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Fellowship Report by Sarah Owen

Fellowship Report: Sarah Owen (MA, University of Georgia; currently architectural historian, Historic Natchez Foundation)

The SESAH Graduate Research Fellowship supported research trips to towards the completion of my thesis, “Storied Pasts: Reinterpretation of Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor.” A 500-acre historic agricultural landscape and historic house museum, Andalusia achieved its primary historic significance as the home of major Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor after being diagnosed with lupus in 1952. Since her death, O’Connor has become an influential voice in the emerging field of disability studies. Her fiction often includes flawed characters, many of whom were disabled or racially, economically, or socially marginalized, and her letters offer spiritual reflections on her personal experiences with illness and disability.  

Over the course of Spring 2021, with the additional support through the University of Georgia’s Willson Center for Humanities & Art, I collected primary research material on the memorialization of O’Connor at Georgia College and Emory University. I also paid on-site visits to several sites that influenced the interpretation of Andalusia across the Southeast, including the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, and the Carl Sandberg Home as well as other writers’ house museums including the Carson McCullers’ Center for Writers and Musicians and the Reece Farm and Heritage Center. Throughout the course of the semester, I was able to interview architects, museum professionals, and literary scholars. 

This research allowed me to create a history of the site interpretation of Andalusia, in the context of other writers’ house museums in the Southeast. It provided key perspectives on the interpretation writers’ house museums in the Southeast, particularly opportunities for interpretation of disability at writers’ house museums. In recent decades, disability activists and academics have advocated for a more nuanced understanding of disability as both a medical reality and a social, cultural, and political identity created by systemic barriers, such as a societal prejudice and inaccessible built environments. Many disabled people experience their disability as a positive identity with a distinct culture, history, and heritage with regards to race, sex, gender, and class. The cultural conceptualization of disability is shifting, and historic sites can often inadvertently perpetuate harmful stereotypes and prejudices.  

With the understanding that site interpretation of disability includes both the history of disability and visitor accessibility, I have observed the following: First, house museums of disabled writers, such as Andalusia, present the opportunities for interpretting disability in the voice of disabled people. Second, like many house museums, writers’ house museums struggle to make their physically accessible. Third, like most memorial dedicated to individuals, Andalusia was also occupied by other people, including racially, socially, and economically marginalized people such as tenant farmers, many of whom were also disabled, underscoring the intersectionality of disability history.