Saturday, January 28, 2012

Flannery O’Connor, peacock enthusiast

I have just been mesmerized by the short stories of Flannery O'Connor. I laughed out loud while being unsettled to the core, like watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, times a thousand. The dark comedy in The Enduring Chill for example with its perfect circle of events is one of the best things I've ever read.

A friend described her as 'in some odd ways truly strangely innocent.' Author Elizabeth Hardwick described her as 'a plain sort of young, unmarried girl, a little bit sickly. She had a small-town Southern accent . . . whiny. She whined. She was amusing. She was so gifted, immensely gifted.'

She went to bed at 9 and said she was always glad to get there. She gave her mother a mule for Mother’s Day. She created many matriarchs that resembled her mother and killed them off in viciously creative ways. She collected ducks, quail, mail-order swans and... peacocks. She was attracted to the bird by 'instinct' and would send peacock feathers to correspondents and friends.

She was a devout Catholic, and read a lot of theology, she believed it made her writing bolder. The brutal violence that simmers and erupts in the stories is always surprising.

Like her father she died of lupus, she'd hide her stories from doctors and write when they weren’t looking. She was forced to spend the last 13 years of her life at her mother's farm in Milledgeville, most of them on crutches, her bones and joints ravaged by the disease. She took huge amounts of cortisone, a drug that possibly influenced her work, she said it 'makes you think night and day.'

Describing her self-portrait with a pheasant cock, she wrote: 'I very much like the look of the pheasant cock. He has horns and a face like the Devil. The self-portrait was made . . . after a very acute siege. . . . I was taking cortisone which gives you what they call a moon face and my hair had fallen out to a large extent due to the high fever, so I looked pretty much like the portrait. When I painted it, I didn't look either at myself in the mirror or at the bird. I knew what we both looked like.'

Her writing life existed within narrow borders, 'between the house and the chicken yard,' not much for a writer much to work with. When asked why she wrote, she replied, 'Because I’m good at it.' She found sickness 'more instructive than a long trip to Europe.' She attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop and studiously accepted advice on her work, revising and rewriting. In the archives of Georgia College there are 378 pages of a novel Why Do the Heathen Rage including 17 versions of a porch scene.

Biographer Brad Gooch said: I think the discipline of her writing becomes ... almost inspiring. She developed lupus when she was 25, she lived until she was 39. And in that period, she kept up this regimen that she had begun at the Iowa Writers' Workshop of writing every morning for three hours, even if it meant sitting in front of a blank page. ...
When she was forced by lupus to move back to the South and live on a dairy farm with her mother in Georgia, one of the first things she did besides getting very serious about working on her stories was to order a peacock.

Eventually she had 39 peacocks. ... And I think that she was very conscious that the peacock was this gawky, comic bird. I think she identified with the peacock for that reason. The peacock squawked all night and annoyed people, ate her mother's flowers, and yet, at this certain wilful moment, opened its tail and revealed what she called this 'map of the universe.'
So, I think it really stood in a way for this kind of transfiguration that would take place for her spiritually but also in the beauty of her writing. ... She definitely made an effort to make the peacock her own personal logo.

She was considered a minor writer at the time of her death. Her Collected Stories was published in the early 1970s and got a posthumous National Book Award.

Inspired by how she dealt with her illness, Gooch says: she finally was nobody's victim. ... Everything we think of as a Flannery O'Connor story came after she had been diagnosed as having lupus and settled in to life in the South. You get the sense that this was almost a magical thinking, where she thought that writing these stories was keeping her alive.

Hundreds of doctoral dissertations and critical analyses have been written as well as many dozens of books parsing her every line and ruminating on grace, redemption, evil, love, transcendence and apocalyptic power. She has become, as Gooch points out in his biography, 'a one-woman academic industry.'

1 comment:

Rachael Sarah Williams said...

Excellent post on one of my favorite authors! I have this same collection, cover and all, but have noticed 50 or so pages missing from the middle of the story. Still can't finish "The River," and will have to check it out from the library. Argh!

This semester, my students have really enjoyed "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Good Country People." In past courses, I haven't had such good luck with covering O'Connor, but for the most part the students have really taken to the weirdness of her fictional world.