Georgia Preach: Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home

January 5, 2013 — Flannery O’Connor was a Southern spinster who loved Jesus, raised peacocks, and wrote stories about the depravity of man so unsettling that you’ll totally get why God drowned us all once, and be puzzled why he hasn’t done so again. Redemption ain’t easy.

She changed how I read short stories. Meaning, I pretty much can’t read them anymore. Her fiction is rich in style, in ideas, in storytelling, and in intellectual integrity. Just about every short story from every author I’ve read since discovering O’Connor has seemed watery and insubstantial by comparison. As a result, I’m kind of glad short stories in general are going the way of the poem. They’ve been abused far too long.

Of course, to create such rare works, she had to labor over them, treating them like they were engineering designs for bridges where people would die if she didn’t get them right. And while her short, lupus-stricken life also contributed (she lived less than 40 years, from 1925 to 1964), it was mostly for the former reason that her complete works of fiction only number about 30-odd stories and two brief novels.

“Southern Gothic” and “grotesque” are the official literary descriptors of her work, and if that covers barbed-wire-wrapped men, the theft of prosthetic legs by Bible salesmen, and grandmas executed on the side of the road in scenes that are alternately shocking, hilarious, and always violent, that works for me.

But we also have her nonfiction, and her letters and essays are absolute revelations that, unlike the behind-the-scenes works of most authors, actually enrich her stories. It’s the difference between being disappointed by the mundane mechanism behind what seemed an impressive magic trick and marveling at the innards of the human body.

O’Connor lived most of her life in Georgia, and the first 13 years of it in Savannah. So when I found myself in that city, and learned at almost the last second that her childhood home had been preserved as a museum, I had to visit, even if I had to break in.

And I almost had to. The house keeps curtailed hours. It’s only open four hours a day, six days a week. With plenty of intermittent closings, as well. Our timing had us there on a day it was closed. Fortunately, the manager of the house, Toby Aldrich, was kind enough to let us in and tour us around.

Obviously I only talked to Toby for a couple of hours, but he seemed like exactly the kind of guy you’d hope to find telling the story of Flannery O’Connor. “If I could only have one work, it’d be The Violent Bear It Away,” is what he told us, and I’m pretty sure he meant in the history of human literature and not just of all O’Connor’s body of work. He was tall, with long gray hair and a matching beard, a Michigan-born nomad who fell in love with the South and Savannah in particular. These days, he’s working on a novel and living Flannery O’Connor. Like actually in her house, on the top floor.

The thin, three-story gray-block building is at 207 East Charlton Street on Lafayette Square. It was built sometime in the 1800s and is easy to miss for what it is. Only a metal historical placard on a post and a small museum sign on the front steps denote the place as a cultural landmark, all that’s permissible according to the strict rules of the historic district where it’s located.

Today, Lafayette Square is a lush, arbored park area with a fountain, but during O’Connor’s childhood it was just an open space with a driveway through it that the kids from the local schools used as a playground.

But some things haven’t changed. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where the O’Connors attended and where Flannery was baptized after being born at Savannah’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, still raises its steeples above the square. The schools she attended, St. Vincent's and Sacred Heart, are still nearby. Many of the houses are more or less the same, if probably a bit more genteel for their age.

But the inside of 207 East Charlton has seen a lot of change. It was originally bought, along with the neighboring buildings 209 and 211, by her mother’s cousin Kate Semmes, whom Flannery called “Cousin Katie.” Semmes moved into 211, tore down 209 so that she could have a driveway, and leased 207 to the O’Connors.

In 1938, the family moved about two hours outside of Atlanta to Millidgeville, an area where O’Connor would spend much of her life. The Savannah house stayed in the family and was subdivided out as apartments. Flannery herself owned it at the time of her death, when it passed to her mother Regina, who died in 1995 at the age of 99, outliving her only daughter by more than three decades.

In 1989, a group of O’Connor enthusiasts purchased it and dedicated it as a memorial to her, even though the interior had been pretty radically changed since Flannery’s time there.

Enter Jerry Bruckheimer. Yes, that Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood force behind Top Gun and Armageddon and Pirates of the Caribbean.

He and his wife Linda were big fans of O’Connor’s work, and Linda discovered the place by accident when walking by it one day. The couple donated enough money that it could be restored pretty close to its days as an incubator of literary genius. Today, the back area on the first floor is officially called the Bruckheimer Library. No logo of a tree getting hit by lightning, though.

Of course, in the end, the Flannery O’Connor childhood home is just a building with walls that can’t speak. And you know me, I’m an artifact kind of guy…and I wasn’t disappointed.

The first floor, which basically consists of a parlor, a dining room, and a kitchen, contains quite a few of the private possessions of both the O’Connor’s in general and Flannery’s in particular: Children’s books that O’Connor wrote in, usually giving her young critical opinion of it, some furniture and kitchen implements. Besides her books, the most fascinating artifact might have been her pram, monogrammed "MFOC" for her full birth name, Mary Flannery O’Connor.

Behind the house is the yard where she raised chickens, famously training one to walk backwards, a feat that caught the attention of some filmmakers who created a short out of the five-year-old’s strange accomplishment. The short was screened in theaters across the country and can be watched here.

The second floor is just two bedrooms and a bathroom, but every artifact on display belonged to the O’Connors. That includes a pair of small beds in Flannery’s room that used to be her parents bedroom suite, a dress of her mother’s, some doll furniture, and Flannery’s roofed crib, one of the cage-like Kiddie Koops that were all the rage back then. It reminded me of a Utica Crib.

Throughout the house are pictures of the family, including Flannery at various young ages. Aldrich described her to us as an ornery, intelligent child who liked to keep to herself except when she was terrorizing her classmates with readings from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The most well-known shrine to O’Connor’s life is her Millidgeville home Andalusia, where she lived for the last decade or so of her short life. However, her childhood home in Savannah gives a unique perspective on the author, a beginning to her own story.

And it’s not an enormous place to tour. As I mentioned, the top floor is a private apartment, as is the basement. But like O’Connor’s short stories, the place is dense, albeit with items and tales of her youth. In fact, it amazed me how much of O’Connor’s early life was preserved in that small space. That’s probably because I often forget just how contemporary she was (although some of those artifacts are now more than three quarters of a century old). With the caliber of her work and the regard she’s given as one of the 20th century’s greatest fiction writers, it’s easy to think of her as some classic author from centuries ago.

Expect that I’ve never seen Dickens’s crib and baby carriage.