Having just returned from Savannah, I am taking life at a slower pace.

One visit from the trip stands out: Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home.

 I met one of my favorite authors again for the first time.

Here, she is! She taught her chickens how to walk backward and became news reel famous in her youth. She’s only on the screen for a few seconds, but that’s enough to capture her vivid, eccentric self, apparent from an early age.

The guide who took us through the house, made O’Connor and her family come alive.

She lingered, for example, over this photo on the wall. I love it!

Flannery O'Connor and her friend Elizabeth. Can you guess which one she is?

Flannery O’Connor and her friend Betty Jean. Can you guess which one she is?

As I looked out the window from the master bedroom, as Flannery must have done often, listening to the chatter on the street below in the days before air conditioning, I saw the visible cornerstone of her life straight ahead.

Photo by Sadie Showalter

Photo by Sadie Showalter

The view from the window:

St. John's Cathedral across Lafayette Square from the O'Connor house.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, across Lafayette Square from the O’Connor house.

St. John's Cathedral across Lafayette Square from the O'Connor house.

The Cathedral as viewed from across the street.

Artwork by Panhandler Slim.

Artwork by Panhandle Slim.

I knew that being Catholic in the Protestant South was one of O’Connor’s subjects and a key to her identity as a writer.

But standing in the house, looking at the Cathedral, I was struck dumb as a peahen.

Suddenly, I wanted to re-read all the great stories.

If you haven’t read any of them, you might want to try this one. Read by O’Connor herself a few years before she died of lupus at the age of 39, one of the great losses of American literature. Be warned: the n-word appears here, casually, as it would have been used then by people on the street.

O’Connor was not one to gloss over the harsh realities and cruelties of her time and place. Every single character in her stories is flawed. Every one needs grace.

 There are many places to find online versions of O’Connor’s stories.

You can follow along with the reading above here and find nine other stories at the same source.

The fact that one of the children in the story is named John Wesley, and that O’Connor would have walked past a statue of Protestant icon John Wesley in historic Reynold’s Square so often, possibly on her way to or from mass, made a brand-new impression on me.

Going to an artist’s childhood home is like walking inside her soul. Having spent a semester going to daily prayer and weekly mass, I feel more prepared to imagine the set of beliefs Mary Flannery O’Connor was secure in. But no domestic scene, such as the ones that greet the visitor in every room of this museum, can protect one from the specter of evil and the laughter of grace.

Is O’Connor an old friend or a new acquaintance for you?

What other artist homes do you recommend?

What kind of tour might be given of YOUR childhood home? What would we glimpse of your soul there?

Shirley Showalter

30 Comments

  1. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on May 10, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    Flannery O’Connor is a new acquaintance for me, and I will take some time to become acquainted now. Thank you for introducing her, Shirley!

    • Shirley Showalter on May 10, 2017 at 5:23 pm

      You are welcome, Elfrieda. She can be an unsettling presence in your life, but I am sure you will find her characters unforgettable and her perspective worth thinking about.

  2. Merril Smith on May 10, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    It sounds like such an interesting place to visit. I will definitely have to revisit O’Connor’s work now. I had forgotten that she had lupus.

    A few years ago, we visited Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT. (Not his childhood home.) It was a fascinating place to see–filled with innovations and inventions, and Tiffany glass. Also, sad because he couldn’t live there after his daughter died. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house is next door, but it’s not as interesting. 🙂

    • Shirley Showalter on May 10, 2017 at 7:50 pm

      Merril, we made the same double visit in Hartford, and we also remember the Twain house much more vividly. It was a large, rambling, place with windows like portholes, reminiscent of the steamboats on the Mississippi, as I recall. I also remember the pool table, the sadness around the death of his daughter, and the story of his bad investment in the typewriter. Vivid. The Stowe House I remember more from the Victorian style and the flowers in the front yard.

      I’m a sucker for house museums. 🙂 My kids were less than enthusiastic when I dragged them along.

  3. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on May 10, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    I am a Flannery O’Connor fan, but I’ve never had the chance to visit her home or town, so I’m lingering over details of your visit.

    I appreciate O’Connor’s connection to realism, where evil has a strong grip on all the characters, but G-d’s grace keeps knocking and asserting herself and working out divine will through the imperfect.

    “Revelation” is one of my favorite O’Connor short stories.

    • Shirley Showalter on May 10, 2017 at 7:53 pm

      Dolores, I’ll send you some more interior pics on email if you like. Each room had a great story to tell. Glad to know you are a fan. You may want to check out Richard’s post below too.

      Your summary of the themes in O’Connor’s work gets to the heart of the matter.

      For those who would like to read your favorite story, here it is! http://producer.csi.edu/cdraney/archive-courses/summer06/engl278/e-texts/oconner_revelation.pdf

      • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on May 10, 2017 at 10:00 pm

        I’m enjoying the extra interior scenes, and, yes, Richard’s post offers more goodies. Thank you Shirley and Richard!

  4. Richard Gilbert on May 10, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I’d love to go to that house! Thanks for the tour. A few years ago, I ran a short review of Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, which I quite enjoyed:

    http://richardgilbert.me/flannery-oconnor-harper-lee-mostly/

    I was impressed that Flannery and her mother attended an early mass in Milledgeville, where they moved after Savannah and ended up with her mother running a farm.

    • Shirley Showalter on May 10, 2017 at 8:11 pm

      You would enjoy seeing this house, I think, Richard. It might even give you a little more insight into the mother-daughter relationship which fascinates you.

      I wanted to go to the farm, but we headed back to Virginia a different way. However, you can go, see the peacocks and stroll around. Maybe since you are coming South soon, you will put these two places on your travel agenda.

      • Richard Gilbert on May 10, 2017 at 10:30 pm

        I must make it to both! It appears she was made in Savannah and bloomed in Milledgeville . . . where they went to mass DAILY.

  5. Laurie Buchanan on May 10, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    Shirley — I enjoyed the cameraman’s sense of humor in the first video clip. Flannery O’Connor is a new acquaintance for me, thank you for the introduction.

    “Every one needs grace.” Yes, indeed!

  6. Melodie Davis on May 11, 2017 at 9:05 am

    I love your sudden moment of being “struck dumb as a peahen.” You must have had a small shiver. Someday I’ll read O’Connor–I think I read clips in college–no doubt assigned by Omar Eby–and begged on by this post!

    • Shirley Showalter on May 11, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      Thanks, Melodie. Evidently peafowl make terrible sounds, according to the blog post Marian included above. I thought that only the peacocks did this, but oh well. I’m still dumb. 🙂

      The stories don’t take long to read, but they will stick in your mind! It may be hard to figure out how they can be based on Christian faith. She zaps you.

  7. Melodie Davis on May 11, 2017 at 9:06 am

    I should have said “egged on” above. 🙂

    • Shirley Showalter on May 11, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      🙂

  8. Marian Beaman on May 11, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor is an old friend, one I introduced to my Intro to Lit students with her short stories, most notably Everything that Rises Must Converge, a great prompt for studies about race.

    My view: Her grotesque characters have appeal because of their shock value with story plots always informed by the transcendence of grace. After all, what family on a car trip is confronted by a murderer and discusses religion? (A Good Man is Hard to Find).

    I’ve visited the O’Connor home in Savannah and have sat near where you are standing in this photo. Faculty from my college formed a circle to discuss 1-2 of her short stories using the Paideia approach, questioning to find answers.

    Your post, as always, is fascinating and enjoyed the mention of chickens walking backwards. Flannery lived on a peacock farm at one point of her short life. I’ll add this to your enlightenment about this fine, eccentric writer: http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/flannery-o-connor-peacocks-blog-entry-1.1640856

    • Shirley Showalter on May 11, 2017 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you so much for your comments on FB before I planned our itinerary. If it hadn’t been for Deborah, below, and you, I might have missed this gem.

      The tour guides on the bus said nothing about O’Connor. Can you believe it??!!

      Thanks for the link. I enjoyed it. And some day I would love to get to Andulusia, also.

  9. Deborah Core on May 11, 2017 at 10:30 am

    I’ve always had a fondness for O’Connor, though I admit to rejecting the starkness of her worldview long ago.
    As to artists’ homes — probably Willa Cather’s (which you’ll recall) and DH Lawrence’s (non-childhood) home in Taos have impressed me most.

    • Shirley Showalter on May 11, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      Thank you, Deborah, for giving me the FB suggestion to check out this house. I was unaware that O’Connor spent so much of her life in Savannah. I always read about the farm and the peacocks and was not aware that she was actually formed in the city.

      The darkness in her world view appeared early and was made more severe by the lupus, I imagine. I’m by disposition much sunnier, but some time periods call for a confrontation with darkness.

      I love Red Cloud, of course, and would love to visit the D. H. Lawrence ranch (different from Mabel Dodge Luhan’s??).

  10. Susan Scott on May 11, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    I’m familiar only with her name, not her writings, but I’m intrigued by her use of evil and grace. Reminds me of The Poisonwood Bible’ – Kingsolver. Thanks Shirley. Lovely to spend time in a place and wonder about the effect and affect upon the inhabitant/s.

    • Shirley Showalter on May 11, 2017 at 1:00 pm

      Yes, I think O’Connor’s sensibility and Kingsolver’s have some elements in common. No mere patina of piety. And lots of critique for the thinness of religion in the general culture.

      A Jungian would have a field day with these writers and with place, memory, and lasting unconscious images from childhood. When I reread the story with John Wesley as a character, just having seen how prominent the Wesley statue is in the Savannah square, I had a little rush of recognition.

  11. Tracy Lee Karner on May 11, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    Flannery O’Connor. I can’t even remember where/when I first encountered her. Probably in one of the short story anthologies I checked out from the public library in my early teens, when I decided I wanted to be a writer and thought short stories would be an easier place to start than novels. I didn’t understand her and found her stories disturbing. Now I see her brilliance, but I never binge-read her. One story a year is enough for me, because too many all at once would seduce me into a place that’s not good for my outlook.

    Writer’s homes? I love visiting them and seek them out wherever I go. I especially enjoy the homes where writers worked, especially if they still have the original furnishings and most especially when I can peruse the bookshelves to see what titles authors surrounded themselves with. Favorites? Frost Place in Franconia, NH (the views! go in the off season when no one is there and sit on the porch and write something!); Sarah Orne Jewett’s house in South Berwick, Maine; and while not a house, hanging out in marvelous Duluth, MN is only enhanced by the fact that Bob Dylan was born there.

    • Shirley Showalter on May 11, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      You have found a great solution to how to read O’Connor. Little bits at a time, chewed slowly and carefully in good Catholic tradition: lectio divina.

      I have never visited Frost’s home, and love the idea of sitting on the porch and writing. And Sarah Orne Jewett’s house would be a treasure. She was a great influence on Willa Cather.

      Have you been to Prince’s house yet?

  12. Joan on May 11, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Haven’t been there, but I love Savannah. Next time!!

    • Shirley Showalter on May 11, 2017 at 3:26 pm

      Yes, put it on your list, Joan.

  13. Elaine Mansfield on May 13, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    We are all flawed. We all need grace. This is my take-away–and the work of my life. To accept the flaws and allow the Grace.

    I loved Savannah. Almost as wonderful as New Orleans. It’s been a long time since I’ve had my traveling companion and deafness makes it harder to travel than ever, but I have some trips planned. I’m dog sitting this summer, but the dog sitting pay-back comes in the winter when I’ll take a trip south.

    My sense of homestead was on my grandparent’s Missouri farm. That’s where the garden was, the homemade bread, my grandma’s piano, rich contralto voice, hymns and Broadway songs. That’s where we made homemade ice cream and sat under the catalpa trees in the summer when it was over 100 degrees. That’s where grandpa shoveled coal into the stove in winter while we played cards. Home–especially snuggling next to Grandma’s ample body at night.

  14. Shirley Showalter on May 13, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Beautiful, Elaine. I especially loved your description of life on your grandparents’ farm. Since our grandchildren are coming to visit soon, I want to find something on this list to delight them. The easiest part? “Snuggling next to Grandma’s ample body at night.”

    I hope you have a wonderful Mother’s Day and trip south this winter.

    Grace abounds.

  15. June Alspaugh on May 14, 2017 at 11:37 am

    Flannery is a new acquaintance to me. I have never been, but would recommend Emily Carr’s home. I enjoy the richness in her paints, the colors she works with. Her behaviour was hard to tolerate, apparently she smoked and cursed at students in class. And because of that students boycotted her classes.

    • Shirley Showalter on May 15, 2017 at 9:04 am

      I had to look up Emily Carr, June. So now we are even. 🙂 Thank you for introducing me. https://www.emilycarr.com/ I missed this house on my one visit to Victoria, BC. She too seems to have been a character. “Don’t pickle me away as done.” Flannery would have written down a sentence like that one!

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