Among the biggest surprises to come my way in 2019 was an invitation to give a talk and sign copies of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. Health issues prevented me from accepting the initial invitation but I am now slated to give a presentation in May 2020. The plan is to also have available for signing a forthcoming book in which I recount adventures and misadventures involving three iconic writers: O'Connor, James Alan McPherson, and John Berendt.
Any literary biographer will tell you writing a book of meaningful depth on an influential author requires a ton of research involving what other writers have already said about the subject. The following are reflections on another scribe's brilliantly-informed perspective, first published by AXS Entertainment as: "Events, Books, Highlight Flannery O’Connor’s Legacy."
Regarding a Gifted Child
One of the words most frequently used to describe Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery of O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in the twenty-first century is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially-charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment which would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she was visited by a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor, it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility which in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Her tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Loss and Suffering
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial up and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but two years later learned her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, told her she was suffering from the same disease which had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, she had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the renowned Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel, Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out:
“She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug received such an endorsement.)
NEXT: The N-Word Factor: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (part 2)
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savanna and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also an accomplished artist & photographer.
This coming November 2016 will mark the second anniversary of the dedication of the historical marker for the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia. Moreover, as it now turns out, that dedication also represents one of the city’s more notable acknowledgements of the life, work, and legacy of James Alan McPherson (September 16, 1943 – July 27, 2016). The iron-lettered text for the historical marker concludes as follows:
“…One of only two Carnegie library projects for African Americans in Georgia, this was the home library to James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and essayist and Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The story presented below was previously published in my former AXS Entertainment National African Cultural Arts Column. It is shared here in honor of what later this month would have been Mr. McPherson’s 73rd birthday; and, in recognition not only of the role that one particular library played in his life, but in recognition of the immense value libraries around the world continue to contribute to humanity as a whole.
Savannah community marks 100th anniversary of a legacy of knowledge
Community leaders, patrons of the arts, and enthusiastic readers gathered at the historic Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia, on November 13, 2014, to commemorate with a new historical marker the legacy established by its African-American founders in 1914.
Among those assembled on the lawn beside the majestic front steps of the library, located at 537 East Henry Street, were: Senator Lester G. Jackson (D-Savannah and Chatham County), cultural arts advocate Dessie Baker, librarian Mark Darby, author and composer Ja A. Jahannes, historian Charles Lwanga Hoskins, Library Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Daniel Brantley, Georgia Historical Society Executive Director Todd Groce, founder descendant Ursuline Dickey, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, the library’s current branch manager Adriene Tillman, and many others.
In his remarks on the historical significance of the library, Sen. Jackson noted that one of the reasons his father first moved their family many years ago from Statesboro to Savannah was to gain access to the library. They settled in a house only two blocks away: “He said son, this neighborhood will be an investment in your future. It has a library… Every Saturday morning before I could go out to play, I had to visit this structure…”
Sen. Jackson added the following:
“A hundred years ago, 11 men got together and invested in this community’s future by gathering books. And that’s what this marker here stands for today, an investment those men made in the future of not only young people but everyone. It gave them access to knowledge, it gave them access to history, but most importantly it gave them access to the world… where they could come read books, where they could come collect books, where they could come to understand what was [happening] in the world. And that knowledge is still needed today.”
The men to whom he was referring established themselves in 1906 as the Colored Library Association of Savannah. With a grant from American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the group was able to build the unique facility at a cost of $104,041.78 but drew on its own resources and community support to provide operational funds and actual books. Construction of the facility, which stands as the only recognized example of Prairie Style architecture (generally associated with Frank Lloyd Wright) in Savannah, got underway in early 1914. Dedication observances were held for it in August of the same year and construction was completed in 1915.
Harlem Renaissance Connections
The date of the library’s construction and opening is particularly significant in light of the Harlem Renaissance that would get underway just as World War I drew to a close. Placed in that context, members of the Colored Library Association of Savannah may be rightly viewed as southern counterparts to such historians and bibliophiles as “the father of black history” Carter G. Woodson and scholar Arthur Schomburg. Like New York’s famed Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the Carnegie Branch Library is an exceptional repository of works related to African-American history and culture on local, state, and national levels.
In more recent times, structural damage forced the library to close in 1997. It reopened in August 2004 with a slate of programs that included a lecture and book signing based on Facts on File’s Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to modern technology resources, the renovated library also featured a new east wing dedicated to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The text of the new historical marker notes the significance of its role in the intellectual development of both Justice Thomas and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson.
To learn more about the Carnegie Branch Library’s history, it hours or operation, or current programs please call (912) 231-9921 or visit the Live Oaks Public Libraries website.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and Journey through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.