MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. - From the barn at Andalusia Farm came a grunt-snort-clop-grunt-snort-clop, not really loud but certainly enough to capture my attention. When I looked up from the fencerow where I stood, a seemingly ancient, slightly overweight hinny named Flossie came prancing out to meet me with all the energy of a fire-breathing dragon.
When she reached the fence, she nodded, an equine gesture that let me know I was welcome to visit and take pictures but to please kindly remember that this was her home and to give her the respect she deserves. She is, after all, about 40 years old, and in hinny years, that's pretty remarkable. I understood immediately and nodded back. Next moment, she turned away, the cadence of her footsteps hypnotic as she trotted to the other side of the pasture.
Andalusia Farm, where Flossie lives, was the home of author Flannery O'Connor. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the farm, in the town of Milledgeville in the heart of Georgia, is one of those fabled places that visitors seek out despite their remoteness. Literary tourists drive Alabama's back roads in search of Truman Capote and Harper Lee in Monroeville or Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Montgomery. They visit Asheville, N.C., in search of Thomas Wolfe, and Oxford, Miss., hoping for a glimpse of William Faulkner's ghost. In Atlanta you'll find them on the doorsteps of Joel Chandler Harris' Wren's Nest or at Margaret Mitchell's The Dump, where she wrote Gone With the Wind.
Here at Andalusia, a working dairy farm where O'Connor lived from about 1951 until her death in 1964, she made it her routine to write every morning until noon. Afternoons were filled with entertaining visitors, going into town, and taking care of the farm with her beloved peacocks and other critters including swans, geese, ducks, cattle - and hinnies, jennies, horses and mules.
Nowadays, no shrieking peafowl amble these rolling hills, although there are tentative plans to bring a few back for nostalgia's sake. For the time being, the only creatures that remain are a few wild deer and turkeys, myriad birds, and, of course, Flossie.
Friendly yet a little standoffish, Flossie is a direct descendant of animals that lived here when O'Connor called it home. Flossie is a hinny (a cross between a male horse and a female donkey), and since hinnies are sterile, there will be no more Flossies at Andalusia.
As Flossie clopped away toward the shade of an old oak, I made a full 360-degree circle, taking in O'Connor's personal kingdom, her Shangri-La, her Garden of Eden, her Eldorado. Like these mythical places, Milledgeville even today isn't easy to get to, and in O'Connor's day of slower automobiles and few paved roads, Milledgeville and Andalusia were flat-out remote, hours away by car from Atlanta and Savannah. O'Connor herself joked that it was accessible only by "bus or buzzard."
But when you get to bucolic, inspiring Andalusia, there is much for the literary tourist to see. The home, on a slight rise overlooking a pasture leading down to a serene pond, was built in the 1850s. The silhouette of the house against the cerulean sky is impressive while preserving the storybook element of the early rural Georgia settlers. With long front porches lined with a cavalry of whitewashed rocking chairs, twin fireplaces on each end of the home, innumerable windows, and high ceilings to guard against the wilting Georgia heat and humidity in a time long before anyone even imagined such a thing as air conditioning, it is a classic farmhouse, very much like my grandparents' home built in the same era and more than 100 miles away.
I think I expected high drama when I first pushed open the front door, maybe a long-winded tour guide who would finally lead me to the room where O'Connor whiled away the hours with her vivid imagination and the clicking of typewriter keys. Not exactly.
As you enter the front hallway, O'Connor's roped-off bedroom is immediately there on the left. You glance at the tattered curtains, the blue and white checked bedspread, the crutches and the typewriter (yes, they're hers). This simple, beautiful place is where one of the South's most gifted scribes wrote, prayed, laughed, cried, and, most certainly, in her last days contemplated her life and her impending death.
Today, the house is mostly well kept, although the plaster is peeling and cracked and in places sunlight streams through. Best of all, I loved the amalgamation of aromas this house retains: old lumber; the faint, greasy smell of fried chicken and country ham that will likely never fade; dusty attics; and creaky floorboards that have held under the pressure of the millions of footfalls of visitors from across the globe.
For one of extreme literary notoriety, her life was less than charmed. She was born in Savannah in 1925 to Edward and Regina Cline O'Connor; the family moved first to Atlanta and then to Milledgeville, where they lived in the Cline family home in town. O'Connor was only 15 when her father died in 1941 of lupus, the same autoimmune disease that she would inherit and die from when she was but 39.
O'Connor and her mother lived in the Cline home until 1945, when O'Connor won a scholarship to the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa), enrolling in the highly regarded Writers Workshop to study creative writing and earn her master's in fine arts. Afterward, she remained in Iowa for about a year before moving to New York and Connecticut while writing her first novel, Wise Blood.
Stricken with lupus, she returned to Milledgeville and the family farm to live with her mother. Because of the remoteness of Andalusia (the farm is a few miles from the center of town) or the bizarre characters she wrote about, many thought she was a recluse. The opposite is true: She and her mother went into town often for dining, social events, and Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. As health permitted, she traveled throughout the United States for speaking engagements.
I'm no scholar of O'Connor, but after reading most of her short stories, I can't escape how utterly this tranquil place, this warm home with the verdant fields and pastures, contrasts with the world of her writing. She was an expert at breathing life into the gothic and grotesque with a dark, incredible eccentricity. Happy endings are rare, with most tales ending violently and tragically with some sort of mayhem or murder and misery.
Most impressive is that O'Connor captures the essence of a rural South this country didn't want to acknowledge. It's not so much that her stories are so disturbing - rather, it's the singular strangeness of the characters she created. The shiver-inducing, sinister Misfit ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find") comes to mind, as do Tom T. Shiflet ("The Life You Save May Be Your Own"), the ungrateful, selfish Julian ("Everything That Rises Must Converge"), and the quack Enoch Emery ("Enoch and the Gorilla"). And, in a state where just about everyone is Baptist or Methodist, O'Connor, decidedly Catholic, managed to weave threads of religion into almost every page she wrote.
O'Connor wrote only two novels and 31 short stories in her short life. Yet in 1972, Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories was posthumously given the National Book Award. Usually bestowed only on living writers, that award attests to the magnitude of her legacy.
After O'Connor passed away in 1964, her mother moved back to town, where she died in 1995. She willed that an organization be established to maintain Andalusia and to honor her daughter's work. The Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation began in 2000.
Looking around the 544-acre Andalusia, with its striking old farmhouse, its outbuildings, barns, sheds, and flower-strewn meadows, you'd think O'Connor would have written about heaven itself rather than the furious kind of hell she created in her characters. When you come away from Andalusia, so mysterious and far away from reality, you come away with a new respect for Flannery O'Connor the woman, and Flannery O'Connor, the extraordinary Southern writer.
Andalusia Farm is a focal point of Milledgeville, the state's capital from 1803 to 1868. With its charming downtown full of white-columned homes, including the imposing Old Governor's Mansion, Milledgeville today is the heart of Georgia's Antebellum Trail (www.antebellumtrail.org).
If you visit Andalusia and Milledgeville, see the Flannery O'Connor Room at Georgia State College & University; Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where she and her mother worshipped; and her grave at Memory Hill Cemetery.