Sorting our inheritance
Flannery O'Connor died on August 3, 1964---46 years ago today. Had she lived, she would be 85 years old now. To memorialize the event, I would like to share an article I wrote in 2006 about a trip I made to Flannery O'Connor's grave in Milledgeville, Ga.
This article also honors Marion Montgomery, who was a friend to O'Connor and a mentor to me---and who celebrates his 85th birthday this year.
I hope you enjoy this story.
Forty-two years ago, in August of 1964, Flannery O'Connor died of complications from lupus erythematosus, a genetic disease that also took the life of her father. Flannery O'Connor was just 39 years old.
Marion Montgomery was also 39 years old in 1964. He had been a friend of Flannery O'Connor, so of course he made the trip down from Athens, Ga., where he was teaching English at the University of Georgia, to Milledgeville, where O'Connor was buried.
In August of 2006, he made the trip again. But before I tell you about that, a little background is probably in order.
If we lived in a nobler age, I probably wouldn't have to explain how remarkable Flannery O'Connor's literary output was. The two-dozen or so short stories she left us are uniformly excellent. But if measured by weight, even including the stories, her literary output doesn't amount to much. Two novels. Some essays and book reviews. And, of course, her collected letters, one of the most beautiful collections of letters ever produced.
In that book of letters, The Habit of Being, are several to her friend Marion Montgomery. As I said, Montgomery---like O'Connor---was born in 1925. O'Connor's birthplace was Savannah; Montgomery was born across the state in Thomasville. There are other remarkable coincidences in their biographies. O'Connor had attended the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop, finishing a master's degree there. Montgomery took his master's degree at Georgia, but was also drawn to Iowa several years later, where he had some of the same teachers who had mentored Flannery just a few years before.
So even though they covered much of the same ground, and they knew of each other for years, it was only in the last few years of O'Connor's life that they became friends.
But that short friendship yielded much. For one thing, it helped Montgomery to see much earlier---and more deeply---than most anybody else the real nature and genius of O'Connor's work. Montgomery, especially in the last 20 years, has used O'Connor as a "jumping off point" to write some of the truly great literary and cultural criticism of the last half-century. Today, no student of O'Connor, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Eliot, Poe, or Hawthorne can call himself truly educated about these writers without spending some time with what Montgomery has had to say about them.
And, ironically, these two writers yielded one of the great sound-bites of modern literary history. I say this is ironic because both O'Connor and Montgomery disdain sound-bites. These are two writers who tend to dive deep, whose work defies summary. Yet they rubbed up against each other in a way that produced perhaps the greatest definition of Southern literature anyone has so far come up with, certainly one of the most quoted. It came after O'Connor read Montgomery's first novel, The Wandering of Desire. She wrote Montgomery: "The Southern writer can out-write anybody in the country because he has the Bible, and a little history." She went on to say of Montgomery's novel: "You have more than your share of both, and a splendid gift besides."
It was just two years after she wrote that letter that she died, and Marion Montgomery made that first trip to her grave on the day of her burial.
Montgomery started teaching at the University of Georgia in the 1960s, and he continued there until the late 1980s, when he retired from teaching to write books full-time. (He's published about a book a year since his retirement.) I had the privilege of studying under Mr. Montgomery more than 20 years ago, and today I am presumptuous enough to call him a friend. So when my daughter Brittany, now a college English major herself, started asking me questions about O'Connor and about my time studying with Mr. Montgomery, I knew the time had come for a literary pilgrimage.
We left our home in North Carolina and drove to Montgomery's home in Crawford, just outside of Athens. I was delighted that Mr. Montgomery, now 81, wanted to make the last couple of hours of the trip with us. It was this trip that would be, more than 40 years later, just his second trip to her grave.
There and back, Mr. Montgomery filled us with stories of his previous trips to Andalusia, as O'Connor's home is called, and of times they spent together, sitting on her home's front porch. Or, for that matter, time spent apart, but concerned about the same things: St. Thomas Aquinas and a cow-pond down the way. God as both transcendent and immanent. Sin, grace, and open fields not like those they had both seen in Iowa, fields that stretched to the horizon. No, these were Southern fields, cleared by human hands, but cleared only tentatively, temporarily, constantly threatened by creeping vine and encroaching pine trees, and so were surrounded by mysterious thicket and woods.
These were the concerns and this was the homeland they shared, Marion Montgomery and Flannery O'Connor. They were the concerns that occupied O'Connor for 39 years, and that have occupied Montgomery for those 39, and 39 plus a few more. This Georgia landscape was the ground they both explored, apart and together. These disparate concerns that in the end all amounted to the same thing: a "sorting of one's inheritance"---literary, spiritual, and otherwise---as Mr. Montgomery has come to call it.
Of course, I am now past middle age myself, older certainly than Flannery when she died. And as I make this trip to Flannery's grave, with Mr. Montgomery and with my daughter Brittany, I am aware that I myself stand between my inheritor and my inheritance.
So after a bit of wandering around Milledgeville looking for the cemetery (the city had changed since my last trip there, 20 years earlier), I pulled out the map they had supplied us at Andalusia, now a museum, and within a few minute we were there.
We found the grave itself soon enough, and the three of us stood over it together. It is hard by the road, and the traffic is loud. Mr. Montgomery thought back to the last time he stood on that spot and said he thought it was loud then, too. It was mid-afternoon, and the day was hot, though not unbearably so. Mr. Montgomery said, "I seem to remember that it was a hot day then, too." Her grave was next to her father's, who had also died of lupus. Mr. Montgomery read the dates on his grave and observed, "He didn't live much longer than she did."
We were all three quiet for a few seconds. Much less than a minute. As we prepared to walk away, Mr. Montgomery made a motion with his hand that was something like a wave good-bye. But then again it was not quite that. His palm faced down, not out, more of a benediction than a wave. And then, as we were walking away, he said, "I miss her."
I never got to know her, but I miss her too. I miss her precisely because I didn't get to know her. I miss her because it is so easy to imagine this day differently. We would not be standing over Flannery O'Connor's grave. We would be sitting with her on the front porch of Andalusia. Brittany and I listening to two old, dear friends---Flannery O'Connor and Marion Montgomery---share stories from lives dedicated to the proper telling of stories.
I miss her because it is the three of us, and not the four of us.
But what a foolish game that is, this wondering what might have been. It is foolish not just because it can never be, but because it prevents us from seeing what is. After all, why should I waste time on what would never be when I had my good friend and teacher Marion Montgomery---this man Flannery O'Connor her own self said has the Bible and more than a little history---in the seat right here beside me? And my daughter Brittany, flesh of my flesh, in the seat behind me, listening carefully, as I hoped she would? And the same Georgia country that Flannery O'Connor saw---and saw beyond---all around me? All of this, surely, is enough.
So, yes, I miss her, too. Not, perhaps, as Mr. Montgomery does, but I miss her nonetheless. Yet there was also much, I'm pleased to report and perhaps you can now see too, that we didn't miss, being in possession (as we all three were) of a goodly inheritance indeed to sort through on this not too hot August day, in the year of our Lord 2006.
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