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.

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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.


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