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02.24.09

Flannery Feathers Her Nest

In an excerpt from the new biography of Flannery O’Connor, the famed author, stricken with illness, returns home and discovers that a good peacock is not hard to find.

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Again forced back home by disease—an unmistakable echo of her return 18 months earlier—Flannery clearly appraised the meaning of her difficult situation. She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed “the Scientist” possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts. …Yet she was certain that Connecticut was no longer to be her home, and so asked Sally Fitzgerald to please mail back her things: two suitcases, coat, camera, a copy of Art and Scholasticism, and her Bible.

If her old life could fit into a couple of trunks, shipped, as old man Tanner’s body would be transported in a rickety casket from up north in her story “Judgment Day,” Flannery was simultaneously looking forward to another crate arriving by rail from the opposite direction: Eustis, Florida. This crate was charged with a contrary significance, as a beginning rather than a closure. After spending six weeks in bed, following her “flare,” but avoiding Emory Hospital—“ a great place to avoid”—Flannery had been reading through the Florida Market Bulletin, when she came across a listing for three-year-old “peafowl,” at $65 a pair. Never having seen or heard a peacock, she unhesitatingly circled the ad, seized, as if by instinct, and passed it to her mother. “I’m going to order me those,” she said. “Don’t those things eat flowers?” Regina asked. “They’ll eat Startena like the rest of them,” Flannery answered with fake certitude.

Never having seen or heard a peacock, she unhesitatingly circled the ad, seized, as if by instinct, and passed it to her mother. “I’m going to order me those.”

On a mild day in October, the shipment finally arrived via Railway Express. Driving up to the station, Regina and Flannery saw that the wooden crate had already been unloaded onto the platform. As O’Connor later remembered, “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.” Flannery jumped out of the car and bounded forward as the bird quickly withdrew its head at her approach. Transporting the box back to Andalusia, mother and daughter, with help, undid the lid, unpacking a peacock, a hen, and four seven-week-old “peabiddies.” Knowing the bird so far only by its literary reputation, as the pet of Hera, the wife of Zeus, Flannery would have to wait for the display of its full complement of tail feathers—“a map of the universe”—shed in late summer, and not fully regained until Christmas.

“As soon as the birds were out of the crate, I sat down and began to look at them,” O’Connor remembered nine years later, in her essay “The King of the Birds.”

By the time of the arrival of these first peacocks—a sure sign of her intention to settle at home, in earnest—Flannery was already finding new inspiration for her fiction, as well, in the vagaries of small-town life.

Copyright © 2009 by Brad Gooch. This article is used with the permission of Hachette Book Group and Brad Gooch. All rights reserved.

Brad Gooch is the author of the acclaimed biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet. The recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim fellowships, he earned his PhD at Columbia University and is a professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.