The National Catholic Review
Kerry Weber
Literary pilgrimages to the homes of Catholic authors
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The woman approaching Andalusia was clearly emotional. Craig Amason could see her from behind the screen door of the 19th-century, white-painted home of Flannery O’Connor, the Southern fiction writer. She walked up the steps and asked Mr. Amason if she could enter. As executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia foundation in Milledgeville, Ga., Mr. Amason was used to welcoming visitors. “Of course,” he answered, although he was not prepared for the woman’s next question.

“Should I take off my shoes?” she asked.

Mr. Amason laughed, “Well, no; I don’t take mine off.” So the woman stepped inside, shoes and all, and looked around with reverence.

Then she turned to Mr. Amason and said, “I’m Catholic because of Flannery O’Connor.”

The woman was one of the more than 5,000 visitors who come through the door of Andalusia each year. And while not every visitor arrives with a conversion story, many feel a similar pull to O’Connor’s home after reading her work. The home has been open to the public since 2004, but visitors started arriving long before that. Enthusiastic readers and curious passers-by often jumped the fence that surrounded the property and wandered the grounds, said Mr. Amason. Opening the house to the public allowed for more legitimate—and informative—visits to the home, which now offers tours to a global cast of individuals ranging from senior citizens in book clubs to teenagers covered in piercings and tattoos. O’Connor’s writing speaks to them all.

“At least once a year,” said Mr. Amason, “we watch people weep while standing at the corner of Flannery O’Connor’s bedroom.” A particularly burly man once stood over the guestbook with tears streaming down his face. “He said, ‘I’m crying like a baby; this is embarrassing, but it’s so meaningful,’” Mr. Amason recalled. “I told him it happens all the time.”

Which might lead one to wonder: Why? Visiting the home of a writer is, in some ways, an illogical adventure. Writers offer readers hundreds of pages of work to digest, and collections of letters and essays often allow even deeper insight. Is anything to be gained from seeing a chair in which a writer once sat? The question has been a popular one of late, and the recent work of several authors seeks to answer it. Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers From Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton, by Richard Horan, and A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, by Anne Trubek, explore the author-reader connection from different viewpoints. And the Web site writershouses.com chronicles visits to dozens of writers’ homes in the United States and abroad.

Of course, not every visitor to a writer’s home is inspired purely by the author’s work. Some come looking for a break from a long drive, a way to kill time or just find a bathroom. As April Bernard lamented in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, too many people seem to believe that visiting a house is a quick and easy way to familiarize oneself with an author and serves as “a substitute for reading the work.” But for many, such a journey can supplement love for an author and his or her works. Crowds continue to flock to authors’ homes around the world, and for many readers, a visit to an author’s home is a kind of pilgrimage.

“It’s a very poignant scene when you look into that bedroom and see those spartan conditions and know what O’Connor was up against, as far as coping with lupus, and know what incredible stories were produced in that room,” Mr. Amason says of Andalusia. The sense of place in O’Connor’s fiction and in her life are closely intertwined, which leaves many visitors to her home feeling as though they have viewed a scene from one of her stories. “This is not just a place where an author penned her fiction, it’s a place that very clearly inspired so much of that fiction,” says Mr. Amason. He says visitors see the hayloft and think of the story “Good Country People”; they see the lines of trees and think of her many stories in which trees symbolize a boundary between good and evil. “It’s not just a house,” he says. “It’s a landscape.”

Placing Merton, Mitchell and Greene

That connection between place and person is equally present at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky., once home to the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Approximately 4,600 retreatants each year visit the abbey. Many have a chance to meet Brother Paul Quenon, now a poet and a cook at the abbey, for whom Thomas Merton served as novice master. Brother Quenon also assists with occasional retreats for scholars who attend a nearby Thomas Merton conference. During their visit he takes the group to Merton’s hermitage, a spot normally off limits to visitors. The group has a discussion, and Brother Quenon reads to them from Merton’s private journals. But for many, simply being in Merton’s space is enough. “The hermitage speaks for itself,” Brother Quenon says. “I could sit down and read the phone book and they’d still be thrilled.”

Many of the retreatants already have read much of Merton’s work and have seen images of the monastery, and so to actually visit is to “step into something they’re prepared for and yet also to step into another realm of experience,” Brother Quenon said. He knows the feeling too. He once made a pilgrimage to Prades, France, where Merton was born. While there, he read passages from Merton’s writings about the town and felt they took on a different meaning.

Merton’s writing, he said, has a way of touching people’s souls, which in turn draws them to a place that inspired him. “People are very lonely out there,” Brother Quenon said. “It’s part of the human condition. They find a way of handling it in the writing of Thomas Merton. So when they come here, they often say they feel like they’re coming home. It gives them a place for self-understanding. Then they come here and the picture gets filled out. There are over 150 years of prayer that have soaked into our walls.”

Still, Gethsemani differs from other writers’ homes in that it is not a shrine to the writer or a museum, but a living monastery. There is no statue or plaque set up to honor Merton and no special marker for his grave. “He remains just one of the monks,” Brother Quenon says, “which is what he came here to be.”

While many are drawn to Gethsemani by the breadth and depth of Merton’s works, a single book draws 1,000 visitors a day to another author’s former home in Atlanta, Ga. The novelist Margaret Mitchell was baptised a Catholic, and although her personal faith is not well documented, the impact of her most famous work, Gone With the Wind, is more easily discernible.

Joanna Arrieta, director of historic houses for the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House, said that visitors arrive at Mitchell’s former apartment in Atlanta, Ga., with “a kaleidoscope of different motivations.” Many hope to experience the city that inspired Mitchell and view it through her own window. Ms. Arrieta said a young man from Ukraine arrived with a copy of Gone With the Wind that he had read during the cold war; he said he had found comfort in Scarlett’s role as a survivor. Another group arrived from Japan and said the story had inspired them during the Allied occupation of their country.

The small apartment in the city’s downtown offers visitors a chance to see the spot where Mitchell lived for seven years and wrote most of her famous novel. Mitchell “grew up with all the oral histories of days gone by and she was really applying that and the history” as she wrote, Arrieta said.

But not all writers are so closely associated with one place. A visit to the hometown of Graham Greene, a Catholic convert and author known for his worldly travels, might seem counterintuitive, for example. But David Pearce, a founding trustee of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust and the former director of the Graham Greene Festival in Berkhamsted, England, argues that to truly know Greene, one must understand the hometown he left but never really left behind.

Mr. Pearce taught for 34 years at Berkhamsted School, which Greene attended and at which Greene’s father had served as headmaster. David Pearce once met Greene when the author returned as an adult for a visit to the Berkhamsted School library. This small English town is the place where Greene competed with his siblings and cousins and was mocked by schoolmates for being the headmaster’s son, but he eventually embraced the town. This contrast is typical of Greene, Mr. Pearce said, “He belonged nowhere and was interested in everything.”

Though the school has changed in some ways—it now has central heating and carpeting—Mr. Pearce says visitors can see many of the aspects with which Graham would have been familiar. “You can see around here exactly the scenes that he knew and that he responded to,” Mr. Pearce said, including a tree in the quad and the chapel in the school and the green baize door dividing the headmaster’s quarters from the pupils.

“The people who come find that Graham lives here just as much as people find Charles Dickens in London these days,” Mr. Pearce said. “You can’t separate the place from the writer.”

Mr. Pearce said that Greene, while living in his hometown, gained a genuine “understanding and distrust of institutions and he established the belief [that] you’ve got to test everything for yourself.” Mr. Pearce argues that this viewpoint also influenced the author’s faith and that the church “provided Greene with a sort of ultimate theory of how one should live.” Mr. Pearce added: “And if one couldn’t manage to do it, at least you knew how you should do it. One thinks of religion as being totally binding, and Graham would not be bound by anything but his own judgments, but he could not get away from the tenets of Catholicism.”

Mr. Pearce said he appreciates Graham Greene’s many works and also the community of Greene enthusiasts that has formed because of them. Several of Greene’s family members have attended and supported the festival in Berkhamsted. Hundreds of international visitors also attend the festival, which provides a special kind of camaraderie. “I’m just a provincial old schoolmaster,” he said, laughing, “but the whole world comes to me, all because of Graham.”

View a slideshow of popular literary pilgrimage sites.

Kerry Weber is an associate editor of America.

Comments

1690516 | 2/8/2012 - 10:13am
Kerry, 

I really enjoyed your article.  I know Andalusia well, but learned a lot about Gethsemane and Margaret Mitchell's house which I have never visited, also enjoyed seeing the hometown and school of Graham Greene.  Whole thing well done!

Best wishes,
Frances Florencourt
RICHARD KUEBBING | 2/4/2012 - 9:31pm
I have been to Andalusia and it is captivating.

On the other hand I have not been to the Margaret Mitchell house.  Just knowing she called it "the dump" is enough to curb my enthusiam.

Milledgeville GA however, has another claim to fame.  It is the former home of the state penitentiary from which Leo Frank was handed over to be carried across the state to be lynched.  The historical marker in Cobb County is near Frey's Gin Rd, where the event took place.

Milledgeville is a quaint place.  Not all of its history is mentioned in tourist brochures.