Savannah, Georgia. This Southern city has become synonymous with a kind of languid elegance, a slow-seeping decadence, that alluring mix of hospitality and tradition with just a hint of seedy underbelly peeking out from behind the Spanish moss. It’s no surprise that Savannah has long captured the literary imagination, and the writers that have fallen under its spell have surely done their duty to perpetuate to city’s mystique.
The most famous literary tribute to Savannah, now know by locals simply as “The Book,” undoubtedly is John Berendt’s 1994 nonfiction novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Later adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood, Berendt’s book traces his experiences in the city in the wake of a local murder. Berendt encounters a variety of eccentric characters, from the wealthy antique dealer Jim Williams, accused of murder, to local drag queen and entertainer the Lady Chablis. Berendt weaves these portraits of the disparate and vibrant residents of Savannah into not only an engrossing narrative, but also sense of the city itself.
In a much earlier literary appearance, Savannah serves as the death-site of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Captain J. Flint, “the bloodthirstiest buccaneer that ever lived.” In Treasure Island, Stevenson described the ruthless pirate on his deathbed in a tavern based on The Pirate House of Savannah. After shouting, “Fetch aft the rum Darby!” Captain Flint supposedly passes on the map to his buried treasure. The Pirate House was allegedly an actual inn that was frequented by pirates in the late 1700s.
A famous literary son of Savannah, the poet and author Conrad Aiken paid homage in his writing to the city that brought him comfort and pain. Aiken discovered the bodies of his parents after his father killed his mother and then committed suicide; Aiken would later move back to Savannah, into the house next door to the site of the tragedy. His highly autobiographical short story, “Strange Moonlight,” follows a young boy around the city, from Bonaventura Cemetery to Tybee beach. Conrad Aiken is buried in Bonaventura Cemetery, under a stone bench which reads, “Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.”
Other well known books on Savannah and it’s literature include Chris Fuhrman’s memoir The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys, as well as Only in Savannah, a collection of stories by writer Tom Coffey. Literary Savannah, by Patrick Allen, is an excellent anthology of fiction and nonfiction stories about Savannah.
In an article entitled, “Sip It Slow,” British journalist Nik Cohn describes his retreat to Savannah, inspired in part by John Berendt’s writing. Cohn pinpoints the peculiar attraction of the city: “Savannah has elaborate good manners, but a risky heart—a combination I’ve always found alluring.” Along with its flowered squares and hidden courtyards, stately mansions and mysterious superstitions, the slow indulgence of Savannah will always prey on the intellectual imagination. Cohn described Savannah’s magical effect well when he said, “Before I came to Savannah, I’d almost forgotten how good surrender can feel.”
A master of the Southern gothic style, Flannery O’Connor is one of Savannah’s literary icons. Famous for such profoundly disturbing stories as “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” O’Connor spent most of her early life in Savannah. Literary Traveler journeyed to Savannah to trace some of the places this brilliant woman wrote and lived.
For more, check out this article on O’Connor, “A Good Writer Is Hard To Find.”