Writing the Other Half: Alice Walker & Flannery O’Connor

Highway 441 cuts through the neighboring towns of Milledgeville and Eatonton and takes travelers past the homes of not just one but two prominent literary talents: Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker. Their lives intersected only slightly during the years that O’Connor lived at Andalusia and Walker was a young girl. However, Walker would grow up to admire O’Connor as a serious writer and to “read her books endlessly”[1]

The front porch of Walker’s home just miles from O’Connor’s. (2019)

Despite their proximity to each other, O’Connor and Walker lived almost worlds apart with vastly different upbringings. There was a nineteen-year age difference between them to be sure—Walker was born in 1944 and O’Connor in 1925—but more significantly their differing social positions were influenced by the dictates of the Jim Crow South. O’Connor, an only child, came from a middle-class Irish Catholic family. The Clines, her mother’s side of the family, had deep roots in the Middle Georgia area, and her grandfather was the mayor of Milledgeville. O’Connor’s uncle owned Andalusia farm, where O’Connor would spend her childhood riding horses and later her chronically ill twenties and early thirties. On the other hand, Walker was the youngest of eight children and came from a poor sharecropping family who worked on a large cotton farm.

As a young girl, Walker was only vaguely aware that the rolling pastures dotted with cows that she would pass on the way into town was O’Connor’s beloved farm. Back then she appreciated the way “that in [her] life of nightmares about electrocutions, lost cats, and the surprise appearance of snakes” the field “represented beauty and unchanging peace.”[2] It would be later, when Walker attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York and took a course on Southern authors[3] that she would come to appreciate “the magic, the wit, and the mystery”[4] O’Connor’s work. Ironically, her discovery of O’Connor’s fiction was not unlike the way that O’Connor would also be introduced to and grow fond of the works of several of her Southern Literature contemporaries when she attended the University of Iowa.

In her essays “The Black Writer and the Southern Experience,” and “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor,” a part of her nonfiction collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker discusses the complex mix of admiration she has for O’Connor as a writer, as well as her discontent with the history that separates their personal and literary legacies. In this regard, Walker offers a nuanced way of looking at criticisms of O’Connor and race that acknowledges what O’Connor does and does not succeed in accomplishing. In comparison to O’Connor’s peers, who Walker considers “too confined by prevailing social customs to probe deeply into mysteries that the Citizens Council insist must never be revealed”[5] Walker felt O’Connor “at least had the conviction that “reality” is at best superficial and that the puzzle of humanity is less easy to solve than that of race…Miss O’Connor was not so much of Georgia, as in it.”[6] She probed deeper in a way that “destroyed the last vestiges of sentimentality in white Southern writing”[7] and approached her black characters as “a mature artist–with unusual humility and restraint.”[8]

It this restraint and maturity, according to Walker, which allowed O’Connor’s black characters the freedom to “inhabit another landscape, another life”[9]and exist in the reader’s imagination outside of the confines of the story itself.  She left room for another “half”[10] of a story to be told. It is in that space within the tradition of Southern Gothic literature that Walker writes the other half that is caught between the page and the imagination. And this connection, where O’Connor’s and Walker’s literature meet and complement each other, allows for a fuller picture of humanity.

[1] Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1983), 42.

[2] Ibid., 45

[3] Ibid., 51

[4] Ibid., 59

[5] Ibid., 20

[6] Ibid.

[7]Ibid., 59

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 52

[10] Ibid., 51

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close