By Nancy Carr
I just went on a trip to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia that renewed my faith in literature, discussion, and the ability of a group of people who don’t know each other starting out to become collaborators and friends by the end of the journey. I also got to eat a lot of rich Southern food, including some divinely inspired rolls that made me want to snatch the basket away from my table companions so I could devour them all. (In the spirit of Shared Inquiry, I managed to refrain.)
Brought together by the auspices of Classical Pursuits, which hosts discussion-based learning vacations all over the world, I and eighteen discussion participants spent three days exploring several of O’Connor’s short stories while going to see the places she lived and worked. It’s one thing to read “Good Country People”; it’s another to discuss it deeply, and still another to discuss it sitting in the living room of the row house where O’Connor grew up. On this shady square in Savannah, across from the Catholic cathedral where O’Connor was baptized, it’s possible to feel the reality of this woman who struggled fiercely to bring her particular gifts to fruition against daunting odds.
It’s shocking to realize that Flannery O’Connor died when she was only 39, in 1964. In that short span she completed two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and the slightly more than two dozen short stories that are her most lasting literary achievement. Diagnosed with lupus in her mid-20’s, she was forced to leave the life she had made for herself outside Georgia by going to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then living in Connecticut. She came back home, accepting a life with her widowed mother that offered little outward excitement but which left her the time and space to write. With characteristic pith, she wrote to a friend that “I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.”
Those words take on new force when standing in the small Catholic church in Milledgeville where O’Connor and her mother went to Mass every morning, and still more when standing on the front porch of Andalusia, the farm where she and her mother lived during most of O’Connor’s writing life. O’Connor’s untimely end was underlined for me by hearing Mary Barbara Tate, one of the last surviving members of the book club that O’Connor hosted, talk about her memories of the author. That I could meet someone who remembered the person who wrote “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” -- that seems unbelievable. What might O’Connor have written if she’d had just a few more years?
As I stood in the doorway of Flannery O’Connor’s bedroom, which was also her writing room, it was the crutches I kept looking at. They lean matter-of-factly against the wardrobe, a visible symbol of the burden of ill health O’Connor carried with such grace. Pity for her is unnecessary—if anyone with a chronic illness made the best of her life, she did—but seeing the crutches of this woman who achieved so much against such odds and died younger than I am now filled me with a curiously personal feeling of loss.
That sense of loss was tempered by the peacock and peahens that are now living in Andalusia’s aviary. At one time O’Connor had 40 peacocks. She called them the “king of the birds” and saw their extravagantly beautiful tails as evidence of the beauty and power of God. Each peacock’s tail, she has one character in “The Displaced Person” remark, offers a “map of the universe.” Watching the current peacock stalk about proudly, regally lifting his gorgeous tail off the ground, I thought of the deeper continuities that underlie change and mortality. O’Connor steadfastly believed in the reality of the eternal and the unseen, and viewed her own decline and death unsentimentally. She said she would “gladly swap 100 readers now for 10 readers in 10 years or one reader in 100 years,” so she’d be pleased that her fiction continues to gain readers and to garner more critical praise. But I think she’d be happiest of all that that fiction challenges and enriches all those readers willing to engage deeply with it in discussion. After exploring O’Connor’s works in depth, it’s impossible to see the world quite the same way again.
To read another blog entry about this trip, from the viewpoint of Ann Kirkland, the founder of Classical Pursuits, click here.
Nancy Carr is a senior editor at the the Great Books Foundation, working primarily on choosing reading selections and writing teacher's materials for grades K–8. She also leads literature discussion seminars for adults, independently and with the Classical Pursuits travel learning program.