Places Are Not Easy to Get Nowadays: At Home in Milledgeville and Oxford.
I'm headed into Milledgeville, which a billboard proclaims is Georgia's Antebellum Capitol. This is a political designation: it was Georgia's pre-Civil War capitol, and the building is still downtown. A plaque on the old courthouse explains that, when the Union Army entered, the state seal was hidden by some local hero--an act that testifies to the singularity of the Confederate imagination: as long as we retain the creatures of our rights, we retain them. The billboard's graphic, however, suggests that the city is the primary manufacturer of Corinthian columns and nineteenth-century mansions; "antebellum" could signify a style rather than era.
On the bypass my directions prefer, cars pulse and clot around chain restaurants and big-box stores and car-lots. The roads, which must have names other than 441 Bypass and Highway 441, remind me of their analogues in Gadsden, Alabama, where I grew up. There, no one remembers what the names--Rainbow Drive (Highway 411) and Meighan Boulevard (Highway 431)--mean. Here, I have yet to see a column or a veranda or a balcony. I could be anywhere.
The sign I've been waiting for, opposite a car-lot and just past the brand-name furniture store, tells me to hang left into the trees for Andalusia, Flannery O'Connor's family farm.
Though I've been driving for hours, I don't have any clear imagination of Andalusia. I could have imagined the home grandmother remembers in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find":
She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey-would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. "There was a secret panel in this house," she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, "and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found. ..."
The turn puts me on a dirt road, as the grandmother's turn would, so I might be justified in a fantasy, though I'm not expecting either a Misfit or a grand plantation home as the drive empties.
The house is on my right--white, broad, tall yet not grand. The metal roof, red as Georgia clay (actually redder), and the screened porch stretching almost the entire length of the house, suggest and depart from the formal imagination. This is a farmhouse.
I park almost beneath the water tower, which I've seen in photographs--perhaps on a cover of Arts & Letters, published at nearby Georgia College and State University. There are only three other cars here, so I walk toward the house without meeting anyone. Behind me, a group of workmen are framing a shed or an outhouse, which has their attention.
O'Connor noted in "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction": "I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the woods exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs." I haven't expected anything so literal, but, I realize now, I did expect to see peacocks. I dreamed I'd have to ford them. But I don't see a one. Life on the outskirts of Milledgeville is not the way I have pictured it.
Much of the prose we associate with O'Connor was written here, though she didn't occupy the farm until 1951. Born in Savannah, O'Connor completed high school and college here in her mother's hometown, during which time, her uncle Bernard Cline owned the farm. When he died in 1947, her mother inherited everything. O'Connor moved here, at her mother's direction, in 1951, after being diagnosed with lupus, and the farm became her permanent home. She wrote in a September 1951 letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, with whom she had lived briefly in Connecticut:
Me & maw are still at the farm and are like to be, I perceive, through the winter. She is nuts about it out here, surrounded by the lowing herd and other details, and considers it beneficial to my health. The same has improved. ...
In the same letter, she is revising Wise Blood, her first novel, which, with most of the famous stories, was completed in the first room you see when you enter the house, her bedroom, just to the left of the front door.
The bed is just inside the room--a slender bed with simple wooden foot and head, neatly made. On the other side is a writing table, set with a typewriter, a postal scale, a small bookcase and a pencil cup. These are not, I learn, the table and the typewriter. Those are in town, in a special room at Georgia College & State University, which I will visit later. But this is the room, disposed as O'Connor had it, to enable a visitor to imagine the postures of genius. Against the wardrobe stand two crutches.
I turn, past a sacred-heart engraving of Christ, toward the stairs, which are roped off. A sign announces a renovation. I glance past racks of information about Andalusia and Milledgeville into the formal dining room, then drift into the gift shop, set up in a small room that may have been a pantry. The kitchen, beyond, is a museum unto itself, with a ceramic-coated iron sink, a Hotpoint refrigerator and stove, a metal cupboard and simple breakfast table.
I continue to the rooms kept by Regina Cline, O'Connor's mother. A sitting room has been converted into the farm's education center, A vitrine presents books from O'Connor's youth; one book is open to a chapter entitled "Adventures of a Brownie," beneath which O'Connor wrote "is not very good"--one of the few whiffs of O'Connor's humor. Here you can watch a short film that tells you about both O'Connor and the farm itself. From there you can step into Regina Chile's bedroom. I look out the window to see the congress of workmen around their frame and, beyond, the bright algae green of a Porta John.
AFTER MY BRIEF tour of the interior, I walk behind the house, past the wreck that was once a garage, and past the Hill house, once occupied by resident farmers and now off-limits and haunted with abandoned furniture. A barn waits at the far end of the clearing beyond, woods massed behind, a long shed to the left. To the right, toward the rear of the clearing, is the milking shed, which is being restored.
The bricks, the windows and the milking shed suggest the mid-century, while the roof twangs as brightly as any new car. As I take this in, a voice pierces the air, trebling as from a loudspeaker: John, Line 1. John, Line 1.
The voice, echoing from a nearby car lot, haunts the rest of my walk, to the barn, the logging road and the shed, where a sign explains that, having been made to look more like a farm from the 1940s, this served as a set for a 1976 PBS adaptation of "The Displaced Person." The loudspeaker eructs again.
I am tempted for a moment to feel that the farm, this space for preservation of literary genius and legacy, is threatened by the dragons of commerce marked on a hand-drawn map of "O'Connor Country" as "the triumph of Mr. Fortune." But I resist. I knew there would be no Misfits or leg-stealing would-be Bible salesmen. This tension, however. ... O'Connor could have written this.
I'VE SPENT MOST of the summer in Oxford, Mississippi. With the fortune of a residency at the University of Mississippi came a perch across the road from Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, which I'd pass, twice a day. Mornings, I'd be headed into Bailey's Woods, part of the Faulkner estate; after a half-mile or so in the thicket, I could emerge behind the baseball-and-tennis complex or the university art museum, which curates Rowan Oak. Evenings, I'd pass again. Though I had visited before, this season I came to know the home and its grounds intimately, and by virtue of the fact that I could give directions to it became, however temporarily, a local.
The first group I directed was a trio of book-clubbish women in a recently detailed Cadillac. As they drove away, I wondered what they expected. Compared even to the homes on that street, Rowan Oak is small. It is one of the oldest homes in town, built by Robert Shegogg in the 1840s, when Oxford was just a settlement. Portico columns reach the entire height of the house; they're rhymed by tall cedars that line the approach and make the house seem tall. It was probably large for the 1840s, but you wouldn't describe it as a mansion. It is grand without being gigantic, which means it has a subtlety of which new construction seems incapable.
Inside, the house is like a home, though no one has lived here since Faulkner died in 1962. As you enter, the first room you see is the library, where Faulkner wrote, among other things, Sanctuary, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! and Intruder in the Dust, every novel from 1930, the year he moved into this house, to 1952, when he added a studio to the house.
To see the studio, you have to turn from the library and move down the hall, past the parlor and the formal dining room, and turn left where you can stand in the door. At the end of the room, a small table supports a typewriter. There, he wrote The Town, The Mansion, The Reivers and, before those, A Fable, the outline of which is still affixed to the wall: eight sections, titles in red pencil, the outline in graphite or ink. Hard by the door is a narrow bed, where Faulkner lay alter falling from his horse in 1962. The similarity of this studio to O'Connor's will, later, seem uncanny, though perhaps there are only so many ways one can arrange the necessary furniture,
On one visit, I coincide with a group that includes Faulkner's niece Dean, her husband and a pair of friends. Curator Bill Griffith buttonholes me as he sweeps aside the Plexiglas barrier and motions us inside. The room is busy--not with decoration but with the impedimenta of life in a frequently sweltering Mississippi, including an imposing Vornado pedestal fan (Faulkner objected to and forbade air conditioning during his life), and a number of inkbottles and other items that look as if they've been recovered through archaeological dig.
Shortly, we're led across the hall, through the dining room and into the pantry. You can usually see the kitchen beyond through its outer door, but the pantry, where the family phone was wired, is hidden from view. The wall above the phone is covered with hand-written telephone numbers, offering a record of the family's local relations and, as well, a history of telephone communication. Closer to the phone are old-fashioned telephone exchanges like "Whitehall 8-3311" (identified as the Memphis airport). Higher up are more modern combinations, including a 10-digit number for the Faulkners' home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The kitchen is studded with boxes and tins that display the graphic design of the late '50s and early '60s. Like the ink bottles in Faulkner's studio and the phone numbers on the pantry wall, these items are not atmosphere. Each is a synecdoche, however minor, of the life the Faulkners led in this house. In the bedrooms upstairs I see one of the author's cameras, Estelle's easel and, in a window of Estelle's bedroom, the faceplate of the air-conditioner she installed after Faulkner's funeral.
LATER, AS SUMMER closed and I returned west to work, I thought of standing in the doorway of Faulkner's studio--focused on the typewriter but peripherally aware of the panoply of the studio, the bookcases, the books, the bottles and tins. Then I came across two articles on the fate of writers' homes in Britain. One piece, in the Isle of Wight County Press, announced the shuttering of the Farringford Hotel, Tennyson's former home. The other, an opinion piece in The Guardian entitled "The Cost of Our Dead Poets Society," decried the expense of maintaining writers' houses. Pundit Belinda Webb encouraged the abandonment of these "shrines to dead authors," arguing that "These houses of the well-read dead signify only the self-importance of the literary society, waving the bowl to feed the cult of the author," In advocating support for living writers, she will write of Elizabeth Gaskell's home, "Let the house rot and wilt and tumble down."
Without preservation, this could happen rather quickly. Rowan Oak, as it stands today, exists because of a broad and, yes, costly effort. After Jill Faulkner Summers sold the house to the University of Mississippi in 1972, for about a decade there was no clear plan for its maintenance or use. Different academic units, including the English Department, cared for and used the home before it came into the care of the University Museums, which now oversees the property and its preservation. In the last decade, Bill Griffith explained to me, the staircase has been completely rebuilt and re-engineered to handle the weight of the more than 20,000 annual visitors, and a positive pressure and climate control system has been installed to prevent exterior moisture or mold from creeping in--improvements that have all been made with one-time grant funding. Griffith is confident Rowan Oak has been stabilized and that it will age well, but it's clear that it takes work, and money, to maintain the house.
Craig Amason, director of Andalusia, faces some of the concerns Griffith has already addressed, though it seems Amason may have less to work with. The farm is owned by a foundation, not by a university, so Amason and his partners have to raise all the resources for the continuous operation of the farm as well as any improvements. Amason's is the only paid position--everyone else at Andalusia is either a visitor or a volunteer like the retiree who was trimming the hedges the day I visited (with PVC pipes for handle extensions, a sign of resourcefulness and, perhaps, an unanswered request for more tools). The traffic is lighter at Andalusia, but Amason's successes in increasing public awareness of Andalusia--ranging from occasional lectures and discussions to on-site school field trips and annual bluegrass concerts--mean he and the farm will need the help Rowan Oak has already found.
Is the expense is justified? I should, perhaps, be interested in Webb's plea for the support of living writers. I could use some cash. But as I remember myself in the door to Faulkner's studio, or in the door to O'Connor's room, cash is the last thing on my mind. I went to Oxford and to Rowan Oak and then to Milledgeville and Andalusia to find the reminders of these writers' genius--postal scale, typewriter, ink bottle. I hoped that being in those spaces would grant me some insight, that I would come away enlarged. I wanted the kind of renewal Emerson recalls in "The Poet":
It is much to know that poetry has been written this very day, under this very roof, by your side. What! that wonderful spirit has not expired! these stony moments are still sparkling and animated! I had fancied that the oracles were all silent, and nature had spent her fires, and behold! all night, from every pore, these fine auroras have been streaming.
If I stood in the right place, I might see the streams of brilliance, I might find myself in a place of greatness, which is a way of hoping that I could reach, too, toward such excellence. I have thought that taking these authors as models for aspiration is in fact essential to the reach toward any kind of excellence. These homes don't absorb support: they offer it.
To the Southerner, Andalusia and Rowan Oak offer something more, hinted at in O'Connor's "The Regional Writer":
To call yourself a Georgia writer is certainly to declare a limitation, but one which, like all limitations, is a gateway to reality. It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking. Faulkner was at home in Oxford ... and most of you and myself, and many others are sustained in our writing by the local and the particular and the familiar without loss to our principles or our reason.
I have spent much of my life going elsewhere. I grew up in a town almost equidistant between Andalusia and Rowan Oak. I discovered writing in college and dedicated myself to it. Encouraged to range far in search of what, purportedly, could not be found in Alabama, I left for further study in New York, then drifted to Colorado. My imagination, however, has never really left the South. I would have welcomed, many times, a room, or a way to maintain a room, in Alabama--a way to be closer to my subject, or a way to make a home near or even with my subject. The closest I've managed yet has been the six-week loan of a set of rooms in Oxford, and as I write this I realize that when I imagine myself standing in the door of Faulkner's studio I am also imagining myself standing in the door of the borrowed studio across the street, that I am dreaming of returning, that I am dreaming of still being here.
THE DREAM IS not just of being in that place, but of being in a place. As I turn from Andalusia and work Highway 441 toward Milledgeville, I recall Mrs. Shortley's observation in "The Displaced Person": "Places are not easy to get nowadays." It is easy, on the highway, to imagine Andalusia on the verge of metaphysical collapse, especially since I have just come from several weeks in Oxford, where just west of town the chain restaurants and car-lots metastasize, threatening to swallow another writer's home--John Grisham--once practically isolated.
But Andalusia and Rowan Oak, however much they are places themselves, exist as parts of larger places, localities that seem to maintain themselves. They resist whatever is happening on 441 Bypass or Highway 6 outside of Oxford, because they neither participate in that commerce nor acknowledge it. These homes, instead, call out to their historic partners in Milledgeville and Oxford; their cultural and architectural rhymes draw both the visiting and the resident attention back the genius of the place--not the writer's genius, but the place's--so much so that the identity of these locations seems not merely stable but self-repairing.
Andalusia has shown me O'Connor's room, her home, a universe I've seen, in stories like "The Displaced Person." But it hasn't shown me everything, which is why I'm driving into town to see the typewriter and desk, on display in the Russell Library, the Georgia College & State University museum. Highway 441 becomes Columbia Street, which offers me, at last, antebellum Milledgeville. The fine, large homes, the old courthouse where the state seal was secreted, the old capitol building, Sacred Heart Catholic Church (O'Connor's) are structures that remember their histories: you are in Milledgeville, you are in O'Connor Country.
At the Campus Theater on Hancock Street, teams of workers scrape the marquee, repaint it, replace its bulbs. The theater was restored and reopened in 2006, after a twenty-three-year vacancy: now, it blazes as it must have when it opened in 1935. Across the street is an entire block of restaurants with names I've never heard--a sign of a living place: if food is being created here, not just executed according to a franchised plan, something is living--a person, a tongue, a room, a block, a town. This is what I mean when I say that the ecology of place, if strong enough, is self-repairing: people live in and become animated by this spirit, and they maintain it.
The same is happening in Oxford. The Square, architecturally, is not much different from the Square you can see in the 1949 film adaptation of Intruder in the Dust, filmed in Oxford. This fall marks the fiftieth anniversary of the film, which debuted in the Lyric Theater on Van Buren, just off the square--a theater that has just been restored. The movie will screen there in October, and a part of Oxford will have repaired itself, restored itself. This isn't magic, exactly: the agents are human, but they are clearly animated with the spirit of the place. This is why, if you stay in Oxford long enough, the conversation you'll have most often will involve your being asked to admit how much you want to move there.
It would not be a difficult choice. As does Milledgeville, Oxford presents an impressive array of local restaurants, some as good as you're likely to find in these United States. Several of them, including City Grocery, are owned and run by James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence, a New Orleans native who has been transforming traditional Southern foodways into high and extremely tasty art. Here, even the most seemingly transitory experience--taste--resists passage: you will remember what you've eaten here, will remember what it did on your tongue and you will salivate.
It is no coincidence then, that Oxford is also home to the Southern Foodways Alliance, a confederation of chefs, critics, scholars and enthusiasts dedicated to documenting and preserving the traditional foods of the South. One of these enthusiasts, Tom Freeland--a native Oxonian and scion of a family of lawyers, with an office right off the square, who is locally famous for spearheading hog roasts--is colluding with Bill Griffith to fire up the recently restored smokehouse at Rowan Oak to smoke some hams to be sold as a fundraiser. Here, history and creativity merge, and Oxford, like Rowan Oak, is grand without being gigantic.
ONE OF MY last orders of business in Milledgeville is a trip to Memory Hill Cemetery, which marks the southern edge of "O'Connor Country." I have never seen a cemetery so alive. O'Connor's plot, easily located, is a crossroads where fellow travelers have left their signs. Toward the head of her stone the outline of the cross has been filled with an assortment of coins, mostly pennies. To the left of the cross is a small knot of pilgrim's medallions. To the right, beneath a stone, is a sheaf of office paper and a peacock feather. Weather, or some other life, has been working through the paper, and you can see the last page's words beginning to leech through into day, and you can see the previous pages through the lace that's being cut in the paper.
I cannot resist lifting one corner to discover that this is Sean Penner's paper for Professor Mangan's English 25A course. I don't see the title. I don't lift the paper to read. Only later do I think to see if Mangan teaches at GC&SU. He is, I discover, a Creative Writing instructor at El Camino College in Torrence, California. Sean Penner carried his story all the way to Milledgeville--perhaps in homage or offering or thanks, perhaps for inspiration or guidance.
In Oxford, one citizen I saw regularly told me she grew up near Rowan Oak, that she and her friends used to play on its grounds. Pappy Faulkner, as they called him, would occasionally tell them a story, such as the legend of the widow Shegogg, who threw herself from the portico balcony. Her ghost, he'd say, haunted the garden. At Pappy's suggestion, she tells me, she and her friends used to write questions--Does Timmy like me?--on slips of paper, then leave them in the crook of the magnolia tree that still stands at the head of the main walk. On return, they'd find their questions had been answered--by the widow Shegogg. They'd realize later Faulkner had written the answers himself, and that they'd all had original Faulkner manuscripts.
In Larry Levis's poem "Elegy with A Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," the poet's friend tells of the Sibyl of Cumae, granted eternal life but without youth, withering smaller with age, but protected in a bird's cage, passed down generation to generation, even into the recent past. You would think nothing was there, in the cage, but you would see a flash of light, a slight movement of the swing, the signs of the invisible sibyl. Eventually, Levis writes:
By summer the city parks had grown dangerous. No one went there anymore to drink wine, dance, & listen To metal amplified until it seemed, as it had Seemed once, the bitter, cleansing angel released at last from what Fettered it inside us. And maybe there Wasn't any angel after all. The times had changed. It became Difficult to tell for sure. And anyway, There was a law against it now; a law against gathering at night In the parks was actually all the law Said it was forbidden for us to do, but it came to the same thing. It meant you were no longer permitted to know, Or to decide for yourself, Whether there was an angel inside you, or whether there wasn't.
These places aren't, after all, merely shrines to genius, places for writers to worship or to pray. Nor are these places sites of self-congratulation. They are, instead, parks, places where we are reflected back to ourselves so we can see, each of us, what lives inside of us. We may believe, we may say we come for the writer's spirit. But we come for our own.
IN "THE DISPLACED Person," Mrs. Shortley, whom the story shows to be the most important adjunct of the farm, dies upon leaving it. She needs the farm--the place--in order to live, circumstances would suggest, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Embedded in the place, she not only has a home and a livelihood, but she has access to transcendence's machines. Hiding in the shade of a bush, Mrs. Shortley stands, transfixed by a peacock:
There she stood a while longer, reflecting, her unseeing eyes directly in front of the peacock's tail. He had jumped into the tree and his tail hung in front of her, full of fierce planets with eyes that were each ringed in green and set against a sun that was gold in one's second sight and salmon-colored in the next. She might have been looking at a map of the universe but she didn't notice it any more than she did the spots of the sky that cracked the dull green of the tree. She was having an inner vision instead.
At Andalusia now, those workmen are hammering away at the frame of what could be a smokehouse or a large outhouse but will be, Craig Amason explains, a peacock pen, large enough for a dozen or so birds. They've been gone from Andalusia for two decades, and now they're returning.
They will be here by Fall, about the time Intruder in the Dust flickers again in The Lyric, about the time Tom Freeland will be planning his year-end smoke. I will go back. I am already planning to go back. I imagine, as a gust of sparrows rises into a spruce tree across my street, watching the smoke unfold from the smokehouse, the fan of the peacock's tail.
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|Title Annotation:||60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue|
|Author:||York, Jake Adam|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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