A Young Flannery O’Connor’s Life-Changing Search for God

AP FIle Photo 1962

Her prayer journal reveals what her fiction, and even her letters, concealed

Pronouncements like that one (found all through her essays and letters) suggest that when it came to religious belief she hadn’t searched at all, but had been a firm believer always. The Prayer Journal shows otherwise. It is an uneven, immature, incomplete work, and these qualities contribute to its significance. It establishes that O’Connor’s religious search was desperately sincere, not just an epistolary conceit or a motif for fiction. It shows that from the beginning of her career her search involved what became the two main religious themes of her published writing: the nature of a calling, or vocation, and the question of how religious belief bears on the writing of fiction. And it illustrates how tightly the two themes came to be bound up together, for her and for her readers — so that in her work the credibility of the Catholic point of view depends not so much on argument and propositions as on her ability (as she put it) to “make belief believable,” especially in the character that is Flannery O’Connor herself. 

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In graduate school O’Connor’s search was mainly literary. She went to Iowa City in 1946 on a journalism scholarship, but she wriggled out of the program and into the Writers Workshop. She spent the usual two years getting her degree, stayed for a third year, and then left for a residency at Yaddo in upstate New York. In a piece (little known, and rarely quoted) that she sent from Iowa to the Georgia College alumni magazine in 1948, she described the MFA experience. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.” Probably parroting her instructors Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle, she declared that in this process the graduate school “should give the writer time and credit for writing and for wide reading” and “provide him with a literary atmosphere which he would not be able to find elsewhere.” 

The writing O’Connor did at Iowa — a handful of stories and the opening pages of Wise Blood — is awkward and obscure. But the “wide reading” she did during this time changed her life:

When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything at once, so much so that I didn’t have time to be influenced by any one writer. I read all the Catholic novelists, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, Greene, Waugh; I read all the nuts like Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson and Va. Woolf (unfair to the dear lady of course); I read the best Southern writers like Faulkner and the Tates, K.A. Porter, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor; read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much but Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. I became a great admirer of Conrad . . . 

It hardly seems possible that all that writing lies behind the Prayer Journal. This small book is so free of guile that it is tempting to see in it the “unaided” quality that Evelyn Waugh saw in Wise Blood. (“If this is really the unaided work of a young lady,” he said in a blurb, “it is indeed a remarkable product.”) But it is anything but unaided. It is overaided. The books she was reading are behind it, a squadron of influences that put her in a state of pious high anxiety not unlike that of the young Sylvia Plath — the profound and the banal jostling against each other, the young author’s extreme self-possession clashing with her scrupulosity. 

The journal consists of twenty-four entries, about five thousand words in all. By reproducing the actual journal page for page after the typeset text of the hardcover, FSG made it possible for all of us to see it for the modest, handmade production it is: some prose passages written in parochial-school longhand in a composition book with a marble cover bearing the author’s name and the dates “Jan 46—Sept 48.” 

Modest, but not accidental or unambitious. In her review of the Prayer Journal for the New York Times Book Review, Marilynne Robinson pointed out that the journal is possibly a fair copy — the entries not written fresh, with cross-outs and erasures, but drafted on other paper and then copied here by a young writer who already has posterity in mind. If a fair copy, it is an incomplete one. Some pages have been torn out at the beginning and throughout—by O’Connor, or by somebody else. No matter who did it, the excised pages and a run of blank pages at the end give the Prayer Journal the feel of a batch of fragments, like the bundled jottings that became Pascal’s Pensees, or Plath’s brutally expurgated journals.

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