Lost 'Journal' reveals a candid, meditative side to Flannery O'Connor

By Max Radwin, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published November 22, 2013

Flannery O’Connor wrote the collection of journal entries that appear in “A Prayer Journal” when she was 20 years old, the same age as many students on campus. Young readers will relate to her urgency, doubt and tenuous relationship with the future. Artists working in all mediums, and those who failed to follow a path that would have allowed them to do so, will find it nostalgic or heartbreaking.

A Prayer Journal

Flannery O'Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Her entries are short — even the longer ones — and so is the book itself. This isn’t a grand assemblage of the author’s notes, but rather a modest, sparsely used notebook from her time at the University of Iowa in 1946 - '47, discovered years after her death. At times, in all its chaos and ambiguity, her collection barely coheres to a logical progression.

“The rest of us have lost our power to vomit,” she suddenly concludes in a May entry about Christ and modern prophets. As prayers, O’Connor’s entries are always unique in this way, and occasionally exceptional in spite of their rushed honesty.

“No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons,” O’Connor writes for another day.

But this is not, despite its title, a book about God; it’s a jewelry box for her artistic anxieties.

O’Connor’s deep religiousness helps her cope with the shock of moving from Georgia to Iowa City. But in many ways, these prayers interact with God as if he were a muse, so that her spirituality fuses with the literary.

“If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me,” she scribes in plain, legible cursive. “Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try — that is the point.”

It’s this determination that charges her wandering thoughts with urgency. Even when they distract themselves, thoughts like these tug on deeper heartstrings that allow the short collection — and its facsimile — to be worth this publication and marketing.

The urgent tone asserts the book’s validity. Because, if at times you find yourself among your art asking “What will I be?” — you are also O’Connor. Her words have been your thoughts.

“This evening I picture theoretically myself at 70 saying it’s done, it’s finished, it’s what it is, & being no nearer than I am. This moral turpitude at 70 won’t be tolerable.”

And those words hold weight with us because her work squashed those fears and fulfilled her hopes. Does that ultimately, in some way, ease the reader — make them feel better? In the end, probably not. Not permanently, anyhow. But they demonstrate a vulnerability shared by all, which drives us to pursue unlikely ends through available means.