“What I am asking for is really very ridiculous,” the young Flannery O’Connor wrote in her journal. “Oh, Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately.”
The words come from a collection of prayers that O’Connor penned from age 20 to 22, when she was studying in the prestigious writers workshop at the University of Iowa.
A scant 29 pages of careful, looping script, kept in a Sterling composition book with a dappled black-and-white cover, the journal is a passionate cry for help, for faith and for the ability to write. It veers from the creatively kooky (like the above entry) to the desperate and earnest: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the thin crescent moon and myself is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.”
The composition book of prayers and thoughts surfaced in 2002 when William Sessions, professor emeritus of English at Georgia State University and an O’Connor scholar, began researching an authorized biography of the Milledgeville writer.
This November O’Connor’s publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, will print the journal as a slim volume that includes both an edited text and a facsimile of her handwritten version, complete with her “innocent” spelling.
Sessions edited the book and wrote the introduction, in which he points out that in the midst of her heartfelt prayers, over the 1946 Thanksgiving break, she began to write what would eventually become her first novel, “Wise Blood.” The 1952 book is filled with religion-obsessed Southern characters.
“[W]hatever else the outreach of prayer had done,” he writes in the introduction, “in initiating this truly original work of American fiction, O’Connor had extended the reach of her journal. Her prayer to be a good writer — reiterated often in the journal — had already been answered.”
Sessions became friends with O’Connor when he was 25 and an assistant professor at West Georgia College. She was a few years older, confined by the ravages of lupus to the family farm, Andalusia, near Milledgeville. Both Sessions and O’Connor were practicing Catholics. Both wrote for the Catholic publication The Bulletin, where they came to each other’s attention.
By then O’Connor’s mordant short stories, featuring an assortment of psychopaths, felons and misfits, had already begun to attract attention, generally for the wrong reason. In a letter to a friend she wrote, “when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
The correct horror was the horror of the fallen world. Sessions saw O’Connor’s stories as fables of human depravity, illustrations of the consequences when man loses contact with God, and hints of the possibility of redemption. This “Christ-haunted” interpretation of O’Connor’s work gained more steam with the posthumous publication of her letters in 1979 in “A Habit of Being.”
The publication of “A Prayer Journal” should re-emphasize that view. This suits Sessions, a fan of St. Thomas Aquinas who once accompanied O’Connor and her mother, Regina Cline, on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Sessions insists that one can’t approach the work of O’Connor without dealing with its central concern, which is God.
“Her prayers were answered,” he said recently during a visit at his Brookhaven home, “but then one must ask: By who? Who answered her prayers? Is there a God?”
Louise Florencourt is O’Connor’s cousin and a trustee with the Mary Flannery O’Connor Charitable Trust. She imagines that O’Connor forgot about the journal, which turned up at the house on Greene Street in Milledgeville, where O’Connor lived before she moved to the farm. When Florencourt began trying to put the Greene Street house in order, she discovered that “nothing was sorted.”
“I’m still going through things,” she said.
Florencourt agrees that the journal is perhaps the most intimate writing that has yet surfaced from O’Connor, and she said she suggested that Farrar Straus Giroux publish it as a separate volume. “It’s clear that she’s writing to God, that she has a relationship with God,” Florenourt said. “This is not her fiction. This is Flannery herself.”
It is also the first new work in years to emerge from one of Georgia’s most eminent writers and should, despite its brevity, attract considerable attention. There are already plans for an excerpt from the book to appear in the New Yorker magazine next month.
O’Connor, a prolific cartoonist when she attended Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, frequently submitted cartoons to the New Yorker. None were accepted.
Florencourt appreciates the irony.