Among the invitations extended to Cathy and me when we visited Milledgeville was an opportunity to attend the groundbreaking for the Andalusia Interpretative Center. The Center would be planted on the farm where Flannery O’Connor lived, wrote, and raised fowl from 1951 until “the red wolf” of Lupus took her in 1964. We were pleased to receive the invitation. It was another happy coincidence afforded by the timing of our visit. We planned on visiting the hermitage and reliquary farm that morning, so the timing could not be happier. We thought we might get to observe some of the bright lights of the Flannery Scholarly Constellation.
At 10 o’clock on a bright Georgia morning, we were pleased to observe Louise Flourencourt, trustee and proximate family to the great Flannery. Few other shooting stars flashed past the groundbreaking. We had already been honored to meet Dr. Bruce Gentry, an expert in FO’C’s body of work. We had also enjoyed the good offices of Nancy Davis Bray, curator of GCSU’s Special Collections. They serve the community of O’Connor devotees every day, and enough wisdom and good grace brushed off those two alone to make the journey worthwhile. It was disappointing that academics from across the country didn’t stream or even trickle into Milledgeville for the groundbreaking like the House of David beating a path toward Bethlemen for the great Augustinian Census.
America doesn’t honor American writers as other countries honor writers. In Montréal, Dublin, Soule, and Trieste, the celebration of the writing of James Joyce for a Bloomsday festival stretches the seams of a week. “The Joyce Industry” rewards authors, researchers, and professors for the exercise of their passion every June. It’s not that there is no appetite for the celebration of literature in America. There are globally renowned Bloomsday celebrations on Broadway and in Philadelphia, but there is no grand national event honoring Faulkner, Dickinson, Melville, Hemingway, or Whitman either. That O’Connor, among the most respected of American authors, can’t draw a decent mob for two hours on a flawless Fall day is sad if not shocking. It’s not the product at fault; it’s the marketing.
Mary Flannery isn’t the problem either. The Center is a modest venture, planned at $3.4million. If the posterboard notice propped against the wall of the “Shipley’s” cabin on the Andalusian grounds is correct, the small O’Connor homestead cost $2 million to renovate. The Andalusia groundbreaking competed on that day with the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Georgia College and State University’s $22.1 million Integrated Science Complex. The amount spent on the Andalusia Interpretative Center isn’t the problem either. The problem might be that more attendees wielded shovels than books. I have found no YouTube video of the event. This is the heritage of a prophetess without honor on her own farm.
Perhaps all ceremonial shoveling is designed to inspire construction teams. The day’s speeches addressed the project but did not delve into the exhibits that would draw an audience to the finished Center. There was no more than nominal mention of the artist herself, though many of her best stories sprung from this land. The architect could have interested the audience by showing how this design best serves Flannery. He might lure back readers, not for the next ribbon-cutting, but to stroll, read, and interact–had the architect spoke, had many readers been present. Discussion of the stories played out on Andalusia’s pastures or about Flannery’s character would have moved readers too. Afterward, in Regina’s house, a docent said that all hands mustered that morning, not knowing how many people would wander up from the meadow after the shovel turning. We were inside the house and at the peafowl pen for an hour and more after the ceremony. Only one other party of three people ventured up the gravel drive.
Imagine how Miss O’Connor would have sung out that famous laugh over the event. How would she describe ten gold shovels scratching a handful of mortal soil each? Imagine how she would have tickled Caroline, Sally, Hester, and all with the story of hardhats held without a clue as to which end was fore and which end aft. It would have made a story, no doubt a morality play with a belly laugh.
Flannery’s heritage suffers a disadvantage. She travels spacetime toward us from another era. This world misunderstands her with even more determination than did her contemporaries. Today, she is a moralist in a world almost purely secular, and she a grotesque like her own fictional inventions. Flannery understood the business of being published, ACTH and transfusions were expensive then too, but if the legacy is to survive, it will take more than business.
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