'We Are Finally Coming to Claim Our Writers'
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Eighty miles east of Atlanta, near the town of Eatonton, Old Phoenix Road passes through gently rolling pastures and pine trees to an antebellum plantation home. It's where teenage orphan Joel Chandler Harris heard the stories of slaves that later inspired him to write the Uncle Remus series, books that rank among the best-selling works of fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Slightly more than a mile away on Wards Chapel Road sits an abandoned church sanctuary, its white paint flaking and the clapboards curling loose. As a child, Alice Walker, author of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Color Purple," attended the church. Many years before that, it was the site where slaves worshiped.
Literary buffs, take note: Across this bucolic slice of Georgia, you'll find the legacies of six major American fiction writers representing various eras and vastly different viewpoints. Starting in Atlanta and driving a loop of slightly more than 300 miles, you can see the homes of writers as diverse as Walker, Harris, Flannery O'Connor, Erskine Caldwell, Carson McCullers and Margaret Mitchell.
Efforts are ongoing across Georgia to preserve homes and other landmarks in the writers' home towns -- spots where they've not always been appreciated. "In the South, we are finally coming to claim our writers," said Cathy Fussell, an assistant professor of English and director of the Carson McCullers Center at Columbus State University. "It is encouraging that many of the homes are still around."
To that end, directors of home sites in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are forming a partnership known as the Southern Literary Trail. Craig Amason, director of the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Ga., and one of the organization's founding members, said it is tentatively set to launch with events at the various writers' homes in spring 2009.
"The trail is a mechanism for emphasizing the significance of these 20th-century writers from the three states and encouraging visitors to the region to learn more about their impact on American literature," Amason said. "It's a very exciting concept."
You can get a head start today in Georgia. Most of the stops on the drive that follows eventually will have status on the sanctioned literary route.
Eatonton: Alice Walker and Joel Chandler Harris
Eatonton is a 90-minute drive southeast of Atlanta, the most traveled route being Interstate 20 to Highway 441. Taking Highway 212 from east of Atlanta down to Highway 16 is more scenic, although it's mostly a two-lane road.
Walker, the only one of the six authors on this tour who's still alive, does not have an official museum, but efforts are underway to raise funds to restore her childhood church. The plans call for the proposed Ward Chapel Historical Museum to hold some of Walker's artifacts as well as historical items from the area, according to Antoinette Bass, wife of retired St. John AME pastor Ralph Bass, who is leading the effort.
"We are way off as far as the money, but we are trying," she said. "There is a lot of history in that church."
Only about $20,000 has been raised so far toward the $350,000 needed for the restoration, said Larry Moore, a local historical and environmental preservationist. A dispute over ownership of the church property that had delayed the project was resolved recently; now the organization is establishing nonprofit status and plans to apply for grants and seek major donors, he said.
A dozen signs went up in Eatonton last month recognizing Walker and Harris sites, Moore said. They complement the Alice Walker Driving Tour, which was established in 1999 about eight miles north of Eatonton. Signs point out the chapel and a cemetery across the road where many of her kinfolk are buried; other markers highlight a farmhouse where she spent part of her childhood as well as the site of her birthplace. The latter has long since been torn down and replaced with pricey developments and a golf course.