Local cultural heritage aids understanding of ‘our heritage By James Murdock

Dr. Bruce Gentry, Flannery O’Connor scholar and Georgia College professor, left, and George Heiring, Georgia Writers Museum president, talk after the lecture.

A devout Roman Catholic, American author Mary Flannery O’Connor’s faith was reflected often through her stories. Still, she was commonly misunderstood, and sometimes controversial, because her writings often revolved around gruesome situations and troublesome characters. She was primarily concerned with questions of morality and confronted many of the injustices of her time with a sly and searing sense of humor. Flannery is known by most of her fans today as the founder of a writing style known simply as “Southern gothic.” A large group of those fans gathered on Sunday, Aug. 27, at the Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton to celebrate her legacy by listening to a lecture from Dr. Bruce Gentry, a Flannery scholar and professor at Georgia College, on “Understanding O’Connor and Her Writings.” “This kind of thing allows people to get a better understanding of the literary heritage of the region,” Jack Shinneman, the visionary and founder of the writers museum, said about the lecture. “The more people can hear about it, the better educated they will be as to its cultural importance—to its importance as our heritage.” George Heiring, the museum’s president added, “This program is to honor the fact that there is a rich literary soil in this part of Georgia, a soil that has grown a legacy not just unique for this place, but nationally—we want to be aware of that.” O’Connor is one of the three authors exhibited permanently in the writers museum; the other two are Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker. O’Connor was born in Savannah in 1925, although she spent most of her life living on her family’s farm in Milledgeville, known today as Andalusia. She attended Peabody High School and Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College and State University) before being accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1946. In 1952, having every intention to continue her extensive travels and to nourish her blossoming literary career, she was diagnosed with lupus and chose to return home to Milledgeville. There, she spent the next 12 years becoming one of the most prominent writers to ever stem from the south and a cornerstone of American literature. By the time of her death at age 39, O’Connor had published two novels, 32 short stories, and numerous essays and reviews. Her posthumously published Complete Stories won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972. Dr. Gentry began the talk by discussing some of the lesser-know circumstances of Flannery’s life—that she always had an apparent tension with her mother (who was consistently trying to get Flannery to behave like a proper Southern lady) and that much of that tension came out through her writing in the form of her attacking the debutant, sugar-coated lifestyle. Flannery was direct and believed in living her life without being too showy or overly composed. She confronted the racism and materialism of her time as being contradictions to a truly religious life. Still, she always looked for uplifting qualities in even the most contemptible individuals—she was always searching for salvation, Gentry said. Also, she was not unaware of her own faults and criticized her own shortcomings by having some of her most distraught characters represent herself. Gentry also took the time to carefully dissect the meaning behind two of Flannery’s most popular stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People. Both stories are set in middle Georgia, contain deep religious and social symbolism, and tell tales of things going terribly wrong for seemingly normal people. At the end of the lecture, Gentry took questions from the audience on the life and works of Flannery and several discussions ensued. Gentry described the impact Flannery’s message has made on his own life. “She’s constantly teaching me not to be a snob—if I think there is someone in one of her stories that I am so much better than, that story will usually expose my own ignorance,” he said, adding, “and that is the beauty in her writing. She is showing us the work we have cut out for us to make a better society.” Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor, recently was gifted to the Georgia College and State University Foundation. It is currently under a remodeling but will soon be reopened to the public. The Georgia Writers Museum is located at 109 S. Jefferson Street, Eatonton. Call 706-991-5119 or visit georgiawritersmuseum.com for more information.

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