Childhood in Savannah

living room in Flannery O'Conner's house

Flannery O’Conner’s living room

Though I am also a Georgia writer, I have to say that I actually know little about Flannery O’Conner (though I did visit her grave in Milledgeville years ago). Last Friday I stood in a bedroom on the third story of a narrow gray stone house, looking out onto Lafayette Square in Savannah, Georgia. Until she was 13, little Mary Flannery, as she was known then, also stood in that room, her parents’ bedroom, looking out across the square at the cathedral where her family attended services. What was that little girl thinking when she stood there? How did that little girl grow up to write such dark books?

I went to Savannah to see a friend, who came there to meet me, and who I was great glad to see. My friend is not from Georgia, but she knew more about O’Conner than me and wanted to visit the childhood home. The four-story house once belonged to a wealthy relative of O’Conner’s family, and Flannery spent her early years there, until her father took a job in Atlanta—to the dismay of Flannery and her mother, who eventually ended up in Milledgeville.

The Savannah house has been returned as much as possible to a facsimile of O’Conner’s childhood. Furnishing are intended to show how a middle-class family lived there in those years, and some of the original belongings have even been found and used. In particular, for a writer, the house contains a number of the childhood books that O’Conner actually owned. This includes a book of fairy tales that she wrote in, on the title page: “Not a good book”—the child critiquing the books she read.

Mary Flannery O’Conner was from an Irish Catholic family, though that fact is not quite as evident without her first name, nor would it be clear from her fiction, which often involves characters of fundamentalist Protestant religion. O’Conner’s fiction is often called “Southern Gothic” with the usual sense of “Gothic” in literature: darkness, disturbing situations, and unsettling characters. It’s slightly ironic that she grew up attending a cathedral in Gothic style, but in architecture, that term means a beautiful church filled with light and stained glass. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, across the square from O’Conner’s house, is just such a church, a stunningly beautiful building.

How much can a person get a sense of Flannery O’Conner from visiting this house? Such a question could be applied to visiting the house of any writer, which I’ve done plenty of (Louisa May Alcott, Samuel Johnson, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dante, among others). The answer probably depends on how much the writer can be felt in the house. In a case like O’Conner’s childhood home (or Shakespeare’s), there’s not much of the creative adult writer actually there, so it’s more a case of feeling connected to the human being who this person was. I wonder if that’s a more abstract idea.

I actually feel a slight connection to O’Conner from the fact that she, as well as her father, died of systemic lupus erythematosus, because I now work for a medical journal that occasionally has articles about lupus. She died at the horribly young age of 39.

Aside from this strange connection, aside from the fact that both O’Conner and I were born and grew up in Georgia, even aside from my visiting both the house she lived in as a child and the grave where she is buried, I feel a connection with Flannery O’Conner as a fellow writer—and in that regard, she could have been born in Kazakhstan. She was an intelligent, thoughtful person who was interested in language and ideas, who wanted to express those ideas by creating scenes where characters stand up and come to life. I know what that’s like. More than anything, I understand Flannery O’Conner with that passion to write.

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