I had been to Milledgeville a number of times before today, but it was never quite like today.
The first time I visited was in 1994. It was John’s first trip, too. We drove down from Winston-Salem to attend a conference on Flannery O’Connor at Georgia College. We had both taken a seminar on O’Connor recently with Ralph Wood, our professor at Wake Forest who was delivering a keynote at the conference, and the three of us took turns driving The Professor’s boxy blue Chevrolet Impala. It was our first exposure to the world in which O’Connor lived, but it was exposure at a distance: the farmhouse where O’Connor spent the last thirteen years of her life was not open to the public, and her scrupulously private mother, Regina, still lived in town at her house on Greene Street.
The conference was a big do, and really more like a festival. We attended a reception at the old Governor’s Mansion, heard readings by Joyce Carol Oates and Lee Smith, and a performance by Leo Kottke. Throughout the event an art exhibit displayed works inspired by O’Connor’s work and commissioned for the conference, including a striking series of abstract prints on “O’Connor’s Treelines” by an artist whose name we both forgot in the intervening years. But the images of some of those prints stuck with me: the sun shaped like a turnip slowly lowering over a jagged wall of pine, a purple sky deepening over a stylized scene of a farm in ruins.
Milledgeville was once the site of the state’s mental hospital, and as a result did not enjoy the most glowing reputation within the state. It is no accident that Flannery O’Connor wrote in a world rich with society’s misfits and rejects. Andalusia, the farm where she lived with her mother on the outskirts of town, has recently reopened to the public after being gifted to Georgia College. Just off the foyer on the southwest corner of the house, the room where she wrote most of the stories and novels, letters and lectures: work that had only recently begun to completely screw me up and fundamentally alter the way I thought about everything by the time I first visited Milledgeville in 1994.
Just a few feet away from the small bed where she slept, a stout oak desk supports a typewriter and two wooden boxes repurposed as shelving units. A pair of crutches are propped up against a tall armoire oddly positioned on the other side of the desk, presumably to provide shelter from wandering eyes, even now. I strain to get a decent photograph of her desk, but strain even harder to take in the enormity and consequence of what emerged from this little spot.
In the gift shop in the next room, O’Connor’s books are for sale. From a newly-built picture rail made of aluminum hooks, wire, and rebar, hang–lo and behold–the last three framed prints from the “O’Connor’s Treelines” series that we remembered from 1994. Twenty-four years later, here they are, as if they were waiting just for us. Just for this trip. Because the new owners of Andalusia want to redo the gift shop, the prints have been priced to move. And that is exactly what two of them do, right into the back of the minivan.
Pulling down the driveway out of Andalusia and back out onto US 441, across the pond to the right there is a view of the woods. It is the same view Flannery had from her own window or porch. We take O’Connor’s treeline with us, a constant exhortation from the back of the minivan to see what she saw.
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