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In Search of Flannery O’Connor

ISSUE:  Spring 1983

Both students are dog tired when they find me in the outskirts of Atlanta because they have driven, day and night, to deliver the car. We meet to make the last leg of our pilgrimage to the Georgia heartland, to the region Flannery O’Connor used for nearly all her fiction. We are on the way to catalog the library she left behind, to see what it was that may have informed and guided her vision and her writing. When I take the wheel, they fall into fitful sleep, and I am alone. I am apprehensive, elated, curious, expectant: a Yankee come to the Deep South.

There doesn’t seem much cause for anxiety, though, as we pass through the gently rolling high plateau of the Georgia Piedmont, where dairy farms and corn and soybeans have long replaced cotton and tobacco. It takes less than two hours, it turns out, to reach Milledgeville, the old capitol of Georgia until Sherman seized the town on his march to the sea in 1864, a town named for Governor John Milledge which was settled in 1803 when the Indian territory between the Oconee and Chattahoochee rivers was distributed by lottery. It is a residence for legacies of the past. The state capitol is now part of the campus of Georgia Military College, stiff with students and cadets. Nearby is Liberty Street, still the grandest street in town, where blacks are by custom still expected to walk in the street, although one black section in town— blacks comprise nearly half the population here—is at one end near Memory Hill Cemetery, where Flannery is buried (and where they will bury Carl Vinson before I leave). At the other end of Liberty Street Flannery’s mother still lives, just in front of Georgia College. Since Flannery’s day, her alma mater has become coeducational and integrated.

We spend our first hours in reconnaisance. Just outside town, in neighboring Hardwick, is the state’s largest mental hospital, along with a penitentiary for women, a retirement home for veterans, and a senior citizens’ center. Here lunatics stroll grounds swept clean as a college campus on graduation day and inhabited by imposing buildings that read “Chapel” and “Auditorium” and “Engineering,” to all appearances a quiet and peaceful village. It is on the road to Toomsboro, and across the road from the largest forest in Baldwin County. I learn that “The Misfit” was the name of a crazed, escaped convict whose name was in the newspapers when Flannery was writing “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and that his escape route is geographically precise. That story is not so much parable as fact. So is “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which pretends to turn into fable the actual graduation of a wife of a Confederate soldier at Russell Auditorium, where Flannery O’Connor herself graduated. Everything in Milledgeville, I find, seems to strain toward metaphor.

Thursday. I have been assigned Sally Fitzgerald’s guest room in the Esther Cathy Alumni-Faculty Center on West Hancock Street, a huge Tudor house carefully modeled after an estate in Surrey. My bedroom is characterized by heavy Victorian pieces—I will see them wherever I go in the homes of Milledgeville—and it adjoins a private bathroom with an ancient tub, and an office, and I am urged to use the parlors and kitchen downstairs during the evening when the center is shut. There is no air conditioning, but there is a floor fan which I can turn on when it gets too warm at night. (A few days later, Dean Rusk will use this room as the commencement speaker, and they will install air conditioning.) I feel warm and comfortable until I return the next noon to find small schoolchildren running through the house and through my room, poking at my papers; two days later and I will be blocked from the stairs to my room by a formal wedding reception.

At the O’Connor Room in the college library where her books are now displayed, friendly librarians staff the room in hourly shifts: here I am surrounded by replicas of peacocks and childhood photographs of O’Connor. Her books are in two large Victorian bookcases she bought back at a family auction in Savannah—one is stuffed with books on theology, the Bible, and the lives of saints; the other is crammed with novels and books of literary criticism as well as anthologies which include her own work. The photographs come to haunt me, showing as they do a young and lively, inquisitive and studious girl turning into a woman puffy and dour from lupus.

Friday. Just as there are many Milledgevilles, so there seem to be many Flannery O’Connors. Some townspeople tell me how quiet and shy she was, others how tough-minded and snobbish. Over gin and tonic on his gallery, a member of the Georgia College faculty tells me those who knew O’Connor best do not idolize her. He tells me of the aged black servant at the governor’s mansion; when he asked her what she thought of the author she knew as a young girl after reading her letters, with their acerbic wit and firm judgments, she replied, “You never does know a person till he dead, does you?”

During these first days, everyone takes notice of me and my Massachusetts license plate. The girl at the local Big Boy restaurant tells me her aunt knew O’Connor and would just love to talk to me. The gas station attendant, noticing the O’Connor books on the dashboard, says he knew her and tells me how to drive to her farm, Andalusia. Earlier I have carried O’Connor’s Complete Stories into the local barbershop, and the barber spots it. Where you from? he asks me, and I tell him Massachusetts. What brings you all the way to Milledgeville? he wants to know. Flannery O’Connor, I reply. Flannery O’Connor? he says, his expression one of amazement. Flannery O’Connor, I reply. Flannery O’Connor? he says again. Yes, I tell him. Well, it’s like they say, he remarks, after what seems an interminable silence. A prophet is never known in his own land.

Saturday. The O’Connor Room is shut weekends and the heat—101 degrees by mid-morning and oppressively humid—drives me indoors until late afternoon when a faculty member and a bank manager invite me to go with them to the one tourist spot, called Swampland, in neighboring Toomsboro. Toomsboro could be Powderhead, or any other small town of good country people. A railroad cuts it in half; the blacks’ shacks congregate on one side with wild grass in the tiny scraps of yard; in the center of one cluster is a trim white frame church which a passing girl with a baby in her arms tells me is the Church of God in Christ. On the other side of the tracks is a general store now shut, a huge barn and warehouse converted to restaurant and concert hall named Swampland, some larger churches of brick, and larger homes. Heaping a paper plate with fried chicken and catfish, barbeque and Brunswick stew, I go into the barn to hear some white gospel music. The piano player is hard-fisted, but the chromatic modulations of the singers is appealing. I’ve already been to the water, the tenor belts out, and I’ve already been born again; this is followed by “The Old Gospel Ship,” “Gonna Change My Place of Living,” and “Amazing Grace.” Outside young children play with a rusted pump or cry for ice cream; on the gallery family members of the Providence Quartet remainder records three for eight dollars; and outside the restaurant a woman sells her pottery—planters, ashtrays, and busts of Jesus and Mary, paired. Back in Milledgeville by nine, there is the suggestion that I finish the evening in one of three discos in town which, with Cowboy Bill’s out on the highway, a bar where you must wear Western clothes, comprises Milledgeville nightlife. We pay a cover charge for the nicest disco, but it is nearly empty, the sound system is erratic, and the girls who drop in are all from the local Peabody High School where O’Connor once went.

Sunday. Gerald Becham, curator of the O’Connor Collection, invites me to join his Sunday ritual by having my main meal with him at Hogan’s, a brick house near the cemetery now converted to the area’s best soul food restaurant. It is crowded with white customers just out of church who are eating (for the most part) roast beef. The Hogan daughter lets us use her drive to park the car; her parents cook; her grandmother is at the till. I heap a plate with fried chicken and greens and black-eyed peas. After, Becham takes me to Andalusia, the farm four miles north of Milledgeville, on Route 441 (the road to Eaton and Madison) where O’Connor moved when she contracted lupus and where she lived for the last 14 years of her life. To get there, we turn off on a dirt road across from the new Holiday Inn complex; the short farm road takes us past fruit bushes and fruit trees and by the rim of woods that stretches through much of the acreage to the two-story white farmhouse with its screened gallery across the front. It is a magical visit: we reach the porch by a wide flight of brick steps and sit there rocking for some time, looking out at Regina O’Connor’s man-made pond; then we peer through the windows at O’Connor’s remaining books— all we can spot for certain is Dostoyevsky’s Idiot—in the front parlor; her own room is blocked from view by furniture and I discover—though I am never told—that the house is locked to us. We circle the farm, past the house with its new white aluminum siding, past the unpainted tenants’ house and chicken coop and cow barn, past the two remaining peacocks, now molting. Once, a cock thinks he sees a hen and spreads his feathers, rustling them in the wind, and Becham informs me that his feathers begin to come out at Advent, reach their peak at Easter, and begin to fade by Pentecost, though that is a fact O’Connor never put directly into her work. The feeling I had on arriving remains: being here is moving, awesome, disturbing. It is clearly the farm of “The Displaced Person” and “Greenleaf,” and the woods that reach toward O’Connor’s bedroom window where she spent most mornings are the woods that boys from a neighboring reformatory threaten in “A View of the Woods” and the woods that are destroyed by vicious children in “A Circle in the Fire.” As we leave, the sun moves westward; it will grow red as a host, as in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Locked into survival on the farm, O’Connor’s willed imagination changed her place of confinement into a metaphor incandescent with meaning. I will get back one more time, to meet the jackass Ernest, the one O’Connor gave a mother who had everything one Mother’s Day, and find him bony and leathery and harsh to the touch, but exceedingly friendly, and lonely now.

Wednesday. Commencement approaches; the work goes slowly since O’Connor marked her books so frequently and I record a number of the more interesting passages; and Becham moves me to an old Victorian house down the street. I am to stay with Mrs. Hall, the local piano teacher. Mrs. Hall, I find, is fighting to preserve her mansion, but one column is swiftly decomposing, plaster flakes from ceiling and walls in the parlor, and the majestic lawn is a tangle of trees and vines. Up a magnificent open staircase she offers me a pleasant bedroom with twin beds, a single floor lamp with its 40-watt bulb, and an adjoining bath with a tiny lion-footed tub. Mrs. Hall’s warmth erupts into chatter that reminds me of jazz in its endless variations on singular themes—the heat or college courses or literature or her daughter’s marriage— with no pause or transitions. She promises me an air conditioner before nightfall, and in return I pledge to lock the door at night—with a key, a dead bolt, and then a chain—and finally to drag before it a steel cannister heavy with canes and umbrellas. In case the niggers try to break in, she tells me. You never know, she says.

Saturday. I go on an errand to Atlanta and return by Route 212, along which O’Connor came when she came back from lupus treatments at the hospital. On the way I stop, as she did, at the Trappist monastery at Conyers and ask, like her, to see Father Paul. When he appears, he is dressed in a shortsleeved shirt and baseball cap instead of a robe. He is the local bonsai gardener, now making his vocation from an art he learned as a boy from a Japanese man in California. He tells me O’Connor came to Milledgeville from the Savannah ghetto where Catholics were always a minority squeezed into a few congested blocks. You know how she used priests in her stories, he says. There aren’t many, I fence in reply. Of course not, he says; she was never in awe of priests. The Clines, her mother’s family, and the O’Connors, her father’s, hired the priests in Milledgeville; they were more like family retainers. And that is how she looked at them. Like another servant. I ask him how O’Connor knew the Protestant rhetoric of her stories. I once asked her that too, he says, and she told me that she could hear one sentence on the radio and take it from there. But I never believed her; writing is more difficult than that. She was very bright, you know, and very quick, but she had pronounced tastes. I turned her on to Ronnie Knox and to his translation from the Vulgate—a very difficult job, you know—but she never got much interested in him. Liked the German and French theologians better. Would you like to see my bonsai? Before leaving, I check with the simple one, as they call him—the brother who cares for the herd of cows and flock of peafowl—because Becham has asked to borrow a hen to restock Andalusia.

Sunday. I ask Mrs. Hall for directions to a Pentecostal church, and she tells me there is nothing like that in Milledgeville; I will have to follow the highway toward Dublin, looking for something like Assembly of God. Well before I reach Dublin, I see a wooden sign, beneath a broken ad for Coca-Cola, pointing up a clay road to the Church of the Holy Gospel, with the Rev. Charles Galloway. The building itself is a small brick box, built in 1951, and even before I walk through the swinging doors into the sanctuary I can hear the Reverend Galloway. He is wearing a three-piece ice-blue suit, blue shirt, and blue patterned tie; he stands beneath a white cloth banner that reads GOD IS LOVE; and as I enter he is waving the Holy Book in front of a scattered congregation of perhaps 40 people. He is complaining that the Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists do not recognize him, but then tells us the Book does not recognize them; if It does, he will eat It, with salt and pepper, before us all. He is not angry, he says—for his is a gospel of joy—but righteously indignant. He reads instructions of the church—a church of do’s, like loving God, not don’ts, like don’t wear britches, don’t smoke—and tells us the only don’t is the most divisive thing in God’s creation: it is Gossip. Gossip, he informs us, is the work of the Devil. He reads the church instructions on decent behavior, but stops, for all we really need to know and do is in the Good Book. He calls us his loved ones and waves the Book and a white handkerchief indiscriminately. He calls down five brothers of the church, including a construction worker with a barrel chest who sits alone in the pew before mine, and tells them their church has just been admitted to the Church of the Holy Gospel from Dallas. They have 4,500 churches and some missions overseas; his church, he says, has 148 members now, but the Reverend Galloway has had dreams all week that they will soon have 150 more. The men hug each other, take a plaque sent from Dallas, and nail it to a wall of the sanctuary.

Now the children are excused for Bible lessons, and the Reverend Galloway throws his arms in the air, closes his eyes, and prays loudly for new members to join the fold. The spinet piano plays endlessly with its own rhythms. Two families go to the front, the five brothers return for a laying on of hands, and there is much hugging and kissing. Brother Vaughan, of the barrel chest, swings the newcomer into the air and twirls him like a child. Then the Reverend Galloway, very serious now, hopes we have not begun our Sunday roasts, for the joy of new members has inspired him to a 45-minute sermon (which he tapes) on forgiveness. He begins by reading passages from John and Matthew and then, without notes, paraphrasing John. He gets no farther. His ideas and messages crowd in. He tells us that if we squabble, the joy of Jesus is not in us, bless the Lord. He tells us if we are happy one day and not the next, then that happiness is the devil playing tricks on us. The joy of Jesus means never being annoyed. We can begin to praise Jesus by forgiving all our grudges, and we can remember them by listing them inside the covers of our Bibles. He calls this our repentance packet. He tells us, his loved ones, that his father was a forgiving man and lived to be 109. A white-haired woman, who has been shaking uncontrollably and leading choruses of “Praise Jesus” and “Amen,” corrects him; her husband, she says, was 97. The preacher says he thought it might have been 103. Anyway, not to have his father’s joy is to suffer from cancer. And what is cancer? Cancer doesn’t come from cholesterol or the wrong foods, because his father never worried about that. Cancer comes from working against others. Cancer is the work of Satan. Bless Jesus and we are free! The Reverend Galloway has often clapped his hands or beat his foot to emphasize his meanings, and so have others. When he finishes, we are all invited to hug the person next to us. I am thankful I am alone. But the barrel-chested man in front of me turns to me, hesitates, and after a look of bewilderment and pain, glows with decision. I get a strong, crushing hug, and then he disappears at once. That night, I drive closer to Dublin, to the Assembly of God, but when I arrive the congregation—about 20 or 30 people this time—are coming out and driving away in separate cars.

Tuesday. Mrs. Hall has invited Dr. Green to visit, and I celebrate by buying a strawberry pie at Shoney’s Big Boy. (Shoney’s has replaced the Sanford House tearoom where O’Connor and her mother regularly took noon meals before it closed.) Dr. Green once taught O’Connor, and she lives only three doors away in a smaller house where she is currently renting two spare rooms to boys who are on the road selling Bibles. She arrives punctually at eight, announces she must leave at nine-thirty when her boys are due back, and then sits on the side porch, her feet not touching the floor, waving a piece of corrugated cardboard while talking without interruption. She remembers O’Connor as a very, very bright girl who was always, always creative. We thought she would be a cartoonist, she says; she did wonderful drawings. Original, very good they were. She drew for publications at high school and in college. She got through college in three years by going to all the summer sessions and then went on to writing school at Iowa. She got a fellowship there. She asks Mrs. Hall about a family in town, and they discuss several neighbors. Mrs. Hall came from Kentucky, and for a while they talk about Kentucky. They discuss the heat. Mrs. Hall tells me that Dr. Green has her Ph.D., and Dr. Green tells me about her graduate study. At ten she leaves, unwilling to eat sweets so late at night. Mrs. Hall and I demolish the pie.

Wednesday. Outside it is 103, and the clay roads waver in sunlight; the heat seems locked in over the town. In the airconditioned O’Connor Room I find scrawled in the 28th book I catalog “the violent bear it away” alongside a passage about life as a continual struggle, and I start the catalog over, noting in my listing her underlinings and quoting some marginalia.

Thursday. Miss Rosa Lee Walston, a retired English teacher who is the senior editor of the annual Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, is also punctual; she told me she would come to the O’Connor Room when it shuts, an hour before the library itself closes. She has on cotton stockings, a pastel dress, and a broach at her throat. We talk in the graduate reading room where she tells me she came a year too late to teach O’Connor, but would have been devastated if she had and had not recognized O’Connor’s talent, her genius. “Although perhaps I would have,” she adds reflectively. “The others did. She came back here one January to give an early version of her talk on the grotesque, and I was worried for her. Her voice was light and nasal, and I thought she would make the worst kind of speaker. But we were all enthralled with what she said. Her mother thought she was a poor speaker, too, and made her take a speech course here at the college. She wasn’t a good speaker then, I’m told, but she wrote such clever speeches that she got an A anyway. My most frequent contact with Flannery was through the Literary Guild; she had us for a picnic each year at Andalusia. Even when she could not be active, she would sit on the steps and talk to the girls— invariably picking out the brightest and most talented ones to converse with. She was confined to the farm, you know, but not isolated. Lots of friends wrote her from far and near and visited her there. Many famous writers and others not so famous. Once I remember Allan Nevins came to talk to us and asked if it would be possible to meet her. For two hours they talked—the most exhilarating talk I ever heard in my life. They hit upon Conrad and Trollope and Henry James and remembered their work with astonishing precision; they shared enthusiasms. It was a pleasure to hear them, although much of my time I was talking with Mrs. O’Connor who did not enjoy that sort of conversation. She also would speak when invited; I remember when the ladies of the local book club gave Flannery a luncheon to celebrate the publication of Wise Blood. Each one tried to impress her by naming her favorite book. When it got around to Flannery, she said hers was the Sears Roebuck catalog. Other times, she told me, she would name Henry James because that always stopped everyone cold. She was a very complex person, and she kept a lot of thoughts to herself. I suppose no one ever really knew her. Her mother was a great help, because she ran the farm and took care of all the chores and freed up Flannery so that she could read and study and write. But I don’t think you’ll meet Regina. She has not been well lately, and she is tired of people asking to go out to the farm. If you were a priest now. . . . You’re not a Catholic, are you? That’s too bad; it might have helped.”

But I decide I must try. A passage marked in Bonaventure links the Sun not with God but with Mind—and the sun is a central image in O’Connor’s fiction. In another work the mention of “cosmological universe” causes her to scribble “the peacock!” in the margin.

Friday. 12 June.

My dear Mrs. O’Connor,

For the past two weeks, I have been cataloging the books of Flannery O’Connor which are now in the Flannery O’Connor Memorial Collection. My plan is to publish a listing so that readers and students of Miss O’Connor’s fiction will better understand and appreciate the thought and craft that went into her work. I understand some few books still remain at Andalusia. So that my list will be complete, I wonder if I might examine those books briefly. I would of course expect to be supervised by library staff and would work on them for the shortest possible time. You may convey your wishes to me directly or through Mr. Becham. Yours sincerely.

Saturday/Sunday. I take a break by spending the weekend in Savannah. There it does not take me long, in the old part of town, to find the cathedral named after St. John; it looms before me, twin-spired, massive, and magnificent. Across Lafayette Square, but still caught within the shadows of the spires, is 207 East Charlton Street, a skinny row house also reaching skyward, where O’Connor was born and spent the first 14 years of her life. It is a brick building, undistinguished except for the new plaque that announces it is her former residence. All that is between the large church and the slender house is the sprawling cathedral school—where she went, conveniently enough.

Monday. Sarah Gordon, who teaches the O’Connor course at Georgia College, returns home to Milledgeville from a short holiday. I go by her house for gin and tonic and find her in a wood-paneled study lined with covers from The New Yorker framed on her walls; she turns out to be a trim, athletic poet educated at Minnesota. Her talk concentrates on O’Connor’s technique. To know her, she tells me, you have to know Milledgeville. Her eye and ear were always acute, accurate, if not always kind, not always subtle. Just look around you at the people, Sarah Gordon says. And remember she lived with her mother all that time. And had tea at the local tearoom. Her work is very precise. Professor Gordon excites me, and I offer to return. She insists on it.

Tuesday. Miss Katherine Scott now lives in “The Homestead,” which the local registers officially call the Williams-Ferguson-Lewis House. It is the oldest and most palatial of the Federal structures that crowd the center of town. It has a rising portico, massive columns, a wide stairway at the front, and an office next door: it commands one end of Liberty Street. The last of the Fergusons was found taking a hatchet to her bed one day and was admitted to the state hospital in Hardwick; she is now in her late forties and temporarily at home where Miss Scott, in a cramped basement apartment, keeps a warm eye on her, directing her activities and supervising her medicines. When we arrive, Miss Ferguson takes us on a tour through the house with genuine gaiety and an unbounded fascination before Miss Scott receives us in her sitting room in the basement. Miss Scott is crippled and ill, confined to the chair where she sits surrounded by piles of books and a journal in which she is presently writing memoirs about Milledgeville and about herself. (She has already published one book on Milledgeville history.) She is incredibly alert. She offers us tea (Mrs. Hall has come along to introduce me) and asks Miss Ferguson to make it, telling her to bring the milk separately and reminding her that she does not take sugar. Miss Katherine Scott taught Flannery O’Connor in her first college course, a summer session in composition where O’Connor brought, she says, an imaginative and entertaining solution to every shopworn assignment. Later, Miss Scott had O’Connor in her course on Browning and Tennyson, but she did not see her after graduation. I tried to stay away from her, she points out. She had a very sharp tongue, and I did not want her to put me into one of her books. So we do not talk of O’Connor; we talk instead of literature. Miss Scott studied Shakespeare with Mark Van Doren at Columbia but never knew he had written about Shakespeare, and she makes me promise to fetch the book for her the next day from the college library, if they happen to have it. They do. When I check it out, the staff offer to take the book to her and pick it up. They are always taking Miss Katherine Scott books, they tell me.

Saturday. I decide to take a trip around Milledgeville—to the old Capitol building done up in pink stucco like an Italian villa; to St. Stephen’s Church where Sherman was supposed to keep his horses when he marched through town; and into the black district where shop windows have handscrawled signs, and clumps of older people stand quietly talking on the street. In the afternoon, I drive out to Sparta, but here everything seems broken and deserted. The main street is as empty as the stores with cracked windows and dusty displays. There is a large and impressive courthouse and a huge brick hotel where Lafayette once stayed, but at five in the afternoon everything is shut up. Returning, I comment on this at a gas station, and I am told it is because the town is 95 percent black. Reapproaching Milledgeville, I swing through Eaton where a plaster statue of Br’er Rabbit on another courthouse lawn points to the Joel Chandler Harris Museum, which is actually two slave cabins joined—O’Connor once remarked that it was the only black house in the state of Georgia that had electricity.

Sunday. Late in the day I take a break from typing up the catalogue to go to Cooper, a restored village with a hotel, shop, and antique store. On the way I pass an ancient country church, whitewashed and plain, where some cemetery markers have names misspelled by an illiterate finger wiping through the wet concrete. It is eight when I reach the town, but the announcement in the paper has said the antique store will be opened by the proprietor on the adjoining farm if it is found closed. When I walk to the farmhouse, though, a number of large dogs race against the screened door savagely barking. I back off. A man appears behind the screen and asks what I want. When I tell him he replies that it is Sunday. Suddenly he screams, irrationally, warns me of the dogs, and, shouting, tells me to go to hell, shutting the door with a bang. Astonished, I head back to Milledgeville, stopping at the farm of a woman famous for carving wooden birds and ducks as decoys or decorations. She is out, but her sister lets me in. The sister speaks in short sentences and is bent on pointing out to me her brother’s photographs of the area which hang on all the walls of the enclosed porch where we stand. In the next room, I hear the hoarse breathing and gasping of her mother, who lies sick in bed. The woman who carves returns, bustling; she has just had to chase her neighbor’s cows off the road and off her property, and she is angry. She does not want me around, either; she tells me her work sells for several hundred dollars and that she has enough orders to take her through the summer and on into fall. Later, I am told I should not have seen the sister, who is simple.

Monday. There is a note for me at night, on the table by Mrs. Hall’s front door.

Dear Mr. Kinney,

Thank you for your letter. It will be impossible for me to grant your request. It is a spidery hand; the letter is signed Regina Cline O’Connor and the return address reads, Mrs. Edward F. O’Connor, PO Box 947.

Thursday. A member of the Notre Dame Alumni Office arrives to check variant manuscripts of Wise Blood, and Becham shows us an O’Connor interview with Harvey Breit made for public television; it includes an enactment of part of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” O’Connor is laconic; her common sense continually deflates the nervous sophistication and jerky theorizing of the questions. She says she is writing about people and telling a story.

Saturday. O’Connor occasionally went to Macon, the only big town very near to Milledgeville, and that is where Sally Fitzgerald and her sons took the director John Huston to film part of Wise Blood. I am told they found their own Leora Watts in the bus station there wearing a T-shirt; the story goes that they had to sew together two of the largest pink negligees they could find to make her costume. I enter Macon past Mercer Law School, lovely and large estates, and old-brick row houses; but, proceeding to the center, I find a blackened and largely deserted train station alongside an unending row of pawn shops and a hotel with a broken marquee and broken windows. The main street is now a mall, and I stop to talk with a large black woman who is selling vegetables from an aluminum porch chair. As we talk, her children and grandchildren gather around her, and she tells me again and again that I should be married because the joy in life is from the family, and the larger the family, the larger the joy. Around the corner I buy a cone of homemade black walnut ice cream and stop in the neighboring thrift shop, where they give me some two-inch-square booklets titled Personal Bible Verses Comfort Assurance Salvation; Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled; Everlasting Life. At the end of the mall I notice a tall building, a brick mission house, with a large neon sign on the roof flashing JESUS SAVES. At the edge of the shopping district, near the city hall, I find a record shop and look for jazz. But there is only gospel, country, rock, and r and b. The clerk looks anxious. She tells me she wants to close because she is the last white shopkeeper in the inner city and likes to get out promptly at five. She tells me to be sure I am off the streets when it begins to get dark.

That night I drive back to Swampland, where the ceramics woman has a new large cherry pie for sale with a clay berry popping out of the center. I buy a T-shirt that reads “Down at Old Swampland on Saturday Night” and put a shiny penny on the railroad track, like I did when I was a kid.

Sunday. As I leave for church, Mrs. Hall reminds me to lock the door against the niggers, although I have never seen any blacks on her street. I hurry on, because I am going to O’Connor’s church and I do not want to be late—or conspicuous. The Clines brought the Catholic parish to Milledgeville from Savannah in the 19th century, and the O’Connors had the present church built in the 20th. The Church of the Holy Redeemer is across from the Town Hall, across from the 24 Store, and beside the post office; it is the smallest Catholic Church I have ever seen. Inside it is all white and, very early, jammed. The priest is a substitute; he is a counselor at the state hospital, and his service is abbreviated because he has another Mass to celebrate in another town. His warmth is luminous; his sermon compares Mark and Matthew on the day’s lesson, showing how the change of language and perspective illuminates the possibilities of the Word of God. When it comes time to shake hands, he steps from behind the altar and shakes hands with those in the front pews; at the door as we leave, he speaks in Spanish to the Puerto Ricans who are there. For years the Clines and O’Connors have financed this church; and its quiet beauty, its plain glass windows, and its tasteful but sparse appointments are memorable. I had hoped to see Regina O’Connor there, but she is not attending this Mass.

Tuesday. I finish the catalog and begin the index. My feeling of release is sharply checked by Mrs. Hall’s commentary on the niggers; she says they have ruined Georgia College and Peabody High School. The problem is that she has just been on the telephone with a friend who had to expel a black student who was more interested in the football team than in syntax.

Friday. I return from the library for the last time, ready now to pack. Mrs. Hall is on the telephone again, but she places the receiver in her lap and tells me that the police have cordoned off our block because, three houses away, they have found a woman dead in a vacant lot. She was beaten, robbed, and murdered; and she has been there, in the field, for perhaps five days now. She tells me that is why she must keep her door locked all the time. The town thinks a nigger did it, but no one knows for certain. I start to tell her it could as easily have been an escaped mental patient or convict, but I do not. She returns to the telephone where her friend has been waiting to continue the call.

Saturday. Mrs. Hall meets me at six in the morning, offering me coffee before I go. She hands me my bill and says she is sorry to see me leave, especially now, with the trouble and all. She says she feels safer with someone else in the house and is thinking of taking my room, upstairs, far from the front door of her house. Later, over toast and biscuits, she tells me she is not frightened; she has a loaded gun in her sewing cabinet, she says, and she is not afraid to use it. She could shoot if she had to.

On the way out of town, I detour for a quarter mile to see the local hospital where O’Connor died: it is a modern building, huge and angular and set in a picturesque pine grove. A few minutes later I leave Baldwin County, where Milledgeville perches on the north rim, by driving over an estuary of Lake Sinclair. The resort cottages there are sited in the shade of a huge power plant and at the edge of the estuary’s polluted water. It is damp and cloudy as I pick up speed, going north.


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