The life of Flannery O’Connor in Savannah was poignant and undoubtedly shaped her for the writing that would make her famous. I toured the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, and what I learned helped me better understand the writer, the era and how she became a southern gothic novelist.
Touring houses in the Savannah squares is one of the best activities many tourists participate in when visiting the city. It’s even better when it’s one where someone famous lived. A great choice is the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.
The home of Flannery O’Connor in Savannah, Georgia, gives you a glimpse into her upbringing and the family lifestyle that formed this prolific writer. From here, the seeds that would become her famous stories about life in the south were planted.
WHY FLANNERY O’CONNOR WAS FAMOUS
O’Connor, born in 1925 in Savannah, was a southern gothic novelist, short story writer and essayist. She won the O. Henry Award three times and the National Book Award for “The Complete Stories.” She’s a much-revered American writer famed for her sardonic portrayals of offbeat characters and surprising plotlines. When she began submitting stories during her college years, many publishers couldn’t believe she was a woman writing the way she did.
Her style of writing is debated even today. Her characters are often morally corrupt and physically flawed, while the stories have religious undercurrents. Many reviewers said they were hard or rough stories and often difficult to read – not in language but context. Disability, racism, and ethical laps abound. O’Connor called it “Christian realism.”
Today, people debate whether O’Connor was racist or just very skilled at showing us the character of the people in her community. What is certain is that she saw the hypocrisy of some “good Christians” and tried to shine a light on it.
In 2020, Paul Elie published an article in the New Yorker, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”
“Although she used racial epithets carelessly in her correspondence, she dealt with race courageously in the fiction, depicting white characters pitilessly and creating upstanding black characters who ‘retain an inviolable privacy.’”
FLANNERY O’CONNOR IN SAVANNAH
Even if you’re not interested in O’Connor or have yet to read her work, visiting her childhood home is still a treat. She lived in the house from 1925 to 1942, and it’s one of the few museum houses in the country that is restored to the Depression-era period.
The house is on Lafayette Square across from the grand St. John the Baptist Cathedral. A green iron historical sign out front marks it, as does a little free library to which I donated on my third visit. Yes, third visit. The house is only open for limited hours, and (not paying attention to the hours) I stopped by three times before finally finding the door unlocked.
When I walked in, I could hear voices upstairs, but there wasn’t anybody around. A sign said to make yourself at home and the guide will be with you after the tour. So, I could look around the entire first floor by myself. The house was built in 1856 and, unlike many dwellings on the Savannah squares, it was a simple home without a lot of grandeur, appropriate for the time. Much of the furniture and accessories are original to the O’Connor family. Any flourishes or luxuries were noted as gifts from a wealthy aunt.
INSIDE THE FLANNERY O’CONNOR CHILDHOOD HOME
Upon entering, I was in the double parlor. The rooms are set up with furniture and pictures that belonged to the family, including Flannery’s baby stroller. Books, peacock knickknacks, magnets, stickers and other souvenirs lined the bookshelves. Their selections of unique books and gifts are much better and more creative than many other author homes I’ve visited.
Fun fact: O’Connor raised peacocks on her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.
When I go to the homes of famous people, I’m always looking for the spark or clue about how they ended up doing what they did in their lifetime. But it’s rarely apparent, and this time was no different. The house was just a house that showed the quiet, average life of the time.
The guide showed me the kitchen, and we browsed the many books, drawings and stories O’Connor created as a child. There too, was the backyard where at six years old, she famously taught a chicken to walk backward and got on the news.
Fun Fact: The chicken wouldn’t walk backwards when the cameras were rolling, so they played the tape in reverse!
STANDOUT FEATURES OF THE HOME
Upstairs was her bedroom and closet, the bathroom, and her parent’s room with a view of the twin spires of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. She wrote of this spaces in her letters, so they feel familiar. All the furniture upstairs is original, including the kiddie koop, which was a wooden baby cage covered in net. It was thought to protect children from mosquito-born illnesses.
Fun fact: O’Connor’s full name is Mary Flannery O’Connor.
Peacock décor and family portraits are displayed around the house, and some letters and cartoons she wrote or drew show a young creative streak. However, she didn’t really begin writing until after she left home and attended college.
HOW FLANNERY O’CONNOR DIED SO YOUNG
When O’Connor was 15 years old in 1941, her father, Edward F. O’Connor, died from lupus. It’s an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and negatively impacts joints, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs, often leading to death.
Flannery, like her father, had lupus and died in 1964, at just 39 years old. Knowing she had a five-year death sentence, she wrote more than two-dozen short stories and two novels. She lived 13 years after her diagnosis.
It was easier to understand the great southern writer better after visiting the house. There you see the family pictures, the simple furnishings and the view of church steeples from the upstairs window. In learning about her family, you begin to see the building blocks that formed the writer. You see, Savannah was a major component.
The house is open to the public for tours from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The cost is $12, plus whatever you buy from the wonderful gift shop.
Find it at 207 E. Charlton Street in Lafayette Square.