Saturday, March 30, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 26

Peggy Des Jardines on the influence of Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor and I are on a first name basis. Having lived in Milledgeville for four years to attend Georgia College and State University before moving to Athens, I, like everyone else who has lived in Milledgeville, feel that I have a certain claim over her, as if she were a good friend of mine who everyone else only thought they knew. Just this morning I walked into the offices of the UGA Press, saw a dish of pins with peacocks on them, and assumed they were in celebration of the Flannery O’Connor award. I picked one up and thought, “Yeah right, UGA, you WISH you were GCSU.”

That may seem like a ridiculous thing to think, but when it comes to Flannery, it truly is not. Flannery O’Connor Studies is one of GC’s Programs of Distinctions, and our library boasts an extensive collection of her correspondence, original manuscripts, and her personal library, as well as many of the prints and comics she created while in school. The Flannery-centric single author class with Bruce Gentry holds the reputation of one of the most challenging and rewarding literature classes offered at GC. Students regularly reap the benefits of well-established visiting scholars, authors and poets who admit they were at least partially drawn to Milledgeville because of Flannery’s mystery and allure. Milledgevillians and GC students read and talk so much Flannery that we feel we have the right to poke fun at her every once in a while. We came to know our school as “Flannery O’College” instead of Georgia College. She is at once our big and little sister.

When I served as editor of The Peacock’s Feet, Georgia College’s literary journal whose name is obviously in honor of Flannery’s favorite bird, she was something like our badass grandmother who liked to say inappropriate things at a formal dinner table. When things went wrong, we blamed her for playing tricks on us. We advertised for poetry readings by drawing her head on the body of a peacock monster all over the campus sidewalks. We put her face on Uncle Sam’s body, saying, “Flan Wants YOU… to submit to the Peacock’s Feet.” We put her face on bags and shirts and constantly asked ourselves, “What would Flan do?” whether we were rationalizing something devious or trying to live up to her name.

I once took a class of middle-schoolers to Andalusia, Flannery’s home, where they resented me for expecting them to write about nature, and I was taken there by a poet that I resented for expecting me to write in iambic pentameter. I was also, though, distracted by the thought that she might actually be a superhero, and when she was selected by Claudia Rankine to win the 2010 Kore Press First Book Award, she served as another reminder, alongside Flannery, that big things do happen to people in small places.

Flannery gives a sense of legitimacy to the literaries of a town that most outsiders (undeservedly) pity you for having to live in, and I constantly took comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone in the cynicism that comes with studying the arts in a small conservative town in the south. She’s our mascot. She’s our security blanket.

Just like Milledgeville would not be the same without Flannery, I don’t think Flannery would’ve been the same without Milledgeville. Reading her there is eerie—you can feel her and her characters everywhere. If you are a person who feels ghosts, you feel a lot of them in Milledgeville. Its history, its solitude, the antebellum architecture and the mental hospital, all of the graveyards and all of the dark corners, all the abandoned and tottering buildings that might collapse if you forget to hold your breath next to them—all of this adds up to a mystifying sense of entrapment and freedom at once. Perhaps that mystery is what allowed Flannery’s writing life to flourish there.

Peggy Des Jardines is a marketing intern at the University of Georgia Press. She graduated from Georgia College and State University in December 2012 with a BA in English/Creative Writing and a BA in Studio Art.