In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week, PEARL MCHANEY, of Georgia State University, shares opportunities in Atlanta to step outside of the ordinary and into a good book.
By Pearl McHaney
We read literature because “we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors.” So says the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series, C. S. Lewis, at the close of An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis’s “monad” was a single-celled organism, undiversified, without companions, insular in all aspects. Even, or especially, in a metropolis such as Atlanta, the opportunities for finding the windows and doors of literature to other places, times, philosophies, and economies are multiple.
Reading can be a private affair, but it can also be a significant factor in community engagement. The Southern Writers Onstage series, a happy collaboration of Georgia State University’s Center for Collaborative and International Arts and the Department of English, Theatrical Outfit, and Georgia Humanities, enlivens stories through performance. For one hour, young students, seniors from a community center in Fairburn, a few businesspeople, book clubbers, my neighbors from Decatur, actors and theater aficionados, a church pastor, one or two professors from Georgia State, a Healey Building resident, people seeking respite from their work — a heterogeneous group — gather in the Balzer Theater at Herren’s on Luckie Street, a storied place itself as the first downtown restaurant to integrate its tables. When one walks through the doors into the theater, views the lone podium on the stage transformed for a production by Theatrical Outfit, and sits, the crush of politics, decision making, and the business of daily work is replaced by a gentle hush.
Who does not need or desire such a chance to journey to another space, to be out of the ordinary?
The famous Georgia author Flannery O’Connor, born in Savannah and educated at Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia State College and University) and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, involuntarily retired to the family farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville to stave off the deteriorations from lupus while she wrote. O’Connor lived briefly in Atlanta (1939-40) when her father moved the family here for a Depression-era Federal Housing Authority job. They lived in Peachtree Heights in Buckhead, which was then but a small town of 10,000 outside of Atlanta. O’Connor’s family and relatives (the Clines, Tarletons, and Florencourts) worshipped at the newly completed Christ the King Cathedral, and as a young teenager, O’Connor attended segregated North Fulton High School (designed by Philip Schutze and now the Atlanta International School). In spite of (or because of) the hoopla of the Gone With the Wind film premiere in 1939, O’Connor returned to Peabody High School in Savannah the next year; Atlanta was never spoken of nor fictionalized with fondness by O’Connor thereafter.
This sliver of history of O’Connor and Atlanta offers a window through which to view O’Connor’s story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” about a woman who holds to her patrician past in her struggle to understand her educated but blindly racist son. Atlanta’s rightly heralded actor Carolyn Cook will read this story of conflicting morals, ideals, actions, intentions, and emotions on Tuesday, March 28, at noon at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s as the third performance of Southern Writers Onstage.
The fourth and final dramatic reading in this year’s series features the outstanding actor Bernardine Mitchell presenting Toni Morrison’s sole published short story, “Recitatif,” an experimental tale of two young girls, one white and one black. In this short fiction that both contrasts and complements the events of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Morrison accomplishes what seems literally impossible in our lives today — the erasure of all race markers. We cannot confirm which girl is white and which is black, although race is at the heart of the story. Mitchell will read “Recitatif” on Tuesday, April 4, at noon at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s.
Atlanta author Carmen Agra Deedy reminds us that “questions give rise to stories,” and so it came about that a group of young talented writers asked, “Who are the southern writers who have lost their readers?” This gave rise to the Revival: Lost Southern Voices festival, yet another occasion to engage in enlarging our beings, to “see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.”
On March 31 and April 1, at the Dunwoody Campus of Georgia State University, 20-some authors and scholars will read selections by southern writers who have inspired their work, whose writings deserve new readers. Natasha Trethewey, Tony Grooms, Terry Kay, Jessica Handler, David Shields, Neeley Gossett, and many others will bring us back in touch with writers long lost: a poet ubiquitously honored through the naming of places and buildings, Sidney Lanier; North Georgia poet Byron Herbert Reece; our state’s first Pulitzer Prize novelist, Caroline Miller; Raymond Andrews, author of a trilogy of novels and a memoir, and the subject of a stirring film by Jesse Freeman; Atlanta’s premier journalist Ralph McGill; and many others. These and other Georgia authors can be discovered in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Revival: Lost Southern Voices will let their stories be heard. The festival’s schedule, location, presenters, and soon-not-to-be lost voices are fully described at www.lostsouthernvoices.com. The program is free, open to all, with registration encouraged.
Lost Southern Voices and Southern Writers Onstage, both free and open to the public, present easy opportunities to engage with our shared histories through storied truths, to empathize with those who seem Other to us, and to give witness to the powerful need and significant effects of the arts and humanities writ large.
Lost Southern Voices and Southern Writers Onstage are recipients of grants from Georgia Humanities.
Pearl McHaney is the Kenneth M. England Professor of Southern Literature at Georgia State University.
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.