A “Millgrimage” to Milledgeville: A Classroom of Flannery with Dr. Marshall Bruce Gentry at GCSU

One most pleasant surprise of our visit to Andalusia and Flannery’s alma mater in Milledgeville was the invitation to sit with Bruce Gentry’s scholars on September 27. 

We first encountered Dr. Gentry digitally during the International Flannery O’Connor Conference in early August (2021). Bruce, who edits and writes for the Flannery O’Connor Review, had the conference Zoomers halting their walking-in-place and bookshelf dusting as he explored the comparative treatment of amputees by writers doing homage (or damage) to O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” One gem he mined was an exploration of Joyce Carol Oates’ treatment of physical disfigurement in “Amputee.” Bruce pointed to the degradation of the comparison. O’Connor’s sometimes infused “otherness” with grace, as in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” At other times, she used the grotesque as a merit badge of nihilism as she did in “Good Country People.” Oates departs O’Connor’s precedent making her amputee an icon of Postmodernism. JCO elevates “otherness” creating in her character a token of sexual conquest in the casino of the Twentyfirst Century. Oates’ theme: “God meant to mock: a pretty-girl face on a broken body” became a focus of fascination in Bruce’s discussion. 

When we asked for access to O’Connor’s manuscripts, we expected a response from Special Collections. We’ll post more about Nancy Davis Bray’s benefices soon, but Nancy’s reply included invitations from Bruce Gentry too. We could not have anticipated the generosity of Dr. Gentry’s hospitality. He offered links to two express but expert discussions of Wise Blood conducted in September and October. I wasn’t certain how this could be conjured, but it seems Bruce has done this before. His overview wasn’t a shoveling out of CliffNote factuals. He marked the significant themes with notes that don’t replace a careful reading but enhance it. I was happy to hear him confirm my thinking that the Redcap is, in fact, a railroading prodigal son. He disagreed with my (okay, sigh) overly optimistic hopes for Haze Mote’s salvation. I’ll hear his conclusion in two weeks.

Sandwiched between bookended digital Wise Blood discussions was another invitation. That was for seated attendance in the Gentry classroom, where undergraduate and graduate inspiration is fostered in a single class. The academic diversity of this class requires special handling. We could only guess at how diverse the students’ academic interests were. One self-identified as a film major, and another may have studied Social Sciences or Psychology. One might have been pursuing studies in Literature. Posing and answering questions in this advanced class while maintaining the interest of such a group requires surgical skill– not too broad for the specialist, nor too focused for the generalist. Every response directly responded to a questioner’s particular interest while sparking general attention among the class. This pedagogical deftness speaks nothing of the depth of this professor’s boundless subject matter mastery. 

Flannery O’Connor’s generosity toward correspondents is legendary. When questions were vapid, she was usually gentle unless they offended her religious sensibilities. With some frequency, she invited continued contact, explained her process and the intent of her writing. Sometimes she provided materials for the novice writer’s development. That spirit lives on in Milledgeville. I taught on the lowest rung of higher education for thirteen years. I confess that I never mastered the easy and judgment-neutral style of feedback that got the same reception from students, whether the feedback was approbation or remediation. At GCSU, student comments are bent from dark night toward morning. No one gives feedback more effectively. No instructor is more gently collaborative. No instructor better handles dense subject matter improvisationally.

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