An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Glimpsing Andalusia in the O'Connor-Hester Letters

Christine McCulloch, Emory University

Published: 
23 October 2008
Overview: 
Nancy Marshall, East side of house, Andalusia, Spring 2007.
Nancy Marshall, East side of house, Andalusia, Spring 2007.

Using letters from the Flannery O'Connor-Betty Hester collection, Christine McCulloch explores O'Connor's life at Andalusia, her farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia, as expressed through her commentary on its landscapes and characters. Supplemented by Nancy Marshall's photographs of Andalusia and excerpts from the letters housed at Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, this essay suggests connections between Andalusia as a lived space and the imagined spaces that O’Connor created through her fiction.

Introduction: A Visit to Andalusia, August 2007

The road leading to the farmhouse is long, rutted, and unpaved —the land surrounding it, quiet and unkempt. I pass a dilapidated milking shed as the house appears in relative contrast — pleasant, somewhat imposing, and upright. It is larger than I had expected and inviting despite its desertion. A small sign indicates parking in a grass lot around back.

Nancy Marshall, O'Connor's chair, Andalusia, Spring 2007.
Nancy Marshall, O'Connor's chair, Andalusia, Spring 2007.

When I get out, I notice a few others milling about on self-guided tours, their voices hushed either in reverence or as a result of the heavy August heat. Perhaps both. I enter the house via the narrow, bricked berth of the screened-in porch, noting the painted rockers, empty, still, and angled toward the close-cropped lawn. Once inside, I am struck again by the size of the place — its quiet, cavernous rooms; high, wainscoted ceilings; and comparatively small furniture. The light is pale on the clay-colored walls (newly painted in 1959); the floorboards creak underfoot. Most things are just as O'Connor and her mother, Regina, left them — scant, ascetic, homely, and yet comfortable. One has the sense, poking about, that they are not the ghosts haunting the place so much as we are — an inconstant trickle of curious tourists, avid readers, spiritual pilgrims, bored children, and interested academes. Perhaps this is because the space itself — the walls, floors, rooms, stairwells, and sweeping grounds — is still imbued, however faintly, with the lives of those who came and went there.

The 2007 release of Flannery O'Connor's letters to longtime personal friend and intellectual confidante, Betty Hester, compels their readers to revisit Andalusia and consider the ways in which, while circumscribing the locus of much of the author's life, it also provided a point of imaginative departure for much of her fiction.1 The O'Connor-Hester letters suggest that Andalusia served a dual function for O'Connor, providing the solitude and seclusion necessary for her work as a writer while accommodating a nearly constant flow of visitors—so creating a space for lively exchange. In her introduction to The Habit of Being, Sally Fitzgerald observes: "[O'Connor] enjoyed company and sought it, sending warm invitations to her old and new friends to come to Andalusia. Once her inviolable three-hour morning stint of writing was done, she looked for, and throve on, companionship."2 This brief essay explores some of the ways in which Andalusia accommodated O'Connor's need for reflection while playing host to an often absurd and comedic parade of characters, many of whom found their way into her stories.

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O'Connor's Southern Identity:

Although critics and biographers have never cast O'Connor as a rural recluse à la Emily Dickinson, she remained acutely aware of a tendency to present the southern writer in "as mean and poor folksy [a light] as possible" (14 Nov 1959). Of a photographer's pending visit to Andalusia, O'Connor writes: "Tuesday Miss Betsy Locheridge is to come down here and interview me for the Sunday supplement. You will probably find me tricked out in the personality of the Georgia Farm Girl or Good-Earth-Loving Author or something equally horrendous" (19 Sept 1959). After the interview she confirmed this supposition, quipping:

Letter dated 14 November 1959. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust.
All rights reserved. Available through Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

While gimlet-eyed she may have appeared and tormented her characters certainly were, O'Connor embraced this "tricked out" persona, on occasion, in her letters. A defining feature of the Hester correspondence is the author's tendency to color her language with streaks of local slang ("it don't," "it ain't," "naw," "bidnis," "lemme," etc.). "[O'Connor] could write fine country talk," notes Fitzgerald, "and often did, to amuse her friends and herself."3 A hybrid creature much like the hybrid space she inhabited, O'Connor spent her career negotiating the tension between her self-professed identity as a "southerner" and the fiction she hoped would transcend the perceived limitations of regionalist writing (5 Dec 1959). In commenting on a recently published short story by her contemporary, Eudora Welty, O'Connor frames the problem thus:

Letter dated 1 September 1963. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust. All rights reserved. Available through  Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

O'Connor recognized race as a national issue, but much of her fiction can nevertheless be characterized as "topical." Her "characters and setting," observes Thelma J. Shinn, "are admittedly, even blatantly, narrow, placing her within the Southern regionalists like Eudora Welty and producing 'the strong sense of rich red-clay reality underlying and reinforcing all her work.'"4 Although some stories — namely, "The Geranium" and "The Artificial Nigger" — take place in cities such as New York and Atlanta, most others ("The Displaced Person," "Greenleaf," and "The Enduring Chill") describe " atypical life" on working farms like Andalusia.

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Writing Rural Georgia:

O'Connor makes rural Georgia the setting of her fiction not only because it is familiar, but also because she finds a means of entering, through its peculiar apertures, an altogether different metaphysical locus. For this reason, her metaphor of the topical as "poison" is intriguing. O'Connor's narrative voice is aggressive and predatory — often venomous. Her characters frequently fall into the traps she has set for them, and their ensnarement, if successful, is followed by an emancipatory revelation. As Claire Katz observes, "O'Connor as narrator plays the role of scourge."5 Like the "stinger" of Christ lodged in Hazel Motes' mother's head, O'Connor demonstrates "that the violence of rejection in the modern world demands an equal violence of redemption — man needs to be 'struck' by mercy."6 Katz continues: "Using her stinger, exercising the scorn characteristic of the superego, [O'Connor] imposes on the characters a humiliation so intense that they are forced to acknowledge their impotence."7 It is the realization of this powerlessness that, in turn, becomes curative. Katz concludes: "Potency is the Lord's — or the narrator's."8

O'Connor thus works to exact from her characters — many of whom can be considered victims of a crippling secular egoism — a heightened spiritual awareness. Consider O'Connor's commentary on Richard Chase's 1957 book, The American Novel and Its Tradition:

Letter dated 1 October 1960. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust.
All rights reserved. Available through Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

O'Connor's fiction must cut its characters — its readers, even — before they can be healed. The function of the writer, her serpent's tongue, is cleft. Nevertheless, O'Connor remained wary of identifying herself as a Christian novelist, a Catholic novelist, or a southern novelist. Of a subsequent interview she writes:

Letter dated 13 February 1960. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust.
All rights reserved. Available through Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

Qualifications and reservations aside, O'Connor did write in and of the agrarian Deep South for which Andalusia provided a model. The 544-acre estate consists of "gently rolling hills divided into a farm complex, hayfields, pastures, man-made and natural ponds, and forests."9 Quiet and secluded, this countryside afforded its inhabitants few distractions. O'Connor writes to Hester: "I live on a farm and don't see many people. My avocation is raising peacocks, something that requires everything of the peacock and nothing of me, so time is always at hand" (2 Aug 1955). She later advises her friend: "you can bring [the story I suggested you review] with you for you will have nothing better to do here than sit on the porch and read yourself blind or walk around and smell the sweet flowers" (letter dated 'Benjamin Harrison's Birthday').10

Nancy Marshall, The stable, Andalusia
Nancy Marshall, The stable, Andalusia, Spring 2007.

This rural landscape figures prominently in O'Connor's fiction. "The Enduring Chill," a short story published in 1958, features a working dairy farm much like Andalusia. The sour protagonist's reluctant homecoming is described as follows:

[Asbury Fox's mother] turned into their driveway, a red road that ran for a quarter of a mile through the two front pastures. The dry cows were on one side and the milk herd on the other. "There's the house!" [she] said as if they were all blind but her. It rose on the crest of the hill — a white two-story farmhouse with a wide porch and pleasant columns.11

This description —from the "red road" to the "cow pastures" and "pleasant columns"— resembles Andalusia, as does the narrator's account of the interior:

He went into the house, pausing in the hall only long enough to see his pale broken face glare at him for an instant from the pier mirror. Holding onto the banister, he pulled himself up the steep stairs, across the landing and then up the shorter second flight and into his room, a large open airy room with a faded blue rug and white curtains freshly put up for his arrival. He looked at nothing, but fell face down on his own bed. It was a narrow antique bed with a high ornamental headboard on which was carved a garlanded basket overflowing with wooden fruit.12

Nancy Marshall, O'Connor's bed, Andalusia, Spring 2007.
Nancy Marshall, O'Connor's bed, Andalusia, Spring 2007.

Due to her progressive illness, O'Connor's room was located on the first floor of the "white two-story farmhouse," but it, too, featured a "faded blue rug" and a "narrow antique bed" with a similar headboard.

Although Asbury Fox's character — a writer like O'Connor — is unable to work in what he deems such an oppressive, backwater environment, O'Connor spent her most productive years at Andalusia. The quiet hours of the morning (specifically, from nine to noon) were devoted, with militant discipline, to writing. Neither O'Connor's mother nor the occasional houseguest dared disturb her. Upon encouraging Hester to come up for a long weekend, O'Connor writes: "Bring some work you want to do or something you want to read. You won't even see me in the morning. You can do your own work or go to town with Regina and set and watch the bugs" (6 Aug 1960).

 

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Company at Andalusia:
Nancy Marshall, Upstairs with coffee pot, Andalusia, Spring 2007.
Nancy Marshall, Upstairs with coffee pot, Andalusia, Spring 2007.

These solitary hours were countered by the nearly constant arrival of "company." The O'Connor-Hester letters — most of which are dated only a few days apart — indicate how frequently Andalusia played host to a steady stream of visitors. There were the regulars: William Sessions and Betty Hester made their way to Milledgeville frequently enough. But there were also a number of relatives, acquaintances, and professional associates who enjoyed the O'Connors' hospitality. She writes: "We had quite a gathering here Monday — six sisters from the Cancer Home, the Trappist Abbot, and a Msgr. Dowdell" (23 Jul 1960). O'Connor subsequently refers to the farm as a "way-station," reassuring Hester: "If it is scandal you are worried about, you can forget it. If I investigated the past of everybody that visits us, I would have to close down the place" (20 Jul 1963; 6 Aug 1960).

Nevertheless, not all of the company was welcome. O'Connor writes of an impending visit:

Letter dated 27 October 1960. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust.
All rights reserved. Available through Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

 

Later, she exclaims: "Boy are we sick of Great Lady Guests!" (12 Nov 1960). In keeping with the sentiments expressed in her collected essays, Mystery and Manners, O'Connor expects that her mother's hospitality will be received with gratitude and is disappointed (although not necessarily surprised) to find that this isn't always the case. Of another writer, she comments: "I think she is just wrapped up in herself and her own work. Most of us are. I am myself; but being a Southerner, I have the manners to counteract it, and she being a mid-westerner is almost devoid of these necessary manners" (5 Dec 1959). And later, "Again [the same houseguest and writer] spent two days eating my momma's cooking and didn't even ask to be remembered to her" (25 Jun 1960).

Nancy Marshall, O'Connor's room and writing place, Andalusia, Spring 2007.
Nancy Marshall, O'Connor's room and writing place, Andalusia, Spring 2007.

Despite these occasional offenses, the unwelcome guest might have provided good fodder for O'Connor's fiction. "OBD [Miss Olive Bell Davis] and her mother are quite unbelievable," she writes to Hester. "If I had created them, I would have to scratch them all out. There is no combination quite like innocence and gall" (28 May 1960). Perhaps this unlikely combination of "innocence and gall" found its way into the character of Julian's mother in the 1960 short story, "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Mrs. Chestny, whose eyes "were as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten," lived "according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which [her son] had never seen her set foot."13

Nancy Marshall, Jack and Louise Hill's house, Andalusia, Winter 2008.
Nancy Marshall, Jack and Louise Hill's house, Andalusia,
Winter 2008.

O'Connor's letters indicate a strong belief that fiction should be grounded in experience — in real encounters with real people. Of an unnamed book, she writes: "I read it and it held my attention about two-thirds of the way and then I began to feel I was reading a conundrum about some philosophical problem and not about folks and I got most weary" (27 Apr 1963). A shrewd pragmatist, O'Connor had little patience for "interleckshul" musings and philosophical "abstractions" (2 Sept 1961; 25 May 1963). Many of her own characters — Joy Hulga in "Good Country People," Wesley May in "Greenleaf," and Thomas in "The Comforts of Home" — are taken to task for committing what John F. McCarthy deems "the most heinous of sins — intellectual pride."14 In another letter, O'Connor praises one of Hester's own fictional forays: "This is wonderful, much better than the other stories, more natural and more concerned with what stories are concerned with — people" (6 Jun 1960). Life at Andalusia, despite its location, provided ample exposure to "the vagaries of human personality."15 Folks of all walks and talks made their way to Milledgeville, and when she wasn't actively entertaining company, O'Connor admits to observing her guests with the artist's appraising eye:

Letter dated 13 April 1963. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust.
All rights reserved. Available through Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

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The Issue of Race:

O'Connor's kept counsel, while suggesting a polite reserve in mixed company, is unleashed in her private correspondence — particularly when it comes to "the help." Regina employed at least two African American farmhands in addition to a housemaid, each of whom appear with some frequency in O'Connor's letters to Hester. She writes:

Letter dated 17 August 1963. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust.
All rights reserved. Letter available through Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

The voyeur who enters the space of the O'Connor-Hester correspondence, uninvited, is thus confronted with the disconcerting questions that have plagued biographical criticism: "What are the ethics governing this encounter?" "What information is relevant?" "How do these letters bear upon the writer's work" and, in turn, "how does the writer's work bear upon her lived experience?" As Marshall Bruce Gentry says of Jean W. Cash's 2002 biography, Flannery O’Connor: A Life, let the conversation about the "links between Flannery's life and O'Connor's art" continue.18 It is my hope, in this essay, to have given Andalusia a renewed place at the center of that conversation.

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All images of letters displayed are Copyright 1959, 1960, 1963 by Flannery O'Connor; Copyright renewed 1987, 1988, 1991 by Regina Cline O'Connor. Permission granted by The Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust. All rights reserved. Letters available through Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

 

Notes:

1. Flannery O'Connor, Letters to Betty Hester: 1955-1964. Manuscript Collection No. 1064. Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

2. Many of the letters in Emory's collection have been published, in whole or in part, in The Habit of Being, Ed. Sally Fitzgerald, 1979. Betty Hester, a native of Atlanta who worked as a secretary and office clerk when she was not reading, writing her own fiction, and maintaining close correspondences with O'Connor and Iris Murdoch, is referred to in Fitzgerald's collection as "A." Habit of Being, xiii.

3. Habit of Being, xiii.

4. Shinn, Thelma J. "Flannery O'Connor and the Violence of Grace." Contemporary Literature. 9.1 (Winter 1968): 64. Shinn is here quoting Jane Hart's "Strange Earth: The Stories of Flannery O'Connor." Georgia Review XII (Summer 1958): 216.

5. Katz, Claire. "O'Connor's Rage of Vision." American Literature 46.1 (March 1974): 56.

6. Shinn, 58.

7. Katz, 57.

8. Ibid., 57.

9. The Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation, Inc. 2002. The J. Whitney Bunting School of Business, GC&SU, Milledgeville, GA. 28 July 2008. http://www.andalusiafarm.org/.

10. Immediately following a letter dated 6 Aug. 1960.

11. O'Connor, Flannery "The Enduring Chill." The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971: 362.

12. Ibid., 363-364.

13. Ibid., 406, 411.

14. McCarthy, John F. "Human Intelligence versus Divine Truth: The Intellectual in Flannery O'Connor's Works." The English Journal 55.9 (Dec. 1966): 1144.

15. Habit of Being, xii.

16. Edmunds, Susan. "Through a Glass Darkly: Visions of Integrated Community in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood." Contemporary Literature 37.4 (Winter 1996): 560.

17. Ibid., 559-560.

18. Gentry, Marshall Bruce. "Reviewed work: Flannery O'Connor: A Life by Jean W. Cash." The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 36.1 (Spring 2003): 152.

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Recommended Resources

Edmunds, Susan. "Through a Glass Darkly: Visions of Integrated Community in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood.” Contemporary Literature 37.4 (Winter 1996): 559-585.

The Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation, Inc. 2002. The J. Whitney Bunting School of Business, GC&SU, Milledgeville, GA. 28 July 2008.
http://www.andalusiafarm.org/

Flannery O'Connor, Letters to Betty Hester: 1955-1964. Manuscript Collection No. 1064. Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
http://marbl.library.emory.edu/findingaids/search_results?q=findingaids/content/&id=oconnor59_10484&keyword=o%27connor

The Flannery O'Connor Collection, Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, GA.
http://www.gcsu.edu/library/sc/collections/oconnor/foca.htm

Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Reviewed work: Flannery O'Connor: A Life by Jean W. Cash. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 36.1 (Spring 2003): 151-153.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

Katz, Claire. "O'Connor's Rage of Vision." American Literature 46.1 (March 1974): 54- 67.

Marshall, Nancy. "Andalusia: Photographs of Flannery O'Connor's Farm." Southern Spaces. 28 April 2008.
http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/andalusia-photographs-flannery-oconnors-farm

McCarthy, John F. "Human Intelligence versus Divine Truth: The Intellectual in Flannery O'Connor's Works." The English Journal 55.9 (December 1966): 1143-1148.

Shinn, Thelma J. "Flannery O'Connor and the Violence of Grace." Contemporary Literature 9.1 (Winter 1968): 58-73.

Wise Blood (1979, 1 hr. 45 min.), a film by John Huston based on the Flannery O'Connor story of the same title. Stars Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton.

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