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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

"She hated all that stuff," said Marshall Bruce Gentry, an English professor at the local college and editor of the Flannery O'Connor Review. Instead of moonlight and magnolias, the devout Catholic used the South -- and Milledgeville -- to write about the drama of sin and salvation, human depravity and oft-rejected grace.

Tersely and precisely written, her short stories typically begin with sly, laugh-out-loud-funny descriptions of her characters' pettiness, greed and pride. They often end tragically or violently, with murders, fires, strokes and myriad other disasters. The grotesque characters and violent outcomes, O'Connor said, were necessary to shock modern, nonreligious readers into seeing her vision.

Still, she wrote, "I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesman prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs."

O'Connor's reputation continued to grow after her death, aided by the posthumous publication of her nonfiction writing and letters. Both reveal a woman with profound spiritual insight, a sly sense of humor and disdain for "interleckshuls," as she called them.

In her lifetime, though, critics often misunderstood her work. Certainly, it wasn't well received in Milledgeville.

Mary Jones, who once waited on O'Connor and her mother at the Sanford House, told me that she found O'Connor's first novel, "Wise Blood," jammed at the back of a shelf in her parents' closet.

"All the little old ladies in town went out and bought it because they were friends with [O'Connor's mother] Regina, and then it was scandalous," she said. "People didn't understand where she was coming from."

Most Milledgeville residents still don't consider the town's most renowned daughter a major source of civic pride. At a barbecue joint, one local told me he didn't know much about her. As I walked away, he told his friends, "I think she was a writer or something."

When I told my Atlanta housemate, Mark, that I was coming to Milledgeville, I wasn't sure whether he would associate the town with O'Connor, antebellum history or both.

Ironically, it was neither. Like most Georgians, Mark thought first of Central State Hospital. The mental institution, more than 160 years old, has become synonymous with Milledgeville in Georgia lore.

With nearly 12,000 patients at its peak in the 1960s, the hospital was one of the largest mental institutions in the world. It housed as many residents as Milledgeville itself, and probably more, census records show.

According to scholar Jean Cash's biography on O'Connor, the author delighted in taking guests past the hospital's open windows when she was an adolescent. A similar mental institution figures in another O'Connor story, "The Partridge Festival."

I was delighted to learn that the facility had a small museum, open only by appointment. I pulled in front of the hospital's main building, a white-domed behemoth that looked a bit like the White House.

The museum, a short walk away, was not particularly well kept. But its artifacts from psychiatry's dark ages were engagingly sinister: a straitjacket, an electroshock machine, gleaming lobotomy probes and portraits of nursing directors wearing scowls worthy of Nurse Ratched.

These days, the hospital typically houses only 800 to 850 patients, said Terea Jacobs, my guide for the day. Most of the old wards have been converted into state prison barracks. The razor wire glinted through the pine trees.

The irony seemed worthy of O'Conner herself: Although a tourist destination, Milledgeville is also a place where many have come quite unwillingly.

Where O'Connor lives on

FLANNERY O'CONNOR may not draw the most tourists to Milledgeville, but she probably attracts them from the farthest distances -- Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Kerala, India, according to the guest book at the Flannery O'Connor Room at the college.

Besides the Andalusia farm, the college tops the list of places to find the author's memorabilia and works. The O'Connor Room exhibits her wooden desk and one of her Royal manual typewriters. Photographs of the author hang on the walls, as do her illustrations for the college yearbook.

More scholarly is the library's Flannery O'Connor Collection, which includes manuscripts and letters -- although primary materials are available only to scholars.

Wanting to hear her voice, I listened to a 1959 tape of O'Connor reading one of her best-known stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." She had a heavy yet genteel Southern accent that pulled me in, although I'd read the story several times before.

For literary travelers, though, Andalusia is the must-see. O'Connor lived there with her mother from 1951 to 1964, writing "Wise Blood," the stories collected in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and the posthumously published "Everything That Rises Must Converge." She also wrote her second novel, "The Violent Bear It Away," on the farm.

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