'We Are Finally Coming to Claim Our Writers'

By Joe Samuel Starnes
Special to The Washington Post
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.

To see Harris's old haunts, seek out Turnwold Plantation, where a teenage Harris worked on a small weekly newspaper called the Countryman. Today, it's a private residence marked with a state historic marker.

In Eatonton, which has fewer than 10,000 residents, the newly expanded courthouse stands prominently in the town square. A few blocks south, a statue of Brer Rabbit marks the Uncle Remus Museum. Housed in preserved slave cabins, displays in two rooms feature Harris's mementos and early editions of his work, as well as wood carvings based on his tales.

Milledgeville: Flannery O'Connor

Drive less than 20 miles south down Highway 441 and you'll find Andalusia, the farm where Flannery O'Connor lived out the last 13 years of her short life with her mother, her peacocks and her typewriter.

A metal gate guards a dirt-and-gravel road that leads to the old dairy farm. O'Connor, diagnosed with lupus in 1951, moved with her mother and lived on the 544-acre estate until her death in 1964 at age 39. The two-story white house, including the bedroom where she wrote, is open to visitors, and if you stroll around the farm's outbuildings, you'll find pastoral settings like those in O'Connor's frequently anthologized short stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Revelation."

Four miles south in Milledgeville, the O'Connor Room in the museum at the Georgia College & State University library features her desk, paintings and books. Serious fans of her work often visit her grave in nearby Memory Hill Cemetery.

Beyond O'Connor's footprints, Milledgeville, the state capital from 1807 to 1868, is a quaint college and state government town. A walking tour includes the former Governor's Mansion and the reconstructed Old State Capitol among many architecturally unique homes and buildings. The downtown area bordering the college has revived in the past decade with new restaurants, bars and shops.

Columbus: Carson McCullers

From Milledgeville, Carson McCullers's home is about 130 miles southwest along the fall line, the geographic boundary that passes through Macon and marks where Georgia's piedmont flattens out into its coastal plain. Columbus, once primarily known as a mill town, is now a mid-size city of 185,000, sitting on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

The Smith-McCullers House Museum is in an old residential neighborhood where the author lived from age 8 until she moved to New York when she was 17. McCullers's old room holds a conference table for Columbus State University classes (the university owns the home), and glass cases along the wall display her books, records, pictures -- including ones of her with director John Huston -- and her typewriter.

"I tell my students this is high holy ground," Fussell said.

Only in recent years has local appreciation for her work grown, Fussell said. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey selected McCullers's "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" for her book club, and each year the Carson McCullers Center presents various events featuring the author's work.

Moreland: Erskine Caldwell

Driving the 65 miles from Columbus north to Moreland offers two diverse routes. The road more traveled is a fast shot up Interstate 185 to I-85, indistinct four-lane highways marked with billboards and pine trees that could be most any Southern place. A better option: the slower but much more scenic and less busy route of U.S. 27 Alternate.

But beware. It's easy to miss Moreland, home of the Erskine Caldwell Birthplace and Museum. The circa-1879 home where Caldwell was born was in desperate condition in 1990 when the city bought and moved it from White Oak, a rural community five miles away, where Caldwell's father was a Presbyterian minister.

"It had been a rental house, and hay and farm tools were stored in it at one time," said Winston Skinner, a local newspaperman and chairman of the museum committee. "It was cut into three pieces and moved and put back together like we believe it originally was."

Caldwell -- author of "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre," two racy bestsellers of the early 1930s that depicted Georgia sharecroppers in a harshly realistic light -- did not win over his home town with his sometimes graphic work. Skinner said some in Moreland still view him as "a communist and a pornographer," and one past mayor vigorously fought the plan to restore the house.

Caldwell was born in the home, now known as the "Little Manse," in 1903. He lived there for only a few years, until his father moved the family to Wrens, a town in east Georgia near Augusta where many of the author's best-known works are based.

As for the Little Manse, it's sparsely decorated and undergoing repairs. In some rooms, plastic covers the windows. A few original items from the home and Caldwell's father's life survive, including a small, folding organ that his father carried with him on ministry visits.

Atlanta: Joel Chandler Harris and Margaret Mitchell

Getting from Moreland to the Wren's Nest, Harris's home in Atlanta's West End, is a fast 45-mile interstate ride north.

Built in 1870, the Queen Anne-style house is the oldest in Atlanta open to the public. Preserved as a museum in 1913, the rooms contain much of Harris's original furniture, including the bedroom where he died in 1908. Last month, the Wren's Nest was awarded a much-needed challenge grant of $130,000 from the Watson-Brown Foundation for improvements, said Lain Shakespeare, the home's executive director.

"It's been over a decade since the Wren's Nest has funded a budget for restoration and preservation," said Shakespeare, Harris's great-great-great-grandson. "Heck, 18 months ago there wasn't a budget for much of anything."

About six miles north, irony abounds at the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum, which sits amid a smattering of glittering skyscrapers. What Mitchell referred to as "The Dump" was declared an Atlanta city landmark in 1989, burned by an arsonist in 1995, and then restored with a $5 million grant. An arsonist again struck 40 days before the house was to be opened for the Olympic Games in 1996. The rebuilt structure opened to the public in 1997.

Mitchell's apartment, renovated to look as it did when she lived there from 1925 to 1932, contains replicas of her furniture and belongings. She was recuperating there from a series of injuries, including a fall from a horse, when she began writing "Gone With the Wind." It won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize and was turned into the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1939.

The accompanying museum includes an impressive collection of her letters, and the "Gone With the Wind" Movie Museum across the street is a comprehensive look at the making of the film.

In 1949, Mitchell's life ended only three blocks away, at the intersection of Peachtree and 13th streets, where a taxi hit her. She died less than a week later and is buried in Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery, southeast of downtown.

Joe Samuel Starnes is a novelist and journalist who grew up in Georgia.

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