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Reading about Writing

Reflections on Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners

Published on:
June 10, 2020
Read time:
4 min.
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For seven years, I was known as Phyllis Bunton. From ages seventeen to twenty-four, I worked at a living-history museum. My section was set in 1836 and was known as Prairietown, Indiana. During my young adult years, I wore a corset, churned butter, learned how to cook from scratch on a nineteenth-century cookstove. 

“King of Birds”

Unless it’s the smell of ginger or the sight of a vegetable garden, I don’t often think or talk about my years on the living-history museum farm. But reading the very first piece in Mystery and Manners, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s essays, took me back to Prairietown. From the outset, O’Connor triggered memories of chickens, turkey, sheep, and cows. Not many books take me back to a simpler time in my life—a time when I fretted over weeds reappearing in my freshly weeded garden and over whether I had enough buttermilk for my biscuits.

The opening essay, which is dedicated to O’Connor’s peacocks, had me thinking like a farmer. Whether in the nineteenth century or today, everything on a farm is there for a reason. Chickens and their eggs feed humans and other animals alike. Castoffs from a vegetable garden add nutrients to compost or add to slop for the hogs. But peacocks are all show and no go. What can peacocks do? Can their eggs be eaten alongside bacon and a biscuit with a side of orange juice? Will the bird itself be served with potatoes and rolls? What exactly is a peacock’s purpose?

O’Connor’s style creates a sense of familiarity. I felt as though the two of us were rocking on the back porch swing, marveling at the peacocks roaming her Milledgeville, Georgia yard.

O’Connor writes, “Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is ‘good for’—a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none.” Before the reader can determine the peacock’s value, O’Connor allows him or her to feel her need for the peacock. Aside from describing her mother asking what peacocks eat, O’Connor doesn’t dwell on the peacock’s usefulness or lack thereof. Instead, she spends two and a half pages describing the peacock’s journey from baby to full grown bird in all its glory, before introducing inquiries about its practicality. 

O’Connor’s style creates a sense of familiarity. I felt as though the two of us were rocking on the back porch swing, marveling at the peacocks roaming her Milledgeville, Georgia yard. I imagined her telling me her pet names for each bird according to its own individual personality. I began to see the peacocks like she did too.  

Did they need a purpose? Maybe not everything on a farm needs a practical reason for its existence. Why couldn’t beauty be enough? A bird not meant to be eaten but admired is not wasteful. 

“Novelist and Believer”

The essay “Novelist and Believer” had me thinking of a different aspect of society—art.   O’Connor writes, 

But I don’t believe that we shall have a great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artists and believing society. Until that time, the novelist will have to do the best he can in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one. 

Although O’Connor is specifically focusing on writers, the future happy combination she describes and the current reality can be said for art in general. I’m reminded of the song “Mississippi Goddamn” by Nina Simone. Each line speaks of the reality of the black American lived experience while simultaneously reflecting the broken condition and the face of the devil which possessed the oppressors. Based on what I know about Nina Simone, she and her listeners longed for a happy combination of the promises of scripture, but she lived in a world where it was necessary for her to write, compose, and sing songs shining a light on the systemic injustice faced by a specific people group. She wanted the freedom and justice God promised.

This chapter left me wondering what I could do to fill my future with more art.

The essay “Novelist and Believer” was the most thought-provoking essay for me in Mystery and Manners. In my life, I haven’t strategically employed art as a tool to introduce others to Christ or encourage other believers. This chapter left me wondering what I could do to fill my future with more art. Flannery O’Connor speaks to my past and present. I read her words, and I’m instantly transported to my teenage and early adult years. I turn the page and O’Connor’s words pierce as I think about the pursuit of justice in the future. 

“The Fiction Writer and His Country”

Although many don’t consider Indiana a member of the Southern states, it was originally in the Bible Belt. Many black Northerners are a product of the Great Migration, and many Hoosiers have a thick Southern accent with Southern values to back it up. Like most Hoosier children, I often went down South to visit aunts, uncles, and a slew of cousins. Upon my relocation to Dallas, I experienced minimal culture shock, but the cultural Christianity of the South proved difficult. In the essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country” O’Connor writes, 

I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.

I thought of the fifth graders I teach. My kids believe attending a Christian school means they are believers. I finished the book wondering how I could better teach the kids I love so much about Christ who haunts their culture. 

In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor speaks to my past, my present, and my future. I read her words, and I’m instantly transported to my teenage and early adult years. I turn the page and O’Connor’s words pierce as I think about the pursuit of justice right now. Moments later I imagine a different future defined by aspects I’ve left out until now. 

Cover image by Amber Maxwell Boydell.

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