Flannery O’Connor lived at 207 East Charlton Street, a stucco-faced three-story townhouse on Lafayette Square in Savannah, Georgia, from 1925 to 1938. She didn’t write any of the tough, strange, unsettling stories that made her famous there—she was thirteen in 1938, when the family moved to Atlanta—but still the house draws pilgrims and devotees. What can you learn about a writer from her childhood home?
Well, in the backyard at Charlton Street you will see where young Mary Flannery raised chickens. This isn’t as trivial an observation as you might imagine. One hen became famous when she started walking backward. In 1932 Pathé made a newsreel about it, starring five-year-old “Mary O’Connor of Savannah, Georgia”—for about six seconds of screen time. In an essay for Holiday magazine, O’Connor wrote that this was the moment that kicked off a lifetime of bird collecting: “What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens.” (Who knows what she might have collected if Pathé had been there to shoot her every minute of her life?) In the end, she gathered not just chickens but ducks, pheasant, quail, a one-eyed swan, and dozens of peafowl on her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. In 1958, when the poet Robert Lowell had, in O’Connor’s words, “another spell” and checked into McLean Psychiatric Hospital, she sent him a five-foot-long peacock feather. When he got it, he said, “That’s all I need—a peacock feather.”
The house on East Charlton Street offers a glimpse, too, of what O’Connor called the Christ-haunted South. From the front stoop, it’s a straight shot along the square to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and a few feet down Abercorn Street to the former site of St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, where O’Connor was a student. In the seventh grade, she transferred to Sacred Heart, where she got straight As in deportment and Christian doctrine, but disappointing Bs and Cs in reading, spelling, grammar, and composition. (No prophet is ever accepted in her home country.)
Lafayette Square was the heart of Irish-Catholic Savannah. The O’Connors had landed there thanks to the interventions of rich Cousin Katie, who owned 207 East Charlton and the two buildings next door. The source of Katie’s wealth was also O’Connor’s namesake: John Flannery, Katie’s father, who became a powerful banker and a broker at the Savannah Cotton Exchange following the Civil War. “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation,” O’Connor wrote. “In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.” When Cousin Katie died, she left 207 to O’Connor, who rented it out. It remained split into apartments until 1989, when it was sold to a group that became the Friends of Flannery, beginning the long process of turning the place into a museum. The house’s library is named after the film producer Jerry Bruckheimer and his wife Linda, a Kentucky-raised editor and novelist, who donated $100,000 to the cause. It was Top Gun money that funded the paint-chip analysis done by the Savannah College of Art and Design to match the mint green of the living-room walls.
The Bruckheimer library has a cabinet of first editions: Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Complete Stories. Nearby, there are several shelves of criticism and related work, including Brad Gooch’s “big, calm, gentlemanly biography” (in Joy Williams’ words) from 2009, Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where O’Connor met Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Andrew Lytle), and The Lupus Book by Daniel J. Wallace (she died of the disease when she was thirty-nine).
Because this is a childhood home, though, the only books that belonged to O’Connor are children’s books. Some are simple markers of the era: Walt Disney’s Dumbo, the Dionne Quintuplets Picture Album, a book about the seven wonders of the world with the subtitle“The Most Impressive Things That Men Have Ever Done.” Maybe we find a kernel of O’Connor’s dogged unsentimentality in the presence of A Dog of Flanders, by Louisa de la Rame, which ends with the titular dog and his owner frozen to death in Antwerp’s cathedral, underneath Rubens’ The Elevation of the Cross. And is that a hint of O’Connor’s unsparing critical eye in the assessment of Laura Rountree Smith’sThe Fairy Babies as “not a very good book,” written out in labored cursive on the title page?
Perhaps. But the most telling detail of all is in the second-floor bathroom, not the library. That’s where a visitor will find two embroidered pillows in the bathtub. O’Connor was an unenthusiastic participant in playdates, a problem she solved by marching her friends upstairs to the tub, where she would have them read to her as she reclined on one of the pillows. Occasionally, when she heard a passage she particularly liked, she’d interrupt the story. “Stop right there,” she’d instruct the friend sternly. “Would you read that over again?”
--Christopher Cox is an editor at Esquire and the editor at large of Orion.