Knowing how much I like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), several years ago a good friend gave me a copy of Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, a collection of O’Connor’s essays and lectures, many not published in her lifetime.
The collection begins with O’Connor’s classic essay about her pet peacocks, “The King of Birds,” filled with wry humor and Technicolor scenes of farm life in mid twentieth-century Georgia. Following that, though, I struggled to get through the rest of the offerings.
I should have enjoyed her essays and lectures on writing and teaching literature. Instead, I found the writing distant and dated, as though the words were a black-and-white movie. But the book was a gift, so I felt compelled to finish it.
This took me two years, reading in fits and starts, but finally I came to the end a couple weeks ago. And there I was rewarded for my perseverance. The last entry, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” was riveting: it revealed her observations of the South then that are at play right now in this crazy election season and it illuminated something of the appeal of a certain Republican candidate. She noted that the Protestant South had (has?) a traditional hostility to “outsiders…foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey,” yet also an instinct “to fall eager victim to every poisonous breath from Hollywood or Madison Avenue.” Those who are “long on logic, definitions, abstractions” are likely to come up short “when they find themselves in an environment where their own principles have only partial application” to the society in which they are finding themselves.
But what really startled me was tucked into the appendix: a one-page excerpt from a review of a short story collection by J. F. Powers, a novelist and short story writer from Minnesota who, like O’Connor, was a devout Catholic. The review is clearly a rave, with one reservation: O’Connor takes exception to Powers’ having seen “fit to use a cat for the Central Intelligence” in two of the stories. She allows that the cat has wit and sensibility as well as faith and charity…
…but he is a cat notwithstanding, and in both cases he lowers the tone and restricts the scope of what should otherwise have been a major story. It is the hope of this reviewer that this animal will prove to have only one life left and that some Minneapolis motorist, wishing to serve literature, will dispatch him as soon as possible.
Wait just one minute there, Flannery!
That’s a bit harsh, especially coming from someone who loves farm life (and presumably animals) and who in particular admires an oddly shaped show-off of a bird that has a fingernails-on-blackboard call and is known to attack young children.
So let’s take a look at what Flannery O’Connor found so fascinating about peacocks. I quote:
“If I appear with food, they condescend…to eat it.”
“If I refer to them as [mine], the pronoun is merely legal, nothing more.”
“When it suits him, the peacock will turn to face you.”
“The peacock himself is a careful and dignified investigator.”
“Sometimes one will chase himself, end his frenzy with a spirited leap into the air, and then stalk off as if he had never been involved in the spectacle.”
That sounds very like a cat to me. So I suspect some inter-species rivalry going on here. And cats would win that battle, hands down.
Cats are cuddly. Peacocks are not.