All my pilgrimages are improvised en route –– last minute treks to hallowed sites I never expected to discover along the way. The pilgrimage to Milledgeville, conceived while passing through Georgia the instant I glimpsed the town’s name on a highway sign ––“That’s where Flannery O’Connor lived. We’ve got to go!”–– couldn’t be researched adequately during the twenty-minute detour owing to a weak cellular signal, but no matter. There would be a bronze statue, I figured, probably in the town square, and a bookstore in which to purchase yet another copy of the collected works. Would there be souvenirs, trinkets –– a Misfit t-shirt, peacock keychains, Made in China ball caps bearing the author’s image? I certainly hoped so. Kitsch is not my thing, but for O’Connor kitsch I will make an exception.
We arrived in the rain and had to scour the city for any sign of her. Up and down the stately streets, through downtown and across the glistening cobbles and genteel columned buildings of the university campus, we could discover no indication, however minor, that Flannery O’Connor had ever set foot in the place. No statue, no square, no cottage industry catering to literary tourists. What Milledgeville wants you to know is that it was once the state capitol. That it was once home to the state’s greatest author appears to be a matter of relative indifference.
Eventually we came across Andalusia, the O’Connor homestead, out on a highway across from a car dealership, its location pinpointed by several mismatched signs. By now it was past six and the front gate was locked, so we contented ourselves standing on the muddy drive, gazing down the curved path until it disappeared in the trees.
Ours was the sort of pilgrimage that might have pleased Flannery, I suppose. She might have made a story of it, with myself the object lesson. Still, I grew frustrated, resenting the town for not taking more decided measures to honor the great writer’s memory.
“If this is what she gets,” I told myself, “you can’t hold out much hope for yourself.”
In a parking lot a week later, still unsettled by the abortive pilgrimage, I sat with the engine running and listened to a recording of O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Her accent is divine, and the 1950s audience laughs in the right places, a comedy club crowd right up to the moment the story takes its turn, at which point an awkward silence descends. Police sirens echo in the background of the recording, and I felt annoyed (as Flannery herself must have at the time). Couldn’t they have been more considerate, these cops? Bank robbery or not, it was hardly worth spoiling a rare recording of the author’s voice.
My silly anger spilled over onto Milledgeville, which could also stand a lesson in consideration, then spread to encompass the whole state of Georgia past and present, then the nation. (“This country doesn’t honor its literary greats. Those sirens would never have sounded in France.”) Eventually I was mad at the world.
“Why are you so worked up?” I asked myself, but myself was not forthcoming. It had nothing to do with the sirens, anyway, or with the closed gate or the statue that isn’t in the town square. I suppose I was angry at history more than anything, the way the marks we leave –– regardless of how large they loom in the mind –– don’t make much of an impression on the actual world. They’re as easy to miss as a sign opposite a used car lot marking a muddy path down which, an hour earlier, you had no intention of traveling.