Storied Inspirations

About the Author: Shelby Lyn Snipes is the Fall 2020 Collections Intern at Andalusia. Her semester-long project includes working on digitizing and cataloging historic photos for the collection. She graduates May 2021 with a degree in English Literature from Georgia College and State University.

One of my favorite short stories by Flannery O’Connor is “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The story captivates its readers and leaves them on the edge of their seats. As someone who frequently travels backroads like the one described in the story, it was not hard to picture myself in the setting. I could relate to every emotion that Flannery describes, from being in awe of the scenery to the fear of never being found. This particular story often leaves intellectuals scratching their heads, searching for meaning. Regarding this, Flannery said, “The meaning of the story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but the meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation … where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.”[1] Regardless, it is obvious that Flannery O’Connor knew how to tell a good story. But have you ever thought about where she may have gotten her ideas?

            In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery describes a treacherous southern road and how they ultimately lead to one family’s demise. “The dirt road was hilly, and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once, they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with dust-coated trees looking down on them.”[2] The ‘average’ reader may not know that Flannery most likely often traveled roads like the one described in the story. Flannery was born in Savannah, Georgia, but she moved to Milledgeville during her teenage years and made many trips back to her birthplace in her lifetime.

However, when Flannery would have been traveling, there was no Interstate16 to take to Savannah, meaning she and her family traveled along small unpaved highways and ‘back roads’ to their destination. One of these routes is parallel to a way that I have often traveled through in Washington County. It shares the same view that Flannery would may have seen when traveling through Wilkinson County and Toomsboro. It is here that I can see the inspiration Flannery gained for the setting of her famous short story. Just as Flannery described, the roads run along the side of a gorge full of trees. If you didn’t know any better, it would almost feel like you were in the mountains. The blue tops of the trees are breathtaking, and they provide some of my most favorite views. However, the road can be treacherous. One wrong move, and your car could end up over the side. Because of this, I can attest the roads, and scenery Flannery described, are still standing and are as captivating as ever. While many highways are no longer dirt, the area still has hills that look down over the trees for miles.

The nature around her was not Flannery’s only inspiration. She formed her characters based on those around her. Flannery’s stories overflow with Southern culture, so much so that non-natives may miss some meanings. In a letter to John Hawkes, Flannery responded to his student’s interpretation that the Grandmother is more a medium of grace than of evil. She said, “If they were Southern students I would say this was because they all had grandmothers like her at home. These old ladies exactly reflect the banalities of the society and the effect is of the comical rather than the evil.”[3] Flannery incorporated the smallest details of Southern life into her stories, adding a feeling of relatability to her stories for those from the South. At a reading of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” that took place at the University of Georgia, Flannery described the audience by saying, “It was a perfect audience because they caught everything, it all being familiar to them … Later somebody told me that the character of Red Sammy was not unlike the character of Wally [Butts, University of Georgia football coach].”[4] Flannery incorporated another element of Southern culture into her story without even knowing it. While some of her inspiration for characters were based solely on what she saw around her, she did gain inspiration from other places. According to Brad Gooch, “she [Flannery] connected the dots of a few articles that had mesmerized, or tickled, her.”[5] For example, the character “Misfit” was inspired by a petty bank robber she read about in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Flannery gained inspiration from everywhere, which contributed to the success of her relatable stories. 

I consider “A Good Man is Hard to Find” one of Flannery’s most memorable short stories. It is a kind of story that leaves the reader thinking. To other Southern readers like myself, it is also the kind of story that is full of relatable moments. Whether Flannery intended this or not, we may never know. Regarding “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery said, “I just wrote it.”[6] Flannery O’Connor was a Southern woman through and through. The scenery and the people she encountered throughout her everyday life somehow always made it into her stories because Southern ties are hard to break.

[1]Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 437.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 117-133.

[3] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 389.

[4] Ibid., 511.

[5] Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009), 226.

[6] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 426.

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