(FOC) A “Millgrimage” to Milledgeville: Special Collections- September 28, 2021

The second floor of the Ina Dillard Russell Library is a lively place. Classgoers speak aloud to a zooming diaspora. Study groups hawk their ideas in voices that drift up and out over the academic bazaar. Enthusiasm bests collegiality here. The lone scholar is a peculiar sight. She may cover herself with a whiteboard of words circled, arrowed, and webbed. I came from a time and place when the best libraries were famously monkish. “Shhh!” was a greeting. Collections hired librarians for encyclopedic memories and withering scowls.

From the circulation desk, the researcher follows an escort through the long arcade. Go left at the glass wall. Then through the locked metal doors. There the collection’s security becomes obvious. A battery of networked PCs sentinels stands watch against online incursions against the collection and copyright infringement. Through another steel door, find the inner sanctum. Laptops are allowed into the researchers’ fishbowl. Selfies with the documents are verboten, but review the bound catalog, select the document that tweaks your curiosity, and your fascination rekindles like when it first flickered.

Unlike those “librarians” of my epoch, Nancy Davis Bray and her team are scowl-free. I have visited a reading room at the New York 42nd Street Library. There is a reason why the Stone Lions sit outside, 42nd Street was more welcoming than among the stacks. There a pile of the requested works were trundled in, dumped, and thumped on a table. The attendant was subway polite, littering a nicety in exit, back across the threshold. Not so at the “Ina.” Nancy’s welcome was shocking before we ever met her. Permissions, pathfinding, parking permit. Later there would be introductions and Milledgeville advice (“the cemetery closes at six”). Best of all was a richness of anecdotes she was willing to share. The curator of the Collections at the Ina is gracious with her time and her memories of the Flannery Community as well as with the materials under her care. She is Beatrice, and we are guided to Paradiso.

The purpose of my visit was to investigate the manuscripts of stories that might be compared to others by Faulkner, whose writing O’Connor found so moving. I signed a commitment to include an acknowledgment of the debt incurred to the Foundation and asked to see the copies of available manuscripts for FO’C’s stories “The Turkey,” “The River,” and “A Circle in the Fire.” The few pages of “The Turkey” had a limited number of corrections. I might have expected this since the early versions of the story were written while Flannery was still at The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Many more pages and even iterative versions of pages surfaced from “A Circle in the Fire.” A few wording improvements, reference corrections, some changes from pronouns to nouns. No changes were more significant than could be accomplished with three or four words. These might have included final drafts and penultimates. Only a bit of a manuscript of “The River” was available, but this was (not to stack one manuscript on another) a ‘”revelation.” In this very early version, Boy Bevel’s father is more than numbed by a morning-after weakness. He is foul-tempered and potentially brutish. Mrs. Conin, not yet known by that name, is more avaricious and somewhat unpleasant too. 

Meanwhile, my fellow pilgrim plowed through Mary Flannery’s early sketches and linographs. She was especially interested in Flannery’s childhood drawing of a girl and her turkey. Here she floated above the fowl like an inversion of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Edward O’Connor carried that sketch in his wallet like a lucky penny. Nancy broke away from her duties to see that beautiful childhood memory was put into the hands of the person who would best adore it.

The day done, and with directions from Nancy Davis Bray (“the graves are to the left and against the fence”), we stood before the graves of Edward Francis, Regina Cline, and Mary Flannery O’Connor.

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance and permission of the Georgia College & State University, The Flannery O’Connor Collection, The Estate of Mary Flannery O’Connor, and The Flannery O’Connor Foundation. Particular thanks are due to the curator of the collection, Nancy Davis Bray, and her entire team.

A Final Note

Before our visit, I wrote an essay contrasting O’Connor’s “The River” and James Joyce’s story “Grace.” The required acknowledgment of the Foundation and GCSU offices will accompany its publication. I don’t know, however, if I will continue to write criticism about O’Connor’s work in the future. The rules applied to control O’Connor’s works are inscrutable given my layperson’s understanding of copyright law. I regret this, believing more exposure could draw young and international readers to O’Connor’s in greater numbers.


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