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A quiet Southern town, writ large

Historic Milledgeville was home to Flannery O'Connor, and the inspirations for her stories still can be seen.

July 09, 2006|Ben Brazil | Special to The Times

Milledgeville, Ga. — CARMEN ALARCON, a native of Colombia, tore through the farmhouse kitchen as if chasing a misbehaving child about to escape into the warm Georgia evening.

"¡Hola! I want to talk to you," she yelled, friendly but insistent, as she left my side, flew around the corner and zeroed in on an unseen stranger.

"Tell me about Flannery," she demanded.

I followed closely behind because I had also come to Milledgeville, Georgia's antebellum capital, largely for Flannery -- as in Mary Flannery O'Connor, the internationally acclaimed short-story master who spent her most productive years at Andalusia, the onetime dairy farm where we stood.

But I didn't come just for O'Connor. I also wanted to see Milledgeville -- where Georgia seceded from the Union -- through the eyes of a distinctly Southern writer. I thought seeing the town where she spent her adolescence, attended college and lived most of her adult life might also provide insight into O'Connor's world and work.

For now, though, I was chasing a 30-year-old Colombian through the O'Connors' kitchen and into their parlor.

I found Carmen seated on the couch with Dorrie Neligan, who had been friends with O'Connor's late mother. Regina Cline O'Connor, a widow, lived with and cared for Flannery after the author developed lupus, the chronic auto-immune disease that forced her to return home permanently in 1951. O'Connor died in 1964 at age 39. Neligan remembered her as private and hard to know well.

For a fan, this was not news. But merely being at the farm, an obvious inspiration for the settings of such stories as "A Circle in the Fire," "The Displaced Person" and "Good Country People," had left Carmen quivering with excitement.

She had discovered O'Connor while living in Savannah, Ga., the author's birthplace, and was writing a paper on O'Connor to finish her degree at a Colombian university.

As we walked back to our cars on a warm day last spring, I remarked on her enthusiasm. She stood stock-still and looked intensely into my eyes.

"This is the first time I've come to Andalusia," she said, as if relaying life-and-death information. "Right now, where I'm standing, I'm actually drunk on Flannery O'Connor."

Most visitors to Milledgeville, it is safe to say, do not get drunk on mid-20th century American literary figures.

Old state capital

THE town, in the red clay hills of middle Georgia about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta, was the state capital from 1804 to 1868. Its biggest draws are historical -- the castle-like Old State Capitol and the Old Governor's Mansion, which reopened in 2005 after a $10-million renovation.

If you're seeking off-the-charts Southern ambience, ornate graveyards and dark tunnels of live oaks hung with Spanish moss, go to Savannah, where O'Connor lived her first 12 1/2 years.

Milledgeville is simpler, a slow-paced college town with about 19,000 residents. Its tiny, tree-lined downtown has no parking meters, but it seems to have survived the Wal-Mart Supercenter nearby.

Students at Georgia College & State University -- called the Georgia State College for Women when O'Connor graduated from it in 1945 -- patronize a few bars. There's also Blackbird Coffee, a pleasant coffee shop, and several surprisingly good restaurants.

Hints of nonliterary celebrity also exist. At Dodo's Pool Room, where the vinyl stools and snack counter seem straight from the 1950s, a framed picture of the comedic duo of Laurel & Hardy sits above a box of Swisher Sweets. Oliver Hardy also grew up partly in Milledgeville.

But for in-depth history, my fiancee, Laura, and I jumped aboard the town's trolley.

Our first stop was the Old Capitol, a neo-Gothic building on the grounds of Georgia Military College, a prep school and junior college. We climbed a split stairway and briefly visited the airy chamber where Georgia voted to secede from the Union. From there, the tour also rolled past downtown's white-columned antebellum mansions, which Union Gen. William T. Sherman spared in November 1864.

O'Connor spent her adolescence in one such home, built in the singular Milledgeville Federal style, with cantilevered balconies and fan-shaped windows, among other characteristics. At another, the Stetson-Sanford House, she and her mother regularly lunched in a first-floor restaurant.

The next day, Laura and I visited what is perhaps Milledgeville's biggest attraction, the Old Governor's Mansion. This gorgeously restored Greek Revival building features a gilded interior dome and details accurate down to the stenciled and shellacked canvas flooring -- a sort of 19th century linoleum, our guide explained. The tour included formal parlors, a hidden spiral staircase and basement work areas where slaves once prepared meals.

In all likelihood, little of this would have impressed O'Connor. She was born in Savannah in 1925, into a good Milledgeville family, and was resolutely Southern, but she had little use for the glorification of the Civil War, and she declined to become a belle.

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