point.”

The only embossed one (sweatshirt) I ever had had a fierce-looking bulldog on it with the word GEORGIA over him. I wore it all the time it being my policy at that point in life to create an unfavorable impression.—1955 letter to Betty Hester.

As a young woman in her early 20’s, Flannery O’Connor tried to live in New York City, in an art colony upstate, in guest lodgings with Connecticut intelligentsia. She was driven home by the illness that would eventually claim her life, back to Georgia under the watch and care of her mother, on the farm she called Andalusia, as if this were in fact God’s plan. An argument can be made. Otherwise, can you imagine the work of Flannery O’Connor without Georgia, expatriated to New York and Connecticut? “Tarwater in Tinseltown” or “A Perfect Day for Banana Loaves and Fishes” by M. F. O’Connor.

The farm Andalusia is located on U.S. Highway 441 North, about four miles north of town, a quarter-mile north of the Wal-Mart. We walked the grounds surrounding the two-story white frame house, worshiping at the stations of its relics: the water tower, the rust-colored hand-pump, several piles of collapsed lumber where outbuildings once stood, the tenant house ever-closer to the same state, despite the best efforts of the under-funded Flannery O’Connor Andalusia Foundation. Peacocks, absent from Andalusia for some years, recently have been re-introduced. The burro in the pasture is descended from the one Flannery gave her mother as a birthday present. The barn has a loft, a challenge to climb with a wooden leg, a dangerous descent hard to explain, without it.

We entered the house via the large welcoming porch, screened for Southern comfort, roomy enough for many rocking chairs. We had barely entered the front hallway and closed the door behind ourselves. Looking immediately to our left, we stopped in our tracks. Behind a brown rope was the bedroom where Flannery O’Connor wrote every morning, with her back to the window and her desk and manual Royal typewriter walled behind the clothes chest. Aluminum crutches leaned against the clothes chest. We stood silent as prayer in church. Broken by sobs. I looked around. There was nobody there but us.

I walked on to the dining room across the hall, then the kitchen. At the kitchen table Flannery and her mother took their morning coffee was served from a thermos, which Regina prepared each night to serve the next day.

Flannery O’Connor maintained a lively correspondence with the outside world. Letters to Betty Hester of Atlanta, identified only as “A.” for anonymous at the time of the letters’ original publication. Their discussions of Catholic theology and the art of fiction from the gospel according to Paul Engle’s Iowa Writers Workshop have fascinated appreciative readers. Often pedagogical in tone and content, Flannery O’Connor certainly would not and could not have communicated the same things in exactly the same way to her literary sponsors and celebrated friends like Caroline Gordon and Robert Lowell. Even so, there was warmth and compassion in their correspondence, as well as Flannery O’Connor’s irrepressible sweet tooth for the taste of southern sarcasm.

I have decided I must be a pretty pathetic sight with these crutches. I was in Atlanta the other day in Davisons. An old lady got on the elevator behind me and as soon as I turned around she fixed me with a moist gleaming eye and said in a loud voice, “Bless you, darling!” I felt exactly like the Misfit and I gave her a weakly lethal look, whereupon greatly encouraged, she grabbed my arm and whispered (very loud) in my ear, “Remember what they said to John at the gate, darling.” It was not my floor but I got off and I suppose the old lady was astounded at how quick I could get away on crutches. I have a one-legged friend and I asked her what they said to John at the gate. She said she reckoned they said, “The lame shall enter first.” This may be because the lame will be able to knock everybody else aside with their crutches.” -- 1955 letter to Betty Hester. (Historical notes: Davisons was a department store in downtown Atlanta. Throughout Flannery O’Connor’s life Georgia ladies shopped at Davisons wearing Sunday hats and gloves. The first draft of “The Lame Shall Enter First” appeared in 1961.)

A parade of visitors came to see Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia, including townsfolk, established literary figures like Katherine Anne Porter, not-yet known James Dickey, admirers, academics and critics. Ted R. Spivey, Professor of English at Georgia State University, Atlanta, himself a multiple Andalusia visitor and Flannery O’Connor correspondent, writes in his book Flannery O’Connor, The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary: “…at the time of Dickey’s first visits with Flannery O’Connor in 1958, Dickey had not published a volume of poems, …was receiving no great attention. Dickey also in 1958 was aware of her presence as a serious woman of letters. He told me in 1986 that, when he began to write, she was the only writer in Georgia who was doing anything.” (When Dickey looked her up, neither knew they had attended simultaneously, briefly, and unnoticed the same Atlanta public high school, she a new student who never successfully adjusted there and Dickey an upperclassman, football player, and Buckhead Boy.)

Flannery O’Connor shared Dickey’s opinion of other well-known Georgia writers of her day, Erskine Caldwell, Carson McCullars, certainly Margaret Mitchell. At a Vanderbilt symposium, Flannery O’Conner was asked “are you familiar with the work of Carson McCullars?” She hedged, “vaguely.” Elsewhere she minced no words. “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullars,” she admitted in a 1963 letter to Janet McKane.

Maria said, “Carson McCullars was one of the first Georgia writers I noticed, partly because Ft. Benning was near Columbus. By the time I discovered Flannery O’Connor, I realized that I had outgrown being a 12-year-old girl, but I would be a freak for the rest of my life.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent its most cultured and literate writer Frank Daniel to interview her in 1962 for an advertised Sunday feature. Among the most frequently published photos of Flannery O’Connor are those by Joe McTyre that accompanied the article. They include poses of Flannery O’Connor standing on the screen porch steps with crutches and peacocks and sitting in front of her self-portrait with a pheasant:

More and more she must interrupt her daily writing to deal with visitors who seek an understanding of her extraordinary talent and insight. Their visits do not much distract her.
“….I write every day. But often nothing comes of my efforts. They don’t lead anywhere. I rewrite, edit, throw away. It’s slow and searching. I’m not sure until it’s down on paper.”
Paintings by Miss O’Connor hang in several rooms of her home. Asked if painting is a relaxation, she said it isn’t—that is hard work.
I painted those pictures when we moved into the house, because the walls needed pictures. When I’d filled up the space, I stopped, until we added on a couple of rooms a couple of years ago. The new sitting room needed a picture in a wall space, so I painted one. That done, I’ve painted no more.—Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 22, 1962.

Versions of this description of herself Flannery O’Connor repeated, as with her backwards walking pet chicken story, in a repertoire used to establish her bona fides as a wry Georgia cracker barrel wit.

In addition to the self-portrait with pheasant, Flannery O’Connor painted farm scenes, the cows, the rooster, the tenant farmhand shack. The only one of her paintings currently on public display depicts three male singers in choir robes with hymn books before them, the face of the singer to the right unfinished or painted over, like a ghost. We saw this painting at the Flannery O’Connor Museum of Georgia State College and University, Milledgeville. (Notes about Georgia higher education: Georgia State College and University in Milledgeville (GSCU) was called Georgia State College for Women (GSCW) when Flannery O’Connor attended it. Georgia State University (GSU) is in downtown Atlanta. The University of Georgia (UGA) is in Athens.)

Flannery O’Connor, who originally entered graduate school at Iowa as a journalism student, maintained a file of clippings from Georgia newspapers, as well as from the Farmers Bulletin. The Atlanta Constitution described a bank robber who went by the nickname of “The Misfit.” She wrote in a 1961 letter to Ashley Brown, “I am a receptive depository for clippings. The latest I have got to add to my collection is one of a man who has just had Christ tattooed on his back. This is obviously for artistic and not religious purposes as he also has tiger and panther heads and an eagle perched on a cannon.”

Before we left Andalusia, Craig Amason, friendly and knowledgeable executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, asked, “Do you plan to attend the program tonight in Greensboro?” He handed us the flyer: “Meeting Flannery O’Connor, a visit with her family and friends. Louise and Frances Florencourt, First Cousins, Bill Sessions, Authorized Biographer. Christ Our King and Savior Catholic Church. 7 P.M.” Nothing like a last minute change of plans.

“I could still have you back in Atlanta before midnight,” Luther told us. Flannery O’Connor’s letters often refer to Regina as “my parent.” In fiction, Flannery O’Connor created a club of mothers, Mrs. Cope, Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Hopewell, and Mrs. McIntyre, operating farms on their own, women without husbands. Whatever anybody called her, Flannery O’Connor’s mother was the most significant other.

Maryat Lee, playwright and flamboyantly liberated 1950’s woman, wrote that her friend Flannery “avoided opposing her mother, who could not be opposed—who was, she (the mother) told me, Mayor, Sheriff, judge, treasurer and boss of this little state—a feudal state where she was feudal queen. Regina was her name.”

After Flannery died, Maryat Lee, whose brother was president of the college in Milledgeville, visited Regina. According to Maryat’s hand-written notes, Regina said, “The Library of Congress wants her papers. You wouldn’t believe all the people I’ve heard from, wanting this or that. Do they think I’m going to bare the house? Now the such and such would like a painting & something else.”

Maryat broke in, “Don’t let them have The Rooster. She wrote me that it was to be mine.” When Regina “looked surprised… suspicious,” Ms. Lee said, “But you may keep it for a while if you prefer.”

Regina “ did not seem to hear me. She veered off,” Maryat wrote.

“You never know what to do,” Regina said, then after a while continued, “About this ridiculous pathetic hero worshiper X who came down calling her Flannery. After she was here she began calling her Mary Flannery…. Only Mary Flannery’s family and close friends called her Mary Flannery. Everybody else she preferred to call her Flannery. And you can quote me to anyone else. This X woman kept saying ‘Do you know the passage in such and such where she wrote blah blah. Finally I said to her, look I have so much to do to keep her able to write, that I don’t know one passage from the next.”

When her health permitted, Flannery O’Connor traveled, speaking and giving public readings at colleges and universities. Maryat Lee remembered in a 1965 Memorial Tribute, “She complained about speaking engagements and writing speeches—complained acidly, saying it was the money.  But she loved talking in front of people—she had a gift…” Flannery’s father Edward O’Connor had served as Commander of the American Legion for the state of Georgia and spent much of his time away from home to make speeches.

I am about at the tail end of my present travels—first the Sisters at Rosary College outside of Chicago for two days & now here. The good Sisters really know how to get it out of you. I had 5 classes, a public lecture, read two mss. And underwent a tea in which each student was determined to ask me an intelligent question (400 students). Notre Dame is entirely opposite—much liquor and male companionship, both of which I could stand more of more often. –1962 letter to Betty Hester.

“I was raised by my grandmother and have lived most of my life in Athens,” Luther said, driving the two-lane county road to Greensboro. “After my freshman year at UGA, I transferred to the University of Minnesota. Flannery O’Connor came to Minneapolis. My English professor told me about the event, said I should go, that I would probably be the only one there able to understand her thick Georgia accent. I had never heard of her. She read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” When she mimicked the grandmother’s voice, my blood froze and I stopped breathing. I was so shaken I could not think of any questions to ask her afterwards and was afraid to even speak to her.”

We arrived in Greensboro at the Christ Our King and Savior Catholic Church with time to spare and took seats quietly in the pews. Louise Florencourt introduced William A. Sessions as “biographer of choice.” Dr. Sessions, professor emeritus at Georgia State University, Atlanta, scholarly, personable, long-time friend of Flannery O’Connor, frequent dinner guest at Andalusia, read from the authorized biography he is currently completing. Throughout the Flannery O'Connor Friends and Family presentation in Greensboro, the sound system was at cross-purposes with the electronics of my cochlear implant, so I was able to understand only the few minutes of the question and answer period during which Professor Sessions spoke without any microphone.  Responding to a question from the audience, he said that too much was made over personality conflict between Flannery and her mother. He recalled Regina O'Connor as a "dear lady," although she had said when he announced his marriage plans, "You're no great catch." I asked Dr. Sessions for permission to interview him by e-mail, and he gave me his address but said he would be traveling to Europe for the next weeks.

Louise Florencourt, a charming octogenarian, wore a purple suit with skirt to the tops of her shoes and a black Cossack hat. “Don’t you live in Milledgeville,” I asked, stooping to address her at eye level and better read her lips.


“In the Cline house?”

“Cline-O’Connor-Florencourt house,” she corrected me presenting each name with an emphatic gesture of her hand in the air as if displaying captions just for me. Louise Florencourt practiced law for over thirty years before moving from Virginia to Milledgeville to live with Flannery O’Connor’s mother for the eight years before Regina’s death.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that she learned from her Florencourt cousins that people from Massachusetts discussed ideas, while Georgians told stories. “You all were like the sisters she never had,” I said to Florence Florencourt.

“Yes,” she agreed. An elegant New Englander, she speaks with enough Boston in her voice that even I can identify it. I asked her if it was true that her mother never lost her Georgia accent. “Absolutely,” she confirmed. Frances Florencourt consented to an e-mail interview:

Q: Can you clarify for me the age differences between your sisters and Flannery O'Connor? I believe you explained to me that you were five when she was 12.

A: Margaret and Louise were closest in age to Flannery, Catherine and I four and seven years younger, respectively.

Q: I have read that the older two sisters were the models for the girls in "Temple of the Holy Ghost." Do you agree with this? If so, how did you and they feel about this?

A: I really can't say whether or not Margaret and Louise were the models for Temple of the Holy Ghost. We really never talked about it. But I did hear that there was a fair such as that that came through Milledgeville. although I never went to it--too young probably. I suppose F. did pick up a few ideas during our summer visits to Milledgeville as she picked up ideas from all and everything around her.

Q: Other family members sometimes mentioned as likenesses of Flannery O'Connor characters? Aunts Katie and Mary Cline in "The Partridge Festival," great aunt Julia Cline and the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Can you confirm and/or comment?

A: I don't know the story "the Partridge Festival" that well. But of the three aunts you mentioned (and by the way Julia was not a great aunt, but just an aunt), Aunt Mary, whom we called Sister, and Aunt Kate were very well grounded people, nothing foolish about them. I would say and I've heard many people say that the grandmother in Good Man is like Aunt Julia. The character wearing the purple hat in Revelation we think might be my Aunt Cleo only because of the hat. Aunt Cleo loved hats.

Q: Do you know exactly how long Flannery O'Connor lived in Atlanta. I have seen six months, as well as over a year, and reports that she attended both North Fulton High School in the Atlanta Public School System, and/ or the Catholic school, which I believe would have been Sacred Heart in those days. Can you confirm any of these facts?

A: I cannot confirm which schools F. attended in Atlanta, but I do know she went to school there for 2 years--Bill Sessions confirmed that during a discussion in Greensboro. And I did hear that she went to 2 different schools, one public and one Catholic.

Q: Where are the paintings of Flannery O'Connor, and are there any plans to make them available for public viewing?

A: Flannery's paintings are in climate controlled storage and are taken out from time to time for special exhibits.

Q: Maryat Lee wrote in her journal notes that "Regina was not to be opposed." I have also read in a 1962 report in THE ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION of a visit to Andalusia by a writer I knew personally and respected that "Regina O'Connor's empathy for her daughter is patent." Additionally, Regina O'Connor brought her sister Mary to the Andalusia farm after a heart attack and cared for her at the same time as the last months of Flannery O'Connor's life. Can you offer any observations about this?

A: Regina and Flannery were both strong personalities. My sister Margaret said it well on a documentary that Chris O'Hare made some years ago. Margaret said they forged some kind of an agreement that they would not interfere with each other as they each carried out their life's work. It seemed to work out very well. They both had great respect and love for each other.

In fact that was true of all the Clines. They all looked out for one another. They recognized each other's warts, and enjoyed them really. But in the end there was great love and respect for one another. Yes, Regina did bring Sister to Andalusia to take care of her after Sister had a heart attack. Sister recovered well there and returned to the Cline house in town and lived a year after Flannery's death. My sister Catherine who was living in Kansas City at the time went down there to help them.

Q: Have you read the Brad Goch biography of Flannery O'Connor? What do you think about it? How about other members of the family?

A: I have read the Brad Gooch biography and enjoyed it. I thought it was very entertaining. Some of my friends thought it was wonderful. I cannot speak for any others in the family.


The Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta contacted Flannery O’Connor in 1960 through mutual friends at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers. In a letter to Robert Giroux, Flannery O’Connor described the home for incurable cancer patients run by the Dominican congregation of nuns that was founded by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter. “The Sister Superior there wrote me about a child with a face cancer whom they had kept for nine years….The Sister Superior is determined that something must be written about her. Fr. Paul thinks it's quite comic that they have lit on me to do this.  He asked them which of my murder stories gave them the idea I should help them with it.”

“I wrote her that this was not the sort of thing that made fiction and that if it had to be written, the Sisters should write it themselves and it should be a factual account of the child's life and death in the Home.  I told her if they did happen to write it, I'd be glad to go over the manuscript and would supply a little introduction if that would help.  I thought that would be the last I'd hear of her.  Never underestimate them.  They forthwith sat down and wrote it and they are hell bent to see it through.”

When Flannery O’Connor wrote the introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, “The Sisters were very pleased with it and even Regina liked it which means something as she is usually bored by my productions.” Flannery O’Connor mailed Robert Giroux the address for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home, 760 Washington St Atlanta, Ga. The street is now called Pollard Blvd., and the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home has been dwarfed and crowded by the Atlanta Braves Baseball Stadium butting up against it on one side and the media parking lot on another. Atlanta is like that. The street address for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home was still called Washington St., and there were no encroachments when I visited my daddy there.

There are lots of things fathers cannot do for their sons. Nothing they can provide is more enduring and powerful than their genetics and their own example. Often when I am working, concentrating intensely, perhaps even straining with some physical effort, I suddenly become aware of holding my mouth in just such a way that I recognize immediately from my daddy, who looked like John Wayne. As a lanky young man, he could have passed for the handsome star of “Stagecoach.” In the fullness of his life, he looked like “The Quiet Man”. He grew old at John Wayne’s pace, all the way to the pot-bellied, one-eyed has-been of “True Grit”. In my mind, John Wayne and my daddy might as well have been the same person. My daddy was a Marine Corps veteran of WWII in the Pacific. He was very much the strong, silent type. Still waters run somewhere nobody ever knows. Although he only graduated from the seventh grade, he took great pride in the fact that he could read and write. He enjoyed working the jumble word puzzle in the newspaper. He loved a good joke. He loved a bad joke. He took me to Atlanta Cracker games at Ponce de Leon Ballpark. On hot days and nights, he would say, “They need to turn on the fans.” My love for baseball made me a reader.

One Saturday, my sister and I sat at his bedside in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home with the Dominican Nuns scurrying in the halls, as he lay dying. There must have been some serious carelessness in his admission interview. My daddy, the anti-Papist and past master of the Grant Park Masonic Lodge. Every time I visited, he lay without movement or speech. My sister and I were remembering the women’s softball games on summer nights in Piedmont Park long before the days of Title IX requirements of equal opportunity for women’s athletics. “What was the name of that team that was so good?” my sister tried to recall. “The one with the pitcher that looked like Little Orphan Annie.”

“And the catcher that looked like Yogi Berra,” I added.

After a long silence of neither she nor I being able to think of the answer, from Daddy’s pillow came the last words I ever heard him say: “Dixie Darlings.”

We drove back from Greensboro later than we had planned. Luther turned on the heater of the big car against the cold night. We said goodbye to Maria the schoolteacher. “Don’t let the children dance on the grave of John Dewey.” As Luther headed to my house, I asked him, “Have you ever thought about adding some Atlanta landmarks to your Flannery O’Connor tour?”

“Everything I’ve ever heard of connected to her no longer exists.”

“That’s Atlanta. Mostly ghosts. Vacant lots and other places where something interesting used to be. I could show you some sights. How would you like to see the route she outlines in “The Artificial Nigger” as the boy and grandfather wander around town lost? It ran right behind Sacred Heart Catholic School for girls, which she attended for a while, and is just about the only way you could get from the downtown train station to the suburban station, which was near where she lived in Buckhead.”

“Sure. That was her favorite story,” Luther said.

“Mine, too,” I said. “There’ll never be another one like her.”

Luther disagreed. “Somewhere between Raybun Gap and Tybee Light, there’s a geeky kid with a dose of attitude and a Red and Black UGA bulldog sweatshirt destined to be somebody special.”

I said, “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.”

Copyright 2009 by William C. Cotter

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