Tuesday, May 21, 2013

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA: FLANNERY O'CONNOR AND TWO MORE FAMOUS SAVANNAHIANS

When we planned our trip to Savannah, we hadn't planned on stopping by the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home, but it turned out that some of what we wanted to do was closed (e.g., the Jewish synagogue) or otherwise unavailable.  When we happened to walk right by the O'Connor house, we decided that perhaps it was worth a visit.

O'Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah and lived there until 1938.  She died in 1964 at age 39 of lupus.  She had written two novels (I confess that I have read neither, although I did buy one of them--Wise Blood--about a year ago, but I haven't started it yet) and thirty-two short stories, not that much for a writer, but apparently enough to make her famous and to win the National Book Award in 1972.  (I have read several of the short stories, a staple of any good English degree.)

As a side note, right after returning from the trip I read a novel called A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano.  The adult Flannery O'Connor is one of the main characters, and the author included a lot of the information that we learned from the tour guide in the O'Connor home.  (Since we were the only guests the entire time we were there, we got LOTS and LOTS of stories about Flannery.)  The cover of the book refers to the crop (gaggle? pod? herd?) of forty to fifty peacocks Flannery kept on her farm in Andalusia, Georgia, where she lived and wrote after her college years until her death. She never married, and the eccentricity evident in her during her childhood years apparently remained an integral part of her character.

The home, although it has passed through the hands of several owners since Flannery lived there, has been restored to what it must have looked like during Flannery's childhood, right down to the color of the paint.  That is Flannery on the left, a funky, adult-looking child who called her parents by their first names:
 Flannery was an only child and was always a bit precocious.
 
When she was six years old, she actually trained a chicken to walk backwards and made the news.  She said, "Everything since [the chicken experience] has been an anticlimax."

The house has copies of the books she wrote on display, as well as books she read as a child, complete with her notations.  This one on the left has the inscription: "Not a very good book," followed by her initials.
The O'Connors were devout Catholics, and Flannery attended a private Catholic school.  It looks like her worst subject was spelling.  She was baptized in the Catholic Cathedral where Bob and I had attended mass earlier in the day.



That same Catholic church was visible from Flannery's bedroom window, a constant reminder of a God she either loved and loathed, depending on her mood.
Although this table, doll, and tea set were part of the house, our guide informed us that it was unlikely that Flannery ever played with them. She had a disdain for the usual little girl toys.

Her parents' room was next to hers on the upper level and included this rather creepy dressing gown spread out on the bed in a way that for some reason reminded me of Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Miss Emily."
This "crib" is an interesting albeit claustrophobic way to keep disease-bearing bugs away from the baby:

My favorite room was the upstairs bathroom, complete with reading books in the bathtub and on the back of the toilet:
I am happy to have been born into a time with appliances much more modern than these, although I think the Electrolux vacuum cleaner my mom had was a lot like the one in the bottom right corner of this picture:

I had no idea Flannery O'Connor ever wrote poetry, but she did when she was the student editor of the literary journal at Georgia State College for Women in 1944-1945.  I really liked this one that was framed and hung on the wall. I am sure some of my students would shout a resounding "Hear! Hear!"
 The house also has a good supply of the many newspaper and magazine articles about O'Connor:

I'm glad that we ended up having a little extra time in Savannah, and that we just happened on the O'Connor House.  It was definitely worth the visit for me, and Bob tolerated it quite well.

Another famous citizen of Savannah was Johnny Mercer (1909-1976), lyricist, composer, businessman, and philanthropist.  His most famous work is the song he wrote with Henry Mancini, "Moon River," the theme song of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's and winner of the 1962 Academy Award for Best Original Song. In all he was nominated for nineteen Oscars and won four. He also co-founded Capitol Records, the label that signed The Beatles. He was such a nice fellow to run into on our afternoon stroll.

One more very important person has connections to Savannah: John Wesley.

"Wait!" you might say. "Wasn't he British?" Well, yes, he was.  I was stunned to learn that Wesley actually journeyed to Savannah in 1736 at the invitation of Governor Oglethorpe. While there he established a Methodist congregation, but then he ran into all kinds of problems.  First, his mission to the Indians proved to be a complete flop. Then a shipboard romance that had developed between Wesley and a woman named Sophia Hopkey on the journey to the Colonies turned sour when Wesley broke off the relationship on the advice of another minister, leading to a nasty legal battle that ended in a mistrial.  It was the stuff reality TV is made of. (Good thing they didn't have it back then.)  Disgraced and depressed, Wesley returned to England some time in 1737, never fully recovering his self-confidence.  In spite of his ignominious departure, the Georgian Methodists obviously hold him in great esteem.  His statue stands in a beautiful park:


. . . just across the street from the "Mother Church of Savannah Methodism":


Next: From the Queen of Ridicule (Flannery O'Connor) 
to the King of the Sublime (Billy Graham)

3 comments:

  1. I love touring old houses. I hadn't realized O'Connor was quite so...colorful!

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  2. Nice post. I hadn't realized the stuff about Mercer.

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  3. I always put a clip of O'Connor's chicken-walking-backward video on my teaching blog when I'm teaching her. The students just sort of shake their heads, as in "what a daffy person!" She's hard to teach now, as she uses language that is not "PC" and it can offend some students. I usually teach it one time, then skip it the next time. This past semester we did "A Good Man is Hard to Find." As usual, O'Connor provoked strong reactions.

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