There was only one thought in his mind, he was going to buy a car. The thought was full-grown in his head when he woke up, and he didn’t think of anything else. He had never thought before of buying a car, he had never even wanted one before,…. He had only fifty dollars, but he thought he could buy a car for that.
Haze Motes, Wise Blood
Lupus made it increasingly difficult for Flannery O’Connor to get around. Her aluminum walking sticks were a vast improvement over the gothic wooden crutches, and although her health was not always in decline, she trod uphill on whichever road she chose, even in the best of times. In March 1958, a trip to Lourdes pressed upon her by a well-intentioned relative filled Flannery with dread. She told the Fitzgeralds, ” A 22-hour train trip would be the end of me,….” (HoB 272). The prospect of the travel even left her incapable of enjoying the irony of “death inflicted by miracle cure.”
The gears of her joints ground beneath uncustomary movement and prolonged confinement. Any locomotion except the most mundane was slow and potentially painful. A bunker of her desk and her bed minimized the need for movement even within her bedroom at Andalusia.
Vehicles represent one of the threats of modern living in O’Connor’s stories. The tractor in “The Displaced Person” is murderous. The family car in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” betrays a family to mayhem. The farm’s pickup becomes the equalizer in a battle between a mortal woman and a Bovine Deity in “Greenleaf,” ultimately turning the docile bovine manic. Tom Shiftlet, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” abandons innocent mute Lucynell while defrauding her mother of a derelict car.
FO’C clearly preferred pre-industrial and natural living, but she would not surrender to confinement. She bravely squeezed herself into planes, buses, trains, pickups, and Plymouths packing off to paying engagements that made her financially independent. Modern transportation gave her the freedom, however uncomfortable, to support herself while writing her morality plays. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell expressed this discomfort with modernity in her poem “Flannery’s Failure”:
If belonging to modernity means/ Knowing how to work machines/ I am more medieval than I'm a la mode. (99)
Indomitably, Flannery determined to drive. Like each of her achievements, driving didn’t come easy. Her first crack at the driver’s test left the examiner huddled against the door, pronouncing, “I think you need sommo practice.” She had gone uphill in a gear too high, careened down the far side out of control, left the road, and trespassed onto a once pastoral lawn. Still, she persevered and a few weeks later was able to report to Betty Hester:
As for me, I have risen greatly in my own estimation. I am now licensed to operate a motor vehicle in the state of Georgia, passing the driver’s test with an excellent grade of 77. I am now persuading my mother to buy a car with automatic transmission and power steering. I figure this will add some years to her life as well as making it easier on me. Right now we favor the Plymouth. She says she will not have one that looks like an Easter egg so we are looking for a black one. (HoB 291)
That was in July of 1958. By November, she still had not ventured onto the road. Father McCown asked Flannery to stop by to visit his mother, but Miss O’Connor deferred, “traveling is getting harder and harder for me. We don’t have a driver anymore” (HoB 303). Presumably, that driver was a farmhand with a license.
The following April, Regina was hospitalized; this may have been the catalyst that moved FO’C to embrace vehicular independence. She wrote:
My parent spent three days this week in the hospital….during which time I pioneered in driving the car, solo, in town and back. I transported my aunt Mary and her cook on two occasions and they didn’t seem noticeably to hold their breaths. In fact the cook was very complimentary. Miss Mary is a bad driver herself so remarks from her would not have been in order. (HoB 328)
The O’Connors had been in search of an automobile that spoke Milledgeville Truth. A photo exists of Flannery on her aluminum kick-stands next to a station wagon, perhaps with the luxury of automatic transmission and power steering delivered like divine grace. That right car wasn’t easily found. One progress report confided,
My mother’s [workman’s- Sally Fitzgerald’s brackets] cousin is going to the army and wanted to sell his car and [he] tried to sell it to us— he said. ‘It’s so pretty that when your’re in it, it’s just like being in a funerl parlor.’ It was red and white. We didn’t get it. (HoB 293)
But soon another letter rejoiced,
Our new car has arrived. It is black, hearse-like dignified, a rolling momento mori. Brother Louis got it for us in Atlanta from a man named Young who called up to sell it to us and told us he [Louis] was just like one of his brothers and made a slight reduction in price. (HoB 294)
After all that money sent to Flannery by the Ford Foundation and after repeated promises to pray for Henry Ford’s salvation, buying a Chrysler product seems uncharacteristically calloused. Perhaps it was a penance imposed for Henry’s good.
A letter from Caroline Gordon Tate to Flannery recants a harried drive in the company of Trappists, cut-off by an antisocial Kentucky pick-em-up and sideswiped. The incident left Gordon Tate rattled beyond all punctuation. There is no apparent correlation between salvation and transportation. Then again, there may be. Even as an urban urchin, I believed that civilization might end from the effects of air conditioning that drove city-dwelling parents off their porches, leaving dirty-faced boys like me unsupervised on summer streets after dark. If the end didn’t come through air conditioning, I harbored a vague and unsophisticated idea that the family car would crash society, speeding the end of public transportation and cementing class isolation. Flannery may have agreed with me:
I should ride the bus more often. I used to when I went to school in Iowa, as I rode the train from Atl and the bus from M’ville, but no more. Once I heard the driver say to the rear occupants, “All right, all you stove-pipe blonds, git on back ther.” At which moment I became an integrationist (HoB 253).
Alaimo O’Donnell, Angela. Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor. Paraclete Press, 2020, p. 99.
O’Connor, Flannery and Caroline Gordon Tate. The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, Editor Christine Flanagan. University of Georgia Press, 2018.
O’Connor, Flannery. Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being, O’Connor, Flannery. Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being, Editor Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. [HoB]
O.Connor, Flannery. O’Connor: Collected Works, O’Connor, Flannery. Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being, Editor Sally Fitzgerald. The Library of America, 1988, p. 37.