In Search of Flannery & Alice
It’s Labor Day and you better believe traffic headed north on I-75 toward Atlanta will be thick, possibly even crawling. So I take a trick from Mama’s playbook; avoid the interstate on my way to the Atlanta airport. I steer my rented Altima northeast toward Macon, intent on traveling 2-lane blacktop highways and taking an impromptu literary detour.
Destination: Andalusia Farm in *Milledgeville, Georgia.
Flannery O’Connor lived with her mother, Regina, at Andalusia Farm from 1951 until her death from lupus in 1964 (I was one year old). I’ve been wanting to stop by Andalusia for a few years, every time I travel back to Georgia to visit family, but it has never worked out.
Flannery is best known for her Southern Gothic tale A Good Man is Hard to Find, plus many other short stories and novels.
From Warner Robins, it takes an hour and 15 minutes to find the house on N. Columbia Street, a well-trafficked four-lane highway. When I turn into Andalusia’s drive at 2628 N. Columbia Street opposite Butler Ford, America’s Best Value Inn and Badcock Home Furniture, a locked gate with a “no trespassing” sign cuts my trip short.
I had checked the website before setting out and knew the house was closed; I just couldn’t resist stopping by in case, through some miracle, it was accessible. The only content on andalusiafarm.org had read:
“We are hard at work readying Andalusia for its reopening as a historic house museum at Georgia College. During this transition, we will be temporarily closed to the public. Information on the reopening of the museum will be posted on this site, and our social media pages. Thank you for your continued support!”
I later learn that just the month before, on August 8, a small celebration was held at the house when the Flannery O’Connor Andalusia Foundation gifted the Andalusia house to Georgia College and State University, whose campus is only four miles away. Flannery is an alumni of the college. Watch a short video here.
Garden & Gun magazine published a September 22, 2017, article titled Flannery O’Connor: Under New Management about the house getting a new start with Georgia College. Here’s a photo of the house credited to the college that ran in Garden & Gun.
At the locked gate, I think maybe I can at least see the house from the drive, perhaps spot one of the peacocks strolling through the yard, generations removed from the ones Flannery used to raise here.
But, no. Another sign indicates the house is two miles away, too far to see beyond the trees surrounding the drive. Looking at the property on Google maps gives you a feel for how peaceful the area is. Although N. Columbia Street is also busy U.S. 441 highway, the tree-dotted land immediately surrounding Andalusia is undeveloped.
Liking Andalusia’s Facebook page is as close as I’ve gotten to seeing the house in the 21st century. While there isn’t a ton of information on the FB page, there are photos of renovations to the Hill House (called “the tenant’s farmer’s house” in the first black and white photo below) that started in 2011.
Writers in Residence: American Authors at Home, published in 1981, contains images of homes and writing spaces of writers from across the U.S.
Glynne Robinson Betts traveled widely to write the content and take the photos. Often, she was given tours by the authors themselves, but at Andalusia, Mrs. Regina O’Connor was her tour guide. Here are the resulting pages.
It’s telling that all but one of the photos are of the exterior and the land; most people know that “place” is as much a character in Southern writing as are the people. In her book, Betts writes this about Flannery: “In her book-lined bedroom on the ground floor of the farmhouse, her desk turned away from the inviting front windows, she wrote about the country people of the Georgia Bible Belt, their strengths and peculiarities.”
When Georgia College re-opens Andalusia Farm, I’m coming back to see that bedroom and, hopefully, that writing desk!!
Undeterred, I put “Wards Chapel Road” into google maps on my iPhone and drive 15-minutes to where Alice Walker grew up just outside of Eatonton, Georgia.
Along Wards Chapel Road are: 1) the place where Alice was born on Feb. 9, 1944, to her sharecropper parents, Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant; 2) her family home, called Grant Plantation; 3) the Wards Chapel cemetery where her parents and other ancestors are buried; and 4) the Wards Chapel A.M.E. church which Alice attended.
I drive up and down the road, twice, looking for signs of her birthplace and homes, but can only find the church, obviously unused now, but neatly maintained. I imagine what it was like for Alice and her family to walk to the tiny church each Sunday on a once-dirt road in the segregated South.
Alice is best known for writing “The Color Purple,” which won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. While she’s a talented and award-winning writer, Alice did so many other amazing things.
She married Melvyn Leventhal, a white civil rights activist in 1967, the year the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage on June 12. Alice and Melvyn were brave to live in Mississippi. Her book The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart, published in 2000, is a quasi-fictional portrayal of that marriage. The book “opens with a story, merging fact and fiction, of my version of our life together,” she writes, “when we lived in the racially volatile and violent Deep South state of Mississippi.”
Alice was later an editor at Ms. Magazine and went on to become a professor at Brandeis and Berkley Universities, and wrote several more novels and collections of poetry.
Alice’s mother, Minnie Lou, a well-known gardener in Eatonton, once said, “A house without flowers is like a face without a smile.” And Alice once said, “In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” She even wrote a book of essays, articles, and speeches entitled In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose.
In 1974, Alice and Minnie Lou visited O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm where Alice was delighted with the peacocks. The Southern Literary Trail website describes an interaction between mother and daughter. “[Alice] said the peacocks in O’Connor’s yard ‘lifted their splendid tails for our edification. One peacock is so involved in the presentation of his masterpiece he does not allow us to move the car until he finishes with his show.’ When Alice commented that the Farm’s peacocks were inspiring, even while blocking the car, Minnie Lou responded, ‘Yes, and they’ll eat up every bloom you have, if you don’t watch out.’“
At age 73, Alice’s contemporary writings and poems are imminently accessible on her official website, alicewalkersgarden.com. Dig in deeply to the poems, videos, photos, complete essays and articles about plays, musicals, books, her personal past and other things impressing Alice lately. Fascinating.
Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), also from Eatonton, Georgia, is remembered mostly as an Atlantan because he spent much of his adult life living at the Wren’s Nest, which is now the oldest house museum in Atlanta. Harris was a journalist and editor at the Atlanta Constitution until 1900, but he’s most famous for the Br’er Rabbit stories told by Uncle Remus.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some people didn’t have a problem with Harris’ stories written in African-American dialect of the mid-1800s, and set on plantations. In fact, he was reported to be the second-most-read American writer of his day, behind Mark Twain.
If you still remember those Br’er Rabbit stories, you can visit the Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, housed in a log cabin. I drive past it and remember visiting the museum as a child (45 years ago). Controversies seemed to start up around his writings after Disney released their version of the Br’er Rabbit stories in the movie Song of the South in1946.
Funnily enough, The Institute of Southern Studies published an article by Alice Walker in the Summer 1981 edition of the Southern Exposure Journal entitled, Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine. Walker writes:
“Our whole town turned out for this movie: black children and their parents in the colored section, white children and their parents in the white section. Remus in the movie saw fit to ignore, basically, his own children and grandchildren in order to pass on our heritage–indeed, our birthright–to patronizing white children who seemed to regard him as a kind of talking teddy bear. I don’t know how old I was when I saw this film–probably eight or nine–but I experienced it as a vast alienation, not only from the likes of Uncle Remus–in whom I saw aspects of my father, my mother, in fact all black people I knew who told these stories–but also from the stories themselves, which, passed into the context of white people’s creation, I perceived as meaningless. So there I was, at an early age, separated from my own folk culture by an invention.”
Within a 30-mile radius, and in successive generations, three wordsmiths were nurtured by their surroundings of red clay roads and Pine forests. Their works would find their way out of central Georgia, and then out of Georgia and ultimately around the world.
Leaving Eatonton, I continue on back roads through lake country — Lake Sinclair and Lake Oconee — toward the airport, hitting the expressway and remembering what it was like to call Atlanta home for 15 years, battling constant traffic. Such a contrast to driving the slower-paced back roads lined with dense trees, winding toward the home-places of great writers.
- Milledgeville was the capitol of Georgia from 1804 until 1868. On January 19, 1861, Georgia’s Secession Committee met in the capital building and voted to secede from the Union. On his march to the sea, Sherman and his Union Army occupied the city of Milledgeville on November 23, 1864. Wikipedia tells us, “In 1868, during Reconstruction, the legislature moved the capital to Atlanta, a city emerging as the symbol of the New South as opposed to Milledgeville, seen as being connected to the Old South.”