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Following the footsteps of Flannery O'Connor

On this vacation, he and his wife are visiting the stomping grounds of great writers.

By Frederic Hunter / September 5, 2008

Family farm: Restoration efforts have helped preserve Flannery O'Connor's Milledgeville, Ga., home.

Thomas Swick/Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel/Newscom/File

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The vicarious experiences that literary creation offers are unquestionably compelling. Naturally, travelers want to visit the locations where it took place.

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Which is why my wife and I find ourselves in Milledgeville, Ga., halfway between the Atlanta airport and our destination, Savannah. Literary tourists know that the late Flannery O'Connor, a splendid novelist and short-story writer, did her best work here.

I had not read any O'Connor for years. But the opportunity to spend a night in Milledgeville caused me to borrow a library copy of "The Complete Stories."

O'Connor's output was not large: two novels and two volumes of short stories, the last volume published after her death in 1964. She's something of an acquired taste: acute insights, penetrating and often humorous observations. Still her characters run to the grotesque. Her stories often jolt even shockproof 21st-century readers.

Arriving, we pass Andalusia, the farm where O'Connor lived for many years. Her widowed mother managed the place.

We walk around the town's historic district, absorbing its atmosphere as O'Connor did when her parents took refuge here from Depression-era hard times, moving inland from Savannah, where O'Connor was born.

Attending Milledgeville's Georgia State College for Women, now coed and called Georgia College and State University (GCSU), O'Connor steeped herself in that atmosphere. After graduating, she was accepted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop where, so the story goes, she had a Georgia accent so thick and word choices so down-home that her professor could not understand her. She had to write out what she was saying.

At the GCSU library, we ask to take a look at the Flannery O'Connor Room. It's spring break; librarians are scarce. "I guess you're stuck with me," declares a pleasant woman of our approximate vintage.

We follow her to the room. It contains memorabilia: photographs of the author, her sayings – one of them something like, "I write every morning from 9:00 to noon and spend the rest of the day recuperating" – her works, and even her baptismal dress.

Getting chummy with our guide, we exchange names. She is Mary Jones, a local woman who reminisces about being taken to Andalusia farm by her great-aunt to attend Coca-Cola parties hosted by O'Connor's mother, Miss Regina. Something quintessentially Southern about "Miss Regina" forges a bond between us.

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