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CSU professor connects Georgia author, legendary 'Goat Man'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Reading through the author's private letters, the professor immediately saw the connection: Flannery O'Connor based her novel's eccentric prophet character on the Goat Man.

"She knew him," says Susan Copeland, a literature and language professor at Clayton State University. "She talks about him in her letters, but if you're not familiar with whom she's talking about, you wouldn't know."

Copeland, a native of South Georgia doing research on O'Connor, an author known for Southern settings, grotesque characters and dark, religious themes, was familiar with the unique character.

He was named Charles "Ches" McCartney, but known throughout the state as the Goat Man. She'd seen him as a child, as he wandered through with his smelly band of goats and preached his fiery brand of gospel. She'd listened to him tell stories and heard her father say the old eccentric was probably a millionaire.

"I remember him from when I was a child," Copeland says, sitting in her second-floor office beneath a large, framed diploma bearing the name of a Catholic university. "He had a mission -- he called it a mission but it was really a shack -- in Jeffersonville. And he traveled around preaching hellfire and brimstone, around the state and around the contiguous United States, if he's to be believed."

Copeland researched the connections between the two, looking through letters, biographies, newspaper clippings and even interviewing the aging McCartney. Eventually, Copeland put together an academic paper establishing the connection.

The paper captures a bit of O'Connor's writing process, defends the connection, explores McCartney's history, and opens up a piece of Georgia history that is no longer so publicly displayed.

"[McCartney] embodied eccentricity," Copeland said. "There was nobody like him. They let kids out of school early to go see him, and he drove adults crazy, especially police ... but he is, to her, a symbol."

Writing about a world growing more secular, more rational and less religious, O'Connor depicted people with a fervor for faith, a fervor which couldn't find any place in a cleaned-up and sentimentalized society. She wrote that "traditional Protestant bodies of the South are evaporating into secularism and respectability and are being replaced on the grass roots level by all sorts of strange sects."

One of those strange sects, for O'Connor, was McCartney's Free Thinking Christian Mission, in Jeffersonville. Copeland says the author looked at the itinerant prophet and felt a kinship, felt like they were both resisting respectability, adhering to a fierce faith.

The professor says she met McCartney, long after he stopped traveling with his signs saying "PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD."

She asked him if he knew O'Connor, but he said he didn't remember. Copeland is presenting her paper, "The Goat Man and His Son: Flannery O'Connor's Models for 'The Violent Bear it Away,' on Monday, at Clayton State University. She has pictures and video of McCartney she will be showing.

The event will be held at the Baker Center, in room UC 272, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. It is open to the public.