Today would have been the 90th birthday of the Southern novelist and short-story writer Flannery O'Connor. I owe it to her fiercely perfected talent and her fierce faith to post this photo I took this past November, on an afternoon trip to Savannah, of the outside of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.
O’Connor did not live here long—only 13 years, before her family relocated to a farm in Milledgeville—but it was enough to forge her. The house was deeded to her, and she still, in fact, owned it when she died, only 39 years old, of complications from lupus—the same disease that struck down her father in middle age.
Much to my chagrin, the home was closed that day when I visited. But I had seen it on my prior visit to Savannah, in fall 1999. I knew from the short tour of the house I took then that the interior reflected the comfortable middle-class lifestyle of her family, and that it included her baby carriage, her cradle and bedroom furniture.
For the devoutly Catholic O’Connors, their Savannah location was—to borrow a phrase—a godsend. The family worshipped at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (a landmark that I discussed in this prior post), just across Lafayette Square. Young Mary Flannery was baptized three weeks after her birth, in the cathedral; later, the building would be the site of her early education, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School, as well as her first communion and confirmation.
But back to the small Georgian row house at 207 Charlton Street that you’re looking at now. It was actually owned by maternal second cousin Mrs. Raphael Semmes (“Cousin Katie”), who had the garden and mansion next door. In Flannery’s mid-30s, as lupus forced her to use a cane, Mrs. Semmes accompanied her to Lourdes for a cure.
It was also, in the back of this house, that an amusing episode—one that “marked me for life,” she chuckled later—occurred. One of the five-year-old girl’s feats was training a “frizzled” chicken to walk backward. A New York newsreel company, Pathe, got wind of this and sent a cameraman down to record the action. Years later, as an adult, when she was not writing, she was indulging to the hilt her fascination with farm animals. (At one point, she raised 40 peacocks.)
O’Connor’s fiction—dark, violent, absurd at points—could be called Southern Gothic. Her private voice—highly intelligent, surprising, warm but sharply funny, unafraid to take on the central questions regarding her faith—can be heard unmistakably in Habit of Being (1979). Her collected works now form part of the Library of America, the handsome hardbound series of books dedicated to preserving the nation’s best literary tradition.