Inside the rural Georgia homes of authors Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker and Joel Chandler Harris.
by Lee Howard
Margaret Mitchell is the dominant name when it comes to Georgia authors – there are several “Gone With The Wind”-related locations dotted in and around Atlanta. But a little off the beaten track, just an hour and a half‘s drive east of Georgia’s capital, Eatonton and nearby Milledgeville were once home to three other famous writers who led very different lives.
Life in rural Georgia worked its way onto pages written by the Queen of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor. She wrote most of her work at Andalusia, a farm just north of former state capital Milledgeville, where she lived from 1951 until her death in 1964.
In the 1970s, O’Connor’s home was visited by Alice Walker, who grew up in the area. A few years later in 1983, Walker became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her novel “The Color Purple,” set in 1930s rural Georgia.
Walker was mostly gracious in her assessment of O’Connor’s, work calling her the “first great modern writer from the South,” but she was damning of fellow Eatonton native, Joel Chandler Harris, who penned the Uncle Remus tales of Brer Rabbit.
Proud of its literary heritage, Georgia is stepping up its game when it comes to tourism related to its best-known storytellers. With Alice Walker’s childhood home re-opening to the public in May 2013, a signposted “Famous Authors Driving Tour” along country roads also covers Joel Chandler Harris locations. Extending the tour south adds O’Connor’s Andalusia for a full day of inspiration.
A Taste of Southern Gothic
Open to visitors since 2004, Andalusia is located off Highway 441, 45 miles south of I-20 having headed east from Atlanta. Arriving on the grounds of this former dairy farm feels like another time and place from the city, a short drive up a dirt track.
O’Connor’s family loved the romantic name Andalusia, but there’s nothing here on its 544 acres that reminds you of southern Spain. It’s unmistakably of the Deep South with an antebellum exterior and an eerie throwback to a bygone era inside.
Shaded by towering oaks, the white, wood-paneled house has several steps leading up to the front: a little touch of grandeur. O’Connor, however, used the entrance at the rear since she suffered from lupus, a disease which took her father when she was 15 and made her dependent on her crutches, which now lean next to a replica of her writing desk and typewriter, a short step from her bed.
An only child, O’Connor lived with her mother and occupied the first floor only, writing two to three hours every morning in her modified bedroom/study. O’Connor completed both of her novels, including “Wise Blood,” and her collections of short stories, most notably “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” while at Andalusia.
The old house is a little musty. Paint peels off the ceiling and plaster is missing in patches from the walls in some rooms. Upstairs, the bedroom curtains are shredded and faded by the relentless summer sun. The kitchen is dressed with crockery and household items from another place in time, and in another room an old telephone sits on a bedside table next to a copy of one of the author’s works.
Although the house is frozen in the 1950s and ’60s era, recreating O’Connor’s time here, she has never been more popular as a writer, claims Craig Amason, executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation. “She was very much ahead of her time,” he says. “Her characters are very grotesque and there’s a great deal of violence in her work. Writers like Cormac McCarthy are very influenced by her themes. It also makes her extremely relevant in pop culture. She has found her audience – it’s the twenty-something crowd, because they are no longer repelled by the grotesque or violence. That is precisely what attracts them.”
Referenced in today’s pop culture, O’Connor’s work or name has popped up in TV shows such as “Lost” and, in 2013, darker shows like “Hannibal” and “Rectify.” Amason says Andalusia attracts a diverse crowd, from older church-goers (O’Connor was a devout Catholic in the largely Protestant Bible Belt) to pierced and tattooed youngsters who have fallen under her spell and want to see where the magic happened.
“It is a place that very clearly inspired so much of her fiction,” adds Amason. “You cannot help but see this place in her stories, especially her short stories and especially those that are set on a farm.”
O’Connor’s isolated life at Andalusia is mentioned in “The Habit of Being,” an acclaimed collection of her frequent letters to friends. On the farm, her companions were domesticated birds – geese, ducks, pheasants, peafowl – that roamed the grounds. A small aviary at the back still contains peahen and a noisy peacock that proudly shows its tail to visitors.
Walking By The Color Purple
Born almost two decades after her, Alice Walker admired O’Connor’s work and at the age of 8 lived a mere 2 miles away from her on the Eatonton to Milledgeville road. However, in the segregated South that might as well have been a world away.
In 1974, together with her mother, Walker visited her former home before making a pilgrimage to nearby Andalusia Farm. She wrote about the experience in an essay, Beyond the Peacock, in which she contrasted the relatively privileged life of O’Connor with her own.
She also remarked upon the birds at Andalusia. “One peacock is so involved in the presentation of his masterpiece he does not allow us to move the car until he finishes with his show.”
Walker took the time to enjoy the display. No doubt her free-spirited character Shug Avery would have approved. Shug’s version of “wake up and smell the roses” plays out like this: “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” (In “The Color Purple,” Avery sings “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” the blues song that inspired O’Connor’s title).
Walker’s main childhood home for most of the 1950s, now Southern Manor Farms, is some 25 miles north of Andalusia. It’s included on a short Alice Walker driving tour that covers five locations along Wards Chapel Road.
Part of a dairy farm complex, since 1992 Southern Manor Farms has been slowly restored to preserve its pre-Civil War character. The farm sells plants, jams, pickles, decorative wreaths and other farm-related goods to visitors. With a $3 entry fee, one room is dedicated to Alice Walker and her family and contains family portraits, a family tree and several household items recently donated by the writer’s sister, Dr. Mamie Lee Walker. Alice Walker sought advice from Mamie: what to call her novel? The latter suggested her favorite color, purple, a prominent color at church and in the fields where they used to play.
Today, in the summertime, the roadside is occasionally dotted with wild purple flowers, although they’re not as visually arresting as the ones depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie adaptation of “The Color Purple.”
Alice Walker was the youngest of eight children and her sharecropper parents were keen on keeping their daughter out of the fields and in school. Walker tackles the importance of education in her most famous work: the younger sister Nettie expands the horizons of her sibling Celie by repeating lessons from school at home.
“She always had a notepad with her to write down poems and everything,” recalls Georgia Smith, who, though two years her senior in class, remembers Walker from school in Eatonton in her early teens, already keenly observing people and human nature. “The rest of us had two things in mind back then: lipstick and boys. I thought the child was nuts! But she was absolutely brilliant.”
Driving along the dusty track up to Southern Manor Farms, it’s not hard to imagine Celie and Nettie running alongside the fence. On the same stretch of road where it just about meets Old Phoenix Road stands the rundown church Walker attended as a girl, Wards Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The light still shines into this former place of worship – since its entire rear has collapsed. Local historian Larry Moore says there are plans to restore the church that has its place in local African American history.
Across the road in the cemetery lie several sleeping Walkers, the author’s ancestors, including her parents, both descended from slaves who lived in the area.
Welcome to the Briar Patch
Joel Chandler Harris is the most influential author from the area. His Uncle Remus tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox have been translated into 56 languages and inspired works by Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter, among many others.
Disney’s 1946 film “The Song of the South,” based on Uncle Remus stories, won an Oscar for its catchy theme song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” But the movie was accused of trivializing life on a slave plantation.
Alice Walker was neither a fan of her Eatonton predecessor nor Disney’s film, believing both disrupted the oral tradition of the tales which originally came, it is widely believed, from Africa, being passed down from generation to generation. “Joel Chandler Harris and I were raised in the same town, although nearly 100 years apart. As far as I’m concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage,” she wrote in 1981 in a Southern Exposure magazine article titled “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine.” In “The Color Purple,” Celie’s daughter recounts an Uncle Remus tale only to discover her African friend “had the original version of it.”
The Walker locations along Wards Chapel Road are remarkably close to the places that inspired Harris. Heading south down the road and taking a right onto New Phoenix Road, on the righthand side is the Philadelphia United Methodist Church, a fairly new construction on the site of a church attended by Joel Chandler Harris during the 1860s. A historical marker mentions that, at the time, Chandler was living at Turnwold Plantation, now a private residence on Old Phoenix Road.
At Turnwold, Harris, the illegitimate son of an Irish immigrant seamstress, was a teenage printer’s apprentice to the plantation owner Joseph Turner, who became his mentor. He spent time sitting around the fire listening to the stories of the plantation’s 126 slaves and meticulously noting down their tales, names, ages and occupations. When later working as a journalist at The Atlanta Constitution, to fill a gap in a newspaper column he wrote down one of these stories and it wasn’t long before their popularity took on a life of its own.
‘Welcome to the Briar Patch’ reads the slogan on Eatonton’s signposts. Harris’s story and life in Eatonton, especially at Turnwold, are presented at the Uncle Remus Museum housed in former slave cabins from local Putnam County that were moved to the town in 1963. Walking up the path to the museum, an impish-looking statue of Brer Rabbit greets you, and inside there are several cases of Brer Rabbit paraphernalia from different countries.
Breathing new life into the Brer Rabbit tales with gifted storytelling, Georgia Smith works at the museum on Fridays and Saturdays. Smith transports you back to childhood with her style of storytelling, influenced by her grandmother who was born around the time Harris first began to write down the stories and lived until 1997. Smith started work as a docent, telling visitors about Harris’s life, but over time she began to tell kids Brer Rabbit tales at work. Now old and young alike join in with a burst of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Smith talks fondly of Alice Walker, who went to the same school, but disagrees with her take on Harris. “He was the first to write the stories down,” she says. “At the very end, he said, ‘These were not my stories. They were told to me. I’m just passing them on.’ Thank God for that or part of my heritage would have been missing.”
Smith is thankful that Harris faithfully recorded the tales and speech patterns from his era. She notes that it was important to write them down at the time since all good oral storytellers like to improvise and the stories would undoubtedly have changed, especially since storytelling is so alive and well in Georgia. “Can you imagine?” she muses. “I like to make them colorful so I would probably have had Brer Rabbit as Miss Rabbit with a tutu on!”
Tracking Down Georgia Authors
More information on Harris can be found at the Eatonton Plaza Arts Center’s Old School History Museum (pictured), which tells the history of the area displayed in a reproduction of a turn-of-the-century street. There’s also a small display about a premiere of “The Color Purple” film held in Eatonton in 1986, which Alice Walker, who now lives in California, attended along with several cast members.
A map of the Alice Walker driving tour is available at the center, open Monday through Friday from 8.30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Southern Manor Farms’ General Store is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Copelan family gives tours of the farm that has been in the family since the 1940s.
Check opening times for the The Uncle Remus Museum here. The museum organizes annual trips to Turnwold Plantation every April, by appointment. You can also visit Harris’s Atlanta home The Wren’s Nest.
It’s just over 16 miles from the Uncle Remus Museum to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm.
More Southern Flavors
Need some Southern food for sustenance along the way? Try these popular spots.
Blue Willow Inn – Save plenty of room for this Southern institution and all-you-can-eat buffet in a Greek revival mansion with a “Gone with the Wind” connection, almost halfway from Eatonton back to Atlanta.
The Potted Geranium Tea Parlor – Take afternoon tea and pastries with a Southern twist in the eccentric small town Greensboro on the way back to Atlanta (pictured).
The Yesterday Café – Also in Greensboro, the café is famous for its Southern menu and award-winning buttermilk pie.
Click here to see a gallery of more photos from the homes and sites dedicated to Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker and Joel Chandler Harris.
Photo Credits: Brer Rabbit, Andalusia, O’Connor’s bedroom and The Potted Geranium by Lee Howard; peacock, Uncle Remus Museum, Eatonton Plaza Arts Center and Outstanding Citizens exhibit by Deep South. Wards Chapel courtesy of Eatonton-Putnam Chamber of Commerce.
Lee Howard is a British freelance film and TV journalist and a travel writer and photographer. He swapped rainy London for sunny Atlanta in 2010 and is catching up on Deep South sights, acquiring a taste for grits along the way. Check out his new website wayinto.com/atlanta, and contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter @leeehoward.