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Small Georgia town a treat for fans of writer Flannery O’Connor

By Mary Ann Anderson, Tribune News Service
Published: May 4, 2024, 5:18am
5 Photos
About 90% of the artifacts are original at Andalusia Farm, once home to Flannery O&Ccedil;&fnof;&Ugrave;Connor, the purported queen of Southern Gothic. Shown here is the cookbook of Regina Cline O&Ccedil;&fnof;&Ugrave;Connor, Flannery O&Ccedil;&fnof;&Ugrave;Connor&Ccedil;&fnof;&Ugrave;s mother.
About 90% of the artifacts are original at Andalusia Farm, once home to Flannery OǃÙConnor, the purported queen of Southern Gothic. Shown here is the cookbook of Regina Cline OǃÙConnor, Flannery OǃÙConnorǃÙs mother. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS) (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS) Photo Gallery

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga.— When the Savannah-born Flannery O’Connor, widely regarded as the queen of Southern Gothic literature, moved home to Georgia from Connecticut in 1951, she was diagnosed with lupus, an incurable, crippling autoimmune disease. Her mother brought the then 25-year-old to live with her at Andalusia, the family farm just north of Milledgeville, a town of some 17,000 in the heart of Georgia’s lake country.

Environment is everything to a writer, and the venerable yet charming two-story white house rising on a hill and overlooking a quietly serene pond where Regina Cline O’Connor and her daughter lived is set among the hardwoods and pines on more than 500 acres of bucolic pastures and woodlands. It is peaceful here, despite the hectic four-lane U.S. 441 a stone’s throw away, and was the ideal place for the young writer to spend the last dozen years of her life writing much of her two novels and 32 short stories before she died at age 39 from the illness that also claimed her father.

The fans and scholars who appreciate Flannery O’Connor, Andalusia is the holy grail to absorb and understand all that is and was the writer and from where her creativity sprang.

“We call them Flanatics,” says Suzy Parker, a lively student-docent at Andalusia from nearby Milledgeville’s Georgia College and State University (GCSU) and expert on all things Flannery.

Among that number of Flanatics are Ethan Hawke, who directed, produced and co-wrote “Wildcat,” a 2023 biopic that brings O’Connor to life and rolls out nationally in May, and his daughter, Maya, who portrays the radical if not groundbreaking O’Connor. Laura Linney, whose mother is from Georgia, plays the steel magnolia of Regina. “Wildcat” weaves together O’Connor’s life story with reenactments of her short stories, with Hollywood heavyweights Liam Neeson, Steven Zahn and Vincent D’Onofrio rounding out the stellar cast.

Southern Gothic literature captures the essence of the rural South that we sometimes really don’t want to admit is real. If you’ve read O’Connor, then you know her stories and characters are disturbing, strange and specialized.

Outside of these peaceful red-clay landscapes and small towns is a side of Georgia that O’Connor conjures in her mind, among them the sinister murderer called The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the loquacious Tom T. Shiflet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” with Shiflet a name that O’Connor plucked from the Milledgeville phone book; and the ungrateful, selfish Julian in “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”

“People come from all over the world for Flannery,” Parker explains. “Spain, California, India, England. She is considered a saint by Europeans. They come here to understand who she is and where she came from and can relate more to her writing by coming here. It humanizes her.”

Andalusia Farm, dating to 1814 when it produced primarily cotton, isn’t the only Flanatic stop in Milledgeville. The first stop, even before the farmhouse tour, should be GCSU’s Andalusia Interpretive Center, perched on a hill as you drive through the gate of Andalusia and up a gravel road. Open for just over a year, the bright barn-like structure encompasses more than 5,000 square feet of exhibition and conference space, a gift shop and, most importantly, an extremely detailed timeline of O’Connor’s life and artifacts including a few of her dresses.

I visit Andalusia with family members, and as we begin the house tour after visiting the interpretive center, Parker tells us that about 90 percent of the furnishings in the house are original.

“Flannery’s health didn’t allow her to climb the stairs,” explains Parker. “So her first-floor bedroom served double-duty as her office.”

The room is much the way O’Connor left it, even her crutches that she used when she couldn’t walk on her own anymore lean silently against the armoire. Her bed with its plaid quilt is still there, as are the dark blue plaid matching curtains. A typewriter is on the desk beside the bed and looks at the back of the armoire. Parker said that O’Connor wrote religiously every morning for three to four hours, facing the bleak rearmost of the armoire so that she wouldn’t be distracted from the goings-on around the farm, including birds galore and her famous peacocks that roamed the yard. The room was simple, dark, maybe a little musty — the home was built in the early 19th century — but it also had the ambiance that great words and stories were created within these wooden walls.

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Later, as we stand and talk on the long, screened-in front porch with its row of white rocking chairs, a fat black rat snake suns itself in the garden, oblivious and uncaring as it enjoys the warmth of the springtime sun. Andalusia is in the countryside, and snakes, coyotes and other varmints are not uncommon.

Moving past Andalusia

Several historic sites dotting Milledgeville also tell the literary legacy of O’Connor. GCSU’s Heritage Hall in the downtown houses a special collections library including the Flannery O’Connor Gallery of Southern Literary Works. Other memorabilia and papers include the works of Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” and former U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, as well as collections related to Milledgeville’s contributions to the music industry.

Other places represent O’Connor’s childhood and life, including the Gothic Revival-style Sacred Heart Catholic Church, built in 1874 and where the writer attended church. You can also drive by the Cline-O’Connor-Florencourt House, often referred to as simply the Cline Mansion, where O’Connor lived throughout high school and college. The 1820 federal-style home is adorned with Ionic columns and Victorian touches. The house remains in the family as a private residence. Also visit O’Connor’s plain grave at Memory Hill Cemetery where she’s buried next to her father and mother. Fans have left tokens such as peacock feathers, coins, pebbles, poems and journals.

Milledgeville more than Flannery

There is more to do in Milledgeville than chase the ghost of Flannery O’Connor.

Popping into the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, I meet Rebekah Snider, its executive director.

“People come for the lake and for the history and culture,” she says, noting that nearby Lake Sinclair covers some 15,300 acres of coves, marinas and vast open stretches of water perfect for fishing, swimming and boating. She also says that two “high demand” trolley tours are offered on weekends by reservation only, including a one-hour history tour that will take you past some of the most beautiful antebellum architecture in Georgia.

The other is a two-hour tour to the 2,000-acre Central State Hospital, originally known as the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum.