Flannery O’Connor — The House I Grew Up In, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
It’s almost time to leave the South. It seems like I’ve been gone forever. I had hoped to write more from the road but, I tell you, I’ve just been too exhausted when I drop into bed at night. That on-the-road research and writing takes a toll. And so does the heat. Yesterday it was 95 with a heat index of 108. Humidity like that saps my energy, and takes my breath away. This is the South of Flannery O’Connor.
To really get to know a writer, you need to walk in her shoes, live for a while where she lived, breathe the air she breathed, visit the places she called home. Flannery spent her childhood years until the age of 13 in the heart of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. She lived in an 1856 Savannah gray brick home owned by her beloved Cousin Katie. At the time the O’Connors lived in Savannah (from March 25th, 1925 to March, 1938 when the family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia) the population was three to four times greater than it is today.
According to the notes from a talk by Bill Dawers at the O’Connor home last December, a dozen or more people might have lived in the modest home in Lafayette Square in a dwelling that now houses only two or three. Savannah was more integrated with regard to race and class in the 1930′s, too. Before the automobile and the suburbs, nearly all Savannahians lived north of Victory Drive and people from all walks of life bumped into each other on Savannah’s city streets.
The two days we visited Savannah were sweltering hot; the evenings surrendered to cool breezes pooling off the river. We ate at a place called Moon River and walked through Greene Square (one of Oglethorpe’s many city squares) on the way back to our hotel room that night. Our visit was brief, as we spent most of our time down on St. Simons Island about 80 miles south; every minute counted. Our last stop heading out of Savannah was Flannery’s childhood home in Lafayette Square. She could see the spire of the Catholic church where her family worshipped from their second story bedroom.
The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation celebrated her March 25th birthday on Friday, April 11th, by having a cookout and celebratory burning of the 207 East Charlton Street mortgage papers that had just been retired. Their vision of establishing, preserving, and maintaining the birthplace of writer Flannery O’Connor began in 1987. I am grateful for their perseverance.
A generous donation from Jerry Bruckheimer (whose wife, Linda, has long been a fan of O’Connor) restored a 1950′s kitchen back to the family library where Flannery learned to write and read. Many people have donated time, money, and original family furnishings, and the Florencourt Sisters, Louise and Frances, keep the aim true to the writer. It’s a partnership between many that works for the good of all.
My small donation was to purchase a few books before we left and the friendly and knowledgeable guide closed the doors for the day on Flannery’s childhood home. One came highly recommended — The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit Of Being. The guide told me if I want to learn about writing, read Flannery’s letters. I highly recommend them. Flannery called herself an “innocent speller” and I’m encouraged to see the humility she embodied through her casual misspellings and religious letter writing.
Before she flew back to Minneapolis earlier this week, Liz and I started reading the letters out loud to one another. My favorite time was sitting over Clarks Hill in the sultry afternoon heat, barely able to move, with the neighbor’s peacocks welting out their prehistoric caw in the distance. Flannery loved peacocks. In fact, she loved all birds, domestic and wild. Her letters are full of fowl references and a wicked Southern sense of humor that rattles my funny bone (I can relate, having grown up with it myself).
The Habit Of Being is a thick tome. I’m reading her letters in chronological order from beginning to end. The sweat that pours off of me each day I’ve spent in the South only reinforces childhood memories of the slowness with which people move, the Southern drawl that rolls off the front of the mouth, the sweet iced tea and grits, the longing for that one next simple breeze.
Flannery died in 1964 at the age of 39. She suffered from lupus. It did not keep her from writing two collections of short stories (A Good Man Is Hard To Find, Everything That Rises Must Converge) and two novels (Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away), and winning the O. Henry Award three times as well as being the posthumous winner of the National Book Award in 1972. Flannery lives on in her work and the lively letters edited by her close friend, Sally Fitzgerald.
Though she doesn’t write much about Savannah or her childhood in the letters, Flannery calls Cousin Katie’s home on Lafayette Square “the house I grew up in.” She slept in the room on the second floor over the kitchen with bright windows that look out over what was then a dirt courtyard. At the age of five, she taught a chicken, a buff Cochin Bantam, to walk backwards in that very courtyard (there are 15 seconds of movie to prove it). And she makes this comment in a letter to Maryat Lee: “I think you probably collect most of your experiences as a child — when you really had nothing else to do — and then transfer it to other situations when you write.”
It is to this end, that our childhood homes hold the weight of being. Think about the house you grew up in. Is it surrounded by farmland, an urban parking lot, mountains, desert, rivers or streams?
I travel back to the quicksand, red clay, and gangly pines of the Southern hometown where I spent my childhood (same years as Flannery, birth to 13) in hopes of learning what I am made of. I always drive by the house I grew up in. It’s a part of me that has taken years to understand. I’m still gathering like a maniac. I’m still unraveling.
Flannery O’Connor’s Childhood Home, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008,
all photos © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
We were not permitted to take photographs inside the Flannery O’Connor home except in one location. I did capture a few images of the writer there. But I think I’ll save them for Part II. Part I is about home and the sense of place that surrounds us growing up. In Part II, I hope to talk more about what I’ve learned about Flannery from her letters, visiting her Savannah home, and the way she lived her life.
-posted on red Ravine, Friday, August 1st, 2008