The pleasure that I get from Flannery O’Connor is so intimate that it’s difficult to share. I’ve been trying to think of how to get at her, and it just occurred to me that I was reading about Carson McCullers the other day and it turns out that Carson was her middle name, and it was Mary Flannery O’Connor, and it’s June Bailey White, too. It could be that there’s an entire Ph.D. thesis to be done about Southern women writers who are funny and go by their middle names. Also, something that Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty had in common was that they lived in the town, in their home states, where the state insane asylum was. Maybe that’s more to the point than the middle-name thing.

I thought about mentioning Flannery O’Connor’s influence on contemporary art, and of course the thing that sprang to mind was The Sopranos. They stole a wooden leg on the show not long ago—a lot like “Good Country People,” except in Flannery O’Connor stories you’ve got Paulie Walnuts and Ralphie, but you don’t have anybody as nice as Tony. I therefore think that Flannery O’Connor was tougher than the Mafia.

Here’s another way in: by the terms that we rate success in the arts these days—which is to say, how broadly you get your face before the public—Flannery O’Connor’s career peaked when she was five years old. She had a chicken, described as a frizzled chicken, that walked backwards. Word spread, and the Pathé people, makers of movie newsreels, actually came down to Georgia and filmed Flannery O’Connor and her backward-walking chicken. She said that changed her life. And then she went on to peacocks.

I visited her in 1963, the year before she died, and met her peacocks. She gave me three peacock feathers and told me a couple of stories. She said that one of the hired men on the farm was telling her that he had eaten owl the other night, and she said, “What does owl taste like?” And he said, “About like crow.” And she said, “What kind of owl was it?” And he said, “Well, it was a scrooch owl.” And she said, “You mean a screech owl?” And he said, “No, a scrooch owl. One of those owls that will land on a limb next to a bird and scrooch over and scrooch over until he knocks him off and grabs him.”

The best way, I think, to appreciate Flannery O’Connor is to say to somebody else who is familiar with her work something like: “The monks of old slept in their coffins.” Or, “Jesus thrown everything off balance.” In context, one of the funniest and most terrible lines in American literature is “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life”—which is the last sentence in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” But you have to read the story in order to appreciate how funny it is and how awful it is. There’s a moment in Wise Blood that I love. A guy called Enoch Emory has told Hazel Motes that there’s a mummy in the place they’re going to, and he has to show it to him:

He pointed down through the trees. “Muvseevum,” he said. The strange word made him shiver. That was the first time he had ever said it aloud. A piece of gray building was showing where he pointed. It grew larger as they went down the hill, then as they came to the end of the wood and stepped out on the gravel driveway, it seemed to shrink suddenly. It was round and soot-colored. There were columns at the front of it and in between each column there was an eyeless stone woman holding a pot in her hand. A concrete band was over the columns and the letters, MVSEVM, were cut into it. Enoch was afraid to pronounce the word again.

Every time I see a museum I just think “Muvseevum,” and there’s pleasure in that.
One thing that the South can be proud of is that our candidates for the greatest American musical figure, Louis Armstrong, and greatest American novelist, William Faulkner, and greatest playwright, Tennessee Williams, and greatest American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor, could all write things that make you laugh. The North can come up with some good candidates, but I don’t think they’re funny. Flannery O’Connor’s humor is hard to capture in conversation. In her essay about having peacocks, which is what she went to after backward-walking chickens, she wrote: “Frequently the cock combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice. He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which travels upward through him and is released: Eee-ooo-ii! Eee-ooo-ii! To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade.”