As you may have heard by now, Farrar Straus & Giroux recently published the prayer journal of a very young Flannery O’Connor. William A. Sessions, an old friend of O’Connor’s and, deo volente, her official biographer (he’s been working toward an O’Connor biography for twenty years or so) found a black-and-white marbled composition notebook among her personal effects. That notebook, as it turns out, was a prayer journal that O’Connor had kept while she was earning her MFA at the University of Iowa, from January 1946 to September 1947. She was twenty years old when she began the journal and twenty-two when she gave it up (“There is no more to say of me,” she wrote on the last line).
I’m deeply ambivalent about the publishing of this journal. Of course I am fascinated by the insights that it offers. The Habit of Being, O’Connor’s collected letters, includes very few letters from her Iowa years, so this prayer journal paints an intimate portrait of her inner life at a time of life from which we have few other sources. On the other hand, the portrait is so intimate that it often feels like voyeurism to look. I was discussing this with my wife last week and she remarked, “You sure are protective of her.” Maybe so. But I have a journal I kept when I was twenty, and if I had any reason to suspect that anybody might publish it when I’m dead, I would go burn it right now.
Not that my old journal is especially juicy–and neither is O’Connor’s. But I was still learning how to be my grown-up self at twenty, and so was O’Connor. If you have ever read the first few stories in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, you have some idea of what I’m talking about. Those first stories–“The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Geranium,” etc., made up her Master’s thesis at Iowa. They’re very good stories, but they don’t have the astonishing power of the stories that O’Connor was producing even a couple of years later. During those Iowa years, she was still figuring out how to be Flannery O’Connor. It has always hurt my feelings that the editors put those Iowa stories at the beginning of The Complete Stories instead of relegating them to an appendix.
The spiritual fervor of her prayers is strong; even stronger is her desire for ever greater fervor:
Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.
Even a casual reader of O’Connor can see the connection between this personal, spiritual longing–cast in a violent, grotesque form–and the vision of O’Connor’s fiction.
O’Connor is frank in asking God for literary success. “ I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do.” “ Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted.” And yet she is not concerned merely with worldly success. She prays at one point, “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.”
And yet she is suspicious of her own motives. In the throes of beginning Wise Blood she prays:
Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling & for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one. let me get away dear God from all things thus “natural.” Help me to get what is more than natural into my work–help me to love & bear with my work on that account. If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service. I would like to be intelligently holy. I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.
The honesty in these prayers is remarkable. At one point, after she has said something witty but caustic about another person, she writes, “But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so.” I know how she feels.
Elsewhere she writes,
I say many many too many uncharitable things about people everyday. I say them because they make me look clever. Please help me to realize practically how cheap this is. I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule. Please help me to stop this selfishness because I love you, dear God.
Writers are famously insecure. Still, it may surprise readers to see Flannery O’Connor call herself stupid and admit her need to be thought clever. Several times in this prayer journal, O’Connor worries that she is just mediocre. Ponder that one in your heart.
If the Iowa fiction shows that O’Connor wasn’t yet the writer she would become, the Iowa prayer journal shows that her unique inner vision was already fully developed–or nearly so. I wish I had time to give a full accounting of this remarkable little book (by the way, it is only about 40 pages long, and even those pages don’t have a lot of text on them). Instead, let me direct you to some of the better reviews that have been written:
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.