Books June 2014
Ground of her beseeching
A review of A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor.
In 1945, at age nineteen, Flannery O’Connor left her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, to study journalism on scholarship at the University of Iowa. For the relatives who thought she’d rush back to the family dairy farm in a few weeks, she devoted a single word in her diary: “Humph!” It was apt. Not long into her first courses in magazine advertising and political ideas, she approached the poet Paul Engle in his office. When he couldn’t make out the sentences she spoke in her syrupy accent, he passed her a pad and pencil. “My name is Flannery O’Connor,” she wrote. “I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?”
Iowa and Engle proved transformative. “I didn’t really start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time,” she later wrote to a friend. Fellow students remembered her as the “little pale girl with big glasses,” perched at her desk, a single bulb hanging from the ceiling to light her typewriter, which she preferred to pens since it exercised all ten fingers. Once asked by a friend why she worked so much, O’Connor plainly replied that she “had to.”
During these pivotal years, O’Connor’s star quickly rose. She saw the publication of her first short story (“The Geranium,” in Accent magazine), won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for part of what would become the novel Wise Blood, and enjoyed the admiration of visiting writers such as John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. She also kept an infrequent journal of brief prayers, written in her own hand in a Sterling spiral notebook.
O’Connor began the journal to better fix her attention on God and on writing.
O’Connor began the journal to better fix her attention on God and on writing. For although she rose each morning to walk the two blocks from her dormitory to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where she served as a communicant, she felt that her “thoughts [were] all elsewhere.” She confessed that her “thanksgiving” amounted to “a few prayers babbled over lightly” and that “all this disgusts me in myself.” Her desire is “to write a beautiful prayer”—write, not say. To choose her own words and write them in her own cursive in her own book, not to recite a traditional prayer summoned from memory, is to do two things at once: create and worship. In Flannery O’Connor, novelist and believer were already becoming one.
The journal was uncovered only recently, in 2002, among her papers by her friend W. A. Sessions, who is currently at work on O’Connor’s authorized biography and teaches at her college alma mater, since renamed Georgia State University. Simply titled A Prayer Journal, this book stands at the end of a long line of gifts that O’Connor, who died of complications from lupus in 1964 at age thirty-nine, has given her readers from beyond the grave. First there came, in 1965, the publication of the short story collection Everything that Rises Must Converge, followed in 1969 by Mystery and Manners, a volume containing speeches, sundry book reviews (all but one for small Catholic newspapers), and essays. Then in 1979 a thick volume of correspondence, edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald, was published under the name The Habit of Being. It begins in June 1948, with O’Connor looking for a book agent. Note that A Prayer Journal was written between 1946 and 1947. As such it serves as a prelude to The Habit of Being, for the prayers are letters of a kind, addressed to God, and even carefully dated in the upper corners. Aside from her writing, a book of humorous woodcut prints she made for her school newspapers, back when she aspired to be a New Yorker cartoonist, was published two years ago.
The first half of A Prayer Journal features the twenty-four entries elegantly typeset and lightly edited to correct O’Connor’s self-described “innocent” spelling. The second is a facsimile of the notebook, including the marbled covers, blank pages, and one page she marked with a solitary squiggle of musical notation. Including the facsimile seems at first too precious—and certainly a convenient way to fatten the spine (the book takes less than an hour to read)—but it is critical. Here we can see O’Connor at the start of her powers, editing herself, cutting out pages and parts of pages, scratching out phrases and whole sentences, swapping weak words for strong ones. The first few pages she ripped out, and the book starts mid-sentence with the serendipitous phrase “effort at artistry,” which must have amused her for its vague vanity—and accuracy. Midway through the journal, she rather comically notes to herself, or even to the future reader over her shoulder, “I looked back over some of these entries,” right before tearing out the rest of the page.
O’Connor leaves little open space in her notebook, writing on entire lines, paper’s edge to center, center to paper’s edge—a habit that suits the overwhelming sense of yearning and immediacy in her prayers. Her cursive, moreover, is large and neat, as if by writing this way she can see and understand more clearly. “I must grow” is her refrain. “Make me a mystic, immediately,” she implores God. Supplications she irons out into understated, direct sentences of mostly monosyllabic words: “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where you are.” Elsewhere, to herself: “If I could only hold God in my mind. If I could only just think of Him.” And again: “I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” It is as if writing is a veil between her and God and the thinner she makes that veil, the closer she is to God.
The young writer’s prayers range from being achingly lyrical (“Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing the moon”), to boldly asking God for success in this world (“I want to be a fine writer”; “Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel”), to ruminating, mostly to herself, on the difficulties of getting grace and how love is easily perverted by the “boils & blisters & warts of romanticism.” Though started at the end of World War II, with GIs on campus, O’Connor’s journal contains nothing about the material world, nor any mention of her family or home. The journal is solely a ground for interior wrestling.
She frets about time and having enough of it to do the work she wants to do.
She frets about time and having enough of it to do the work she wants to do. “Work, work, work. Dear God, let me work, keep me working. I want to be able to work. If my sin is laziness, I want to be able to conquer it.” Readers will know she did conquer it—and not in health, which she had in Iowa, but in the face of the Red Wolf that would aggravate her blood and keep her on the family farm in the care of her mother. Despite the odds, she summoned the energy to write for three hours each morning, and did so in good spirits, saying the disease was “no great hardship” and delightfully calling her crutches “flying buttresses” and “aluminum legs.” Before she fell into a final coma, she was still at work, putting the last edits on a galley of “The Resurrection.” In A Prayer Journal, as much to herself as to God, she had consecrated herself to the work that was with her until the end:
I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today. The word craftsmanship takes care of the work angle & the word aesthetic the truth angle. Angle. It will be a life struggle with no consummation. When something is finished, it cannot be possessed. Nothing can be posessed but the struggle. All our lives are consumed in possessing struggle but only when the struggle is cherished & directed to a final consummation outside of this life is it of any value. I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God.
And while O’Connor is certain of her power, and certain that it is a gift from God (“Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine”), she is exceedingly anxious. She does not show this side of her temperament in The Habit of Being, which is instead suffused with remarkable calm and grace. It is in this one way, this feverish anxiety, that the young O’Connor actually seems young. She worries about the strength of her mind, “prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery,” and her faith. In a remarkable distillation of the abstract into a concrete image, she writes: “My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box. Dear God, please give me as much air as it is not presumptuous to ask for. Please let some light shine out of all the things around so that I can.” She also worries about the prospect of her stories wallowing in mediocrity. “I’d rather be less,” she feverishly writes. “I’d rather be nothing. An imbecile.” (Note: She also worries about getting a big head should her stories succeed.) The journal itself is a source of worry for her, as it’s “more liable to be therapeutical than metaphysical, with the element of self underlying its thoughts.”
O’Connor’s worry turns into frustration with herself: “I’ll never take a large chunk of anything. I’ll nibble nervously here and there. Fear of God is right; but it is not this nervousness.” Exasperated, she asks, “How can I live—how shall I live” and then in one of those masterful phrases, containing the seed of style to come, she asks of herself again, “But how eliminate this picky fish bone kind of way I do things.” She calls her very soul “a moth who would be king, a stupid slothful thing, a foolish thing, who wants God, who made the earth, to be its Lover. Immediately.” Tired of herself, she laments: “I see myself by ridiculous degrees.”
But her relentless self-examination is not hollow, for it has a purpose, and it matures her, as is fully evident if one takes up The Habit of Being after finishing A Prayer Journal. More than a decade after she wrote the last, sad line of the prayer journal (“There is nothing left to say of me.”), she wrote to her friend Louise Abbot: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” Her journal shows, through the example of her own efforts, laid open as if on the examination table before us, that neither faith—nor art—is a “big electric blanket.” Nor would we wish them to be. Faith and art that are easy are not necessary.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 10, on page 70
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