Authors: Flannery O'Connor
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These pieces are about equally divided between articles and essays the author published in her lifetime and material from her papers that she never revised for publication. In the second class are most of section III, the first essay in section IV, and all but the first essay in section V. The word “selected” on the title page of this book refers in particular to these items, but it barely suggests what the editors have done. Miss O'Connor left at least half a hundred typescripts for lectures, bearing slight indication as to where they had been delivered and most often none as to when. Apparently she typed out a substantially new script for each occasion. What this usually meant was that she experimented with the same observations in a new order or with changes of phrasing and a few new sentences or paragraphs. We could distinguish four or five types of talk, depending on the audience in view: university groups, Catholics, Georgians, writing classes; but what she had to say to each overlapped what she had to say to the others, and she relied often on the same anecdotes and gags. It was difficult or impossible to discover any “original” or “master” talk in any category, although in two or three cases Miss O'Connor's estate or her executor had allowed a version to appear in a college magazine. In this mass of material the editors floundered for some time. We were tempted to give up, in one of two ways. We could have picked out half a dozen of these manuscripts and printed them in all their redundancy, or else we could have decided that, since these were talks drafted for reading aloud and were never worked up for publication, they should simply remain unpublished. Fidelity to the letter would have been served in the one case, fidelity of a sort to the author in the other. In neither case, it slowly became clear to us, would the reader be well served. In the end we decided to edit the body of the writing as we feel the author herself would now desire, having recourse to the same kind of shuffling as she herself so often practiced. We cut away most of the repetitions and took interesting arguments in their best available form; where rearrangements and transpositions were necessary and possible, we performed them. We resorted to footnotes for two variant passages, and two longer passages of conspicuous interest were appended to relevant essays. In general, apart from adding here and there a word of transition or making the minimum change to correct an awkward sentence, we were scrupulous to retain Flannery O'Connor's thought and phrasing, not to intrude our own.
Here then in reasonably full selection are the occasional writings of Flannery O'Connor. The volume begins and ends with prose on which the writer bore down with craft and care. In between are examples that vary in style from a certain formality to the informality of casual speech. Plain talk abounds in sections III and IV on the study and practice of writing. The author's latest and deepest reflections are to be found in sections V and VI on the great subjects that she made peculiarly her own. It is clear that discourse, even here, had secondary importance for the author, who felt that her principal calling was to write stories and that her stories contained what she had to offer. On the other hand, she knew that those concentrations of experience and invention had their place in real contexts, literary, regional, and religious, that could and should be examined and discussed. She had a gift for this, too. Her papers not only complement her stories but are valuable and even seminal in themselves. The modest confidence with which she spoke was justified, in the view of the present editors, who in a like spirit present this book.
The King of the Birds
When I was five, I had an experience that marked me for life. PathÃ© News sent a photographer from New York to Savannah to take a picture of a chicken of mine. This chicken, a buff Cochin Bantam, had the distinction of being able to walk either forward or backward. Her fame had spread through the press, and by the time she reached the attention of PathÃ© News, I suppose there was nowhere left for her to goâforward or backward. Shortly after that she died, as now seems fitting.
If I put this information in the beginning of an article on peacocks, it is because I am always being asked why I raise them, and I have no short or reasonable answer.
From that day with the PathÃ© man I began to collect chickens. What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens. I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with overlong necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings but nothing in that line turned up. I pondered over the picture in Robert Ripley's book,
Believe It or Not,
of a rooster that had survived for thirty days without his head; but I did not have a scientific temperament. I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens. A gray bantam named Colonel Eggbert wore a white piquÃ© coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back. Apparently PathÃ© News never heard of any of these other chickens of mine; it never sent another photographer.
My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks. Instinct, not knowledge, led me to them. I had never seen or heard one. Although I had a pen of pheasants and a pen of quail, a flock of turkeys, seventeen geese, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silky bantams, two Polish Crested ones, and several chickens of a cross between these last and the Rhode Island Red, I felt a lack. I knew that the peacock had been the bird of Hera, the wife of Zeus, but since that time it had probably come down in the worldâthe Florida
advertised three-year-old peafowl at sixty-five dollars a pair. I had been quietly reading these ads for some years when one day, seized, I circled an ad in the
and passed it to my mother. The ad was for a peacock and hen with four seven-week-old peabiddies. “I'm going to order me those,” I said.
My mother read the ad. “Don't those things eat flowers?” she asked.
“They'll eat Startena like the rest of them,” I said.
The peafowl arrived by Railway Express from Eustis, Florida, on a mild day in October. When my mother and I arrived at the station, the crate was on the platform and from one end of it protruded a long, royal-blue neck and crested head. A white line above and below each eye gave the investigating head an expression of alert composure. I wondered if this bird, accustomed to parade about in a Florida orange grove, would readily adjust himself to a Georgia dairy farm. I jumped out of the car and bounded forward. The head withdrew.
At home we uncrated the party in a pen with a top on it. The man who sold me the birds had written that I should keep them penned up for a week or ten days and then let them out at dusk at the spot where I wanted them to roost; thereafter, they would return every night to the same roosting place. He had also warned me that the cock would not have his full complement of tail feathers when he arrived; the peacock sheds his tail in late summer and does not regain it fully until after Christmas.
As soon as the birds were out of the crate, I sat down on it and began to look at them. I have been looking at them ever since, from one station or another, and always with the same awe as on that first occasion; though I have always, I feel, been able to keep a balanced view and an impartial attitude. The peacock I had bought had nothing whatsoever in the way of a tail, but he carried himself as if he not only had a train behind him but a retinue to attend it. On that first occasion, my problem was so greatly what to look at first that my gaze moved constantly from the cock to the hen to the four young peachickens, while they, except that they gave me as wide a berth as possible, did nothing to indicate they knew I was in the pen.
Over the years their attitude toward me has not grown more generous. If I appear with food, they condescend, when no other way can be found, to eat it from my hand; if I appear without food, I am just another object. If I refer to them as “my” peafowl, the pronoun is legal, nothing more. I am the menial, at the beck and squawk of any feathered worthy who wants service. When I first uncrated these birds, in my frenzy I said, “I want so many of them that every time I go out the door, I'll run into one.” Now every time I go out the door, four or five run into meâand give me only the faintest recognition. Nine years have passed since my first peafowl arrived. I have forty beaks to feed. Necessity is the mother of several other things besides invention.
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For a chicken that grows up to have such exceptional good looks, the peacock starts life with an inauspicious appearance. The peabiddy is the color of those large objectionable moths that flutter about light bulbs on summer nights. Its only distinguished features are its eyes, a luminous gray, and a brown crest which begins to sprout from the back of its head when it is ten days old. This looks at first like a bug's antennae and later like the head feathers of an Indian. In six weeks green flecks appear in its neck, and in a few more weeks a cock can be distinguished from a hen by the speckles on his back. The hen's back gradually fades to an even gray and her appearance becomes shortly what it will always be. I have never thought the peahen unattractive, even though she lacks a long tail and any significant decoration. I have even once or twice thought her more attractive than the cock, more subtle and refined; but these moments of boldness pass.
The cock's plumage requires two years to attain its pattern, and for the rest of his life this chicken will act as though he designed it himself. For his first two years he might have been put together out of a rag bag by an unimaginative hand. During his first year he has a buff breast, a speckled back, a green neck like his mother's, and a short gray tail. During his second year he has a black breast, his sire's blue neck, a back which is slowly turning the green and gold it will remain; but still no long tail. In his third year he reaches his majority and acquires his tail. For the rest of his lifeâand a peachicken may live to be thirty-fiveâhe will have nothing better to do than manicure it, furl and unfurl it, dance forward
with it spread, scream when it is stepped upon, and arch it carefully when he steps through a puddle.
Not every part of the peacock is striking to look at, even when he is full-grown. His upper wing feathers are a striated black and white and might have been borrowed from a Barred Rock fryer; his end wing feathers are the color of clay; his legs are long, thin, and iron-colored; his feet are big; and he appears to be wearing the short pants now so much in favor with playboys in the summer. These extend downward, buff-colored and sleek, from what might be a blue-black waistcoat. One would not be disturbed to find a watch chain hanging from this, but none does. Analyzing the appearance of the peacock as he stands with his tail folded, I find the parts incommensurate with the whole. The fact is that with his tail folded, nothing but his bearing saves this bird from being a laughingstock. With his tail spread, he inspires a range of emotions, but I have yet to hear laughter.