She would have been 54 years old today, and here in the spring in the town where she lived and wrote and died, the memory of Flannery O'Connor is still green.
She lived quietly, vestments of her life a match in dignity for Milledgeville, with its rows of antebellum mansions, its gently mannered virtues, and its wide, straight streets, where everywhere this time of year the petals of the Japanese magnolias strew the new grass and brews underfoot.
"There won't be any biographies," wrote O'Connor, believing that "lives spent between the house and chicken yard do not make exciting copy."
She died at 39, and left behind a modest body of work-two novels, "Wise Blood" and "The Violent Bear It Away," 31 short stories; a collection of occassional prose; and letters, just published, and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, her literary executor, under the title "The Habit of Being." O'Connor's feeling on the subject notwithstanding, Fitzgerald is presently at work on a biography.
Recognition during her lifetime was slight. Following her death, an audience of young, mostly college-educated southerners began to champion her cause, drawn by her vision of the South and its people and, later, by increasing interest in the role of women in literature.
Today she is regarded as a major voice: "The Faulkner of the postwar generation," according to Ted Spivey, noted Georgia critic and O'Connor scholar. "Little in contemporary fiction," wrote Alan Pryce-Jones, the novelist, "touches the level of Flannery O'Connor at her best." Says the noted poet, Elizabeth Bishop, "her books will live on and on in American literature."
"When I read Flannery O'Connor," wrote Thomas Merton, the theologian, "I do not think of Hemingway or Katherine Anne Porter or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles. What more can you say for a writer?"
In her first novel, "Wise Blood," O'Connor recalled the story of "A Christain malgre lui ," perpetually in flight from "the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind."
"Jesus died to redeem you," she said .
"I never asted him," he muttered ."
In her short stories-"Green Leaf," "The Artifical Nigger," "A Good Man Is Hard To Find,"-love comes in the shape of a charging bull, a cracked bit of statuary, or a touch on the shoulder that precedes a brutal murder.
A family resemblance, at once comic and violent, informs her characters and their predicaments. What critics used to label as grotesque she would call "a kind of fiction . . . always pushing its own limits lutward toward the limits of a mystery."
In Milledgeville they talk about Flannery O'Connor reluctantly at first, explaining that they fear publicity would do injustice to her memory. "There's really nothing I can tell you," many of them say, and sometimes shut the door or hang up the telephone.
Some remember the long silences in which she moved and the peacocks that she raised on the family farm called Andalusia. "She was quiet," says Jean Guitton, a professor who visited her there. "But this is how she was: One never felt the need to fill the empty spaces."
They talk about the way she used to sit on the front porch of her mother's family home on Greene Street, "always watching us," says Kitty Smith Kellam, who lived around the corner, "but never joining in."
They speak of the confinements of her illness, lupus, which means "wolf," and which later claimed her life. "We tried not to tire her," says Mary Barbara Tate, a professor, friend and member of a literary group that met at Andalusia. "I was surprised to read about the loneliness she expressed in the letters."
They remember a quiet girl who walked with a slight stoop, who spoke with a nasal drawl so southern even southerners noticed it, and who wore a black tam to church on Sundays. "She never was a sweet or docile child. I know her mother used to cringe when she'd go clumpin' into mass," says Margaret Uhler, who knew O'Connor as a child and later on at college.
They remember the self portrait that she painted, of a woman in a wide brimmed straw hat, dark strands of hair sticking out about the crown, and wide blue eyes lit with tiny pin pricks of light. "She acted much more country than she was," says Reynolds Allen, a bank president who used to take his stories to O'Connor for criticism.
"I could never figure out where shy left off and I-don't-giva-a-damn began."
Katherine Scott, O'Connor's freshman English teacher, says that she was "ruthless." Louise Abbot, who once considered posing as a journalist to meet her and who admired her immensely, wrote, "there was something terrifying in her . . . such a fierce and faithful holding on to the truth."
In 1970 a critic named Josephine Hendin wrote a profile depicting O'Connor as a bitter, estranged woman whose mother forced her as a child to take part in the strait-laced society of Milledgeville with its "neatly folded virtues," a society she claimed O'Connor had despised and which had no place for her. "The doors began to close," says Gerald Becham, curator of the library which houses the O'Connor collection. After publication of the Hendin book, he says, her mother stopped granting interviews.
She peopled the terrain of her imagination with poets and prophets, misfits and madmen. In "Wise Blood," Hazel Motes must blind himself to make atonement; in "The Violent Bear It Away," young Tarwater drowns an idiot boy to baptize him. In two short stories, a criminal murders a family on vacation; a bible salesman courts a lonely country girl and steals her wooden leg.
"From what I knew of her personally and from what I have read by others about her, I cannot find Flannery's South," wrote Ted Spivey.
People always pointed out, she said, "life in Georgia is not the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families nor bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs." And she told a literary group that met at Andalusia that all fiction writers were in some ways "stupid," and did not need to plumb experience for the heart of their creations.
Even so the Tarwaters and the Shiftlets and the Shoates all had a disconcerting habit of appearing on her door step, post facto, come to state their "bidnes." Flannery's friend Louise Abbot recalls the time a woman brought a suitcase and a wooden leg, the leg attired in a sock and brown and white saddle oxford, to demonstrate the impossibility of fitting the limb inside the suitcase.
Her South seemed always fretting that it might discover itself in Flannery. "She never heard that kind of language in this house," her aunt was said to have protested upon the publication of "Wise Blood." "We'd all sit around and speculate, who's she writing about this time," remembers Margaret Uhler.
Her Milledgeville was not so different from the time where Sherman stopped in 1864 and poured molasses, legend has it, into the pipe organ of the Methodist church. Sherman spared the town, they say, because he found it beautiful.
It was the capital of Georgia from the 1830s until 1868. The street names are the names of revolutionary war-time patriots-Washington, Jefferson, Hancock.
The town rests on the banks of the Oconee River which is stained a bloody red by clay, and it sits on the fall line between the rolling piedmont country to the north and the coastal plain beneath.
It has its haunted houses and its maiden schoolteachers and its downtown cafe, where bull-necked men in flannel shirts and billed caps rest their stomachs on the table over morning coffee. Its families share their suppers with its visitors and mumble grace above the plates of biscuit: bless this food to our use and ourselves to thy service amen.
Since Flannery O'Connor's death in 1964 the town has grown to 13,000 people and the mental institution on its outskirts has begun to empty out its wards. The highway leading north where Andalusia's gate is padlocked against tourists who have made off with the dinner bell and stolen all the mailbox signs, is beset with burger joints and motels and a covered mall. But northwest toward Altanta, 85 miles away, the stands of pine stretch into the distance, "full of silver-white sunlight," as she wrote; and even the meanest of them sparkles.
The episode in Milledgeville begins in 1937, the year that Edward Francis O'Connor left behind a real estate profession in Savannah and brought his wife and daughter to the maternal family home on Greene Street.
The Gline House was white and two stories, with a roof the color of red clay, fluted columns in the sun, and a long porch that ran round the side and overlooked the garden. Behind the open-work brick wall that stood higher than a child, Regina Cline O'Connor planted beds of daffodills, and Mary Flannery played with the chickens and the ducks she raised.
The attic of the house was filled with trunks and cedar chests. It had a window that looked out on the garden, and underneath the window a secret society to two, Flannery and Mary Virginia Harrison. The society had an official flower, the dandelion.
Mary Virginia was pretty and vivacious. She loved to dance and flirted with the boys. She was Flannery's best friend, and her wedding reception would be held at Andalusia. A man who dated her said she and Flannery were as different as two friends could be. Flannery made a pen for her painted like a parrot, and the two of them would memorize the signs for Burma-Shave along the road to Macon, where they went to the dentist.
Flannery O'Connor read Greek and Roman myths from the encyclopedia and she read the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. She later called it her Slop Period. She sat on the porch and watched the other children play, remembers Kitty Smith. She never went along to Tommies Drugstore for Co'Colas after school.
The O'Connors went to mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the only Catholic church in town, and Kitty Smith saw Flannery's father one day after service. "He was so tall and handsome. He always had a smile."
Flannery O'Connor called him Ed, and he died when she was 15. He died of lupus, a vascular disease which affects the organs and the bones and for which there was then no effective treatment.
O'Connor went to Peabody High School and wore plaid skirts and white blouses and a pair of Girl Scout shoes. She drew cartoons for the paper at school, and Mary Virginia sang in the chorus. The high school had this motto: The Good, The True, The Beautiful. It had an alma mater song, sung to the tune of "The Sweeheart of Sigma Chi," that began like this: "When our school days are gone as they're bound to go/we'll be broken-hearted but true." O'Connor would later tell her history teacher that she wished she'd gotten a more classically rounded education.
Flannery O'Connor had a date, the only date that anyone remembers. Dick Allen, a slight and bookish boy, took her to a country club and bought her a Co'Cola. She said, "My damn foot's gone to sleep."
She went to Georgia College, then called Georgia State College for Women, and on Rat Day wouldn't wear an onion around her neck. When the sophomores demanded her to kneel and beg their pardons she replied, "I will not."
She compared the poetry of Emily Dickinson to the froth on a glass of Alka Seltzer, and she later told about an English teacher who had asked her class the moral of "The Scarlet Letter." For a reply the teacher got: Think twice before you commit adultery.
In 1945 O'Connor graduated with a B.A. in social science. She said she would have been a social scientist but for "the grace of god."
Instead she won a fellowship to the Writers Workshop at the University of lowa, where she dropped the "Mary" from her name, and went to study at a writers' colony in upstate New York. From there she traveled to Connecticut, and boarded with her friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald on their farm in a grove of Laurel trees and second growth oak. She meant to be "a writer on my own."
O'Connor took the train from Connecticut back to Milledgeville at Christmastime, 1951, desperately ill, and Regina O'Connor telephoned the Fitzgeralds with the doctor's diagnosis.
The first bout with lupus left Flannery too weak to climb the stairs at home. So Regina took her daughter out to Andalusia, where she cared for her until her death 13 years later. Regina O'Connor lives there still.
Life at Andalusia had a measured qualtiy. Flannery and her mother took lunch at Sanford House, where Misses Fannie White and Mary Jo Thompson served up family-style food and where the colored help was said not to be reliable. Tuesday nights Miss Fannie and Miss Mary Jo would lock the doors and leave for Andalusia, where they spent the night and the following day.
O'Connor's schedule was unvarying. She rose at 7 in the morning to watch the early news. After breakfast she would write until noon. On Tuesdays Regina made her lunch, often with cornmeal rolls, and in the afternoon and evening visitors arrived, many of them faculty from the college.
Regina O'Connor would invite the ladies of the Alter Society, and Flannery would entertain a literary group on Wednesday evenings. The group included an Episcopalian priest and a psychiatrist who rarely spoke and often nodded off during the readings of some short stories that Flannery admired. One time, James Tate wrote, a member of the group submitted for a reading a French play. "A more prurient, lascivious mess has never been heard," recorded Tate indignantly. "Afterward the ladies pounced on him for perpetrating such a contretemps."
Regina would serve meringue kisses and coffee to the guests, and Flannery would wash the dishes. She told Margaret Uhler not to stack the plates, "because it made the bottom dirty and that made more to wash."
Flannery O'Connor's letters are full of her mother. "'Who is this Kafka?' she said. 'A German Jew,' I says, 'I think. He wrote a book about a man who turns into a roach.' 'Well, I can't tell people that,' she says. 'Who is this Evalin Wos?'"
Regina O'Connor waged a constant war with her daughter's peafowl. They ate her flowers, and she finally took to building wire mesh fences around the beds. Miss Mary Jo recalls the screaming kept her up at night. To Flannery, their cries were like "cheers for an invisible parade."
She named the ducks she raised Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Bean, and christened other members of her flock Claire, Booth, Loose and Goose.
She relished the absurd, the ads for Hadacol, the day Roy Rogers took his horse to church in California, a column in the Atlanta papers that was called "Why Do The Heathen Rage?"
She liked it when a lady told her that she read her book under the dryer. She wrote about the time a friend asked a bookstore for a copy of her stories. "We don't have those," he replied, "But we have another book by that person. It's called "The Bears Ran Away With It."
O'Connor spoke the language of the people that she wrote about. To Reynolds Allen, Dick's cousin who was peddling short stories to detective magazines, she scrawled a note, "This one's good. Git hit published."
She felt she was indebted to the South for the strong sense of place that pervades her work. "Somewhere is better than anywhere," she said with understatement.
A Catholic whose readers fretted that she never wrote "The Robe," she had no patience with the frills of her religion, the priests with "long bland faces," nor with "smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart."
No one can remember her complaining, even when her illness put her in the pair of metal crutches that she so disliked and limited her writing time to just two hours daily. "I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are then I will know what God is," O'Connor wrote.
In a letter to a stranger, one of many strangers whose inquiries she never failed to answer, she hinted at her feelings. Two lines she penned from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins began:
Margaret are you grieving over Golden Grove unleaving .
She died on Monday, Aug. 3, 1964, and the church closed its shutters against the summer heat.
She was buried in the cemetery, in the southwest part of town, not far from Green Street on a rise that overlooks the banks and shops downtown. There in a window of a print shop on Hancock Street, a display offers autographed copies of her letters.
Across the way at Georgia College visitors and scholars come to see the Flannery O'Connor Collection in the library. Her books, some furniture, some cane-bottomed chairs, and on the floor a wooden carpet woven in the colors and the patterns of a peacock tail. Stacks of yellow second sheets, her texts, rest under lock and key.
The freshmen at the college read her stories and the anthologies, and students come to visit at the cemetery. They ask directions of the caretaker for two graves, that of Flannery O'Connor and that of John T. Myers, said to be an outlaw who once rode with Jessie James.
Her grave is by her father's on the very edge of the cemetery, by the roadside and not facing the center of the ground, where ancient water oaks and cedar trees shade the monuments and markers. In the springtime heat and sun beats down and silvers just the topmost branches of the trees, and even the meanest of them seems to sparkle. CAPTION: Picture 1, Cline House on Milledgeville's Green Street where Flannery O'Connor grew up, above; Picture 2, O'Connor in 1962, top right; Picture 3, Milledgeville's business district, bottom right.; Picture 4, Andalusia, the farm where Flannery O'Connor raised peacocks; photos by Associated Press.