Following the footsteps of Flannery O'Connor
On this vacation, he and his wife are visiting the stomping grounds of great writers.
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"What's your memory of those visits?" we ask.Skip to next paragraph
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"The silences," says Mrs. Jones, and we sense that Miss Regina was a most unusual woman. Her silence extended to her daughter's work, Mrs. Jones tells us, for she feared that giving one interview would provoke a flood of them. So she gave none.
It's a failing of literary tourists to assume that the characters and incidents in an author's work are all drawn from life. This impression is reinforced when Mrs. Jones tells us about taking a course in O'Connor's stories with a local friend. The instructor, not local, was distressed that the two students kept interrupting classes with laughter. "We recognized the folks Flannery was writing about," says Mrs. Jones. "Her observations were so accurate, we couldn't help laughing."
Generational conflict infuses the stories. Often – as in the magnificent "Everything That Rises Must Converge" – a middle-aged widow figures; often she manages a farm. Set in her ways, firm in her opinions, fundamentalist in her beliefs, this woman has been so minutely observed that the reader laughs aloud. Often she is pestered by a child or young folks who see the world differently than she does. Usually the story drives this main character to a dreadful yet foreshadowed fate.
Alas! Literary tourists cannot resist asking: Was Miss Regina the model for this frequent character? Too discreet to venture into this dangerous territory, Mrs. Jones suggests that Miss Regina may never have read Flannery's writings. At least she was too canny ever to let on that she had.
We leave Milledgeville, well-satisfied, knowing more perhaps about Miss Regina than about her daughter, but more than ever intrigued by the stories, of which I'll read more when I get home.
In Savannah, we visit the Flannery O'Connor Museum, lodged in the house where she lived as a child. In Asheville, N.C., we check out the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Site and tour the Old Kentucky Home boarding house Wolfe's mother ran; it figures in his novel, "Look Homeward, Angel."
At Asheville's Grove Park Inn, we ogle plaques on the doors of the fourth-floor rooms where F. Scott Fitzgerald languished while his wife, Zelda, was across town at a sanatorium, the site of which we visit. In nearby Flat Rock, we check out the Carl Sandburg home where the Midwestern poet spent his last days.
A strange way to spend a holiday, some would say. But it deepens our reading, and our reading enriches our lives.