The Passion of Flannery O’Connor

A prayer journal kept by the writer in her early 20s sheds new light on her biblical ironies.

Kevin Christy

How was the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount? When the son of God did stand-up for the multitudes, were there hecklers? The Bible, in its reader-unfriendly way, disdains to tell us. Jesus rips through that sequence of world-reversing one-liners, the Beatitudes—“immense sarcasms,” Mark Twain called them, missing the point narrowly but completely—and of the people’s reaction, we hear nothing at all. He wraps up his set, and they are “astonished at His doctrine.” But what does that mean? Groans, jeers? A wild surge on the clap-o-meter? Or dropped jaws and rings of awe, spreading in silence from the source?

Had Flannery O’Connor been on the scene, we can be sure, she would have reported it as some kind of freak-out, a dusty near-riot, not Woodstock but Altamont—scuffles, bad vibes, mic feedback. Where the Word was operational, for O’Connor, it was always disruptive: in its presence, one’s head was supposed to explode. Her short stories, especially, reengineered the Joycean epiphany, the quiet moment of transcendence, as a kind of blunt-force baptismal intervention: her characters are KO’d, dismantled, with a violence that would be absurdist, if the universe were absurd. But the universe is not absurd. “There is an interaction between man and God which to disregard is an act of insolence,” wrote the rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, her contemporary, in The Prophets. “Isolation is a fairy tale.” The upended moment, the breaking-in or breaking-through of a vagrant, unbiddable reality: this is the grace of God and the sign of his love.

In O’Connor’s story “Revelation,” for instance, the pious Mrs. Turpin is attacked by an insane girl in a doctor’s waiting room. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” the girl tells her. Later, while hosing down her pigs—divinely concussed, so to speak—Mrs. Turpin has a vision: a cavalcade moving toward the crack of heaven, a “vast horde of souls” led by “white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives,” and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” These are the poor in spirit, coming into their inheritance. Bringing up the rear, meanwhile, are the righteous, the organized, the scrupulous and stainless, the people like Mrs. Turpin and her husband. “They were marching behind the others with great dignity … Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

This month FSG publishes A Prayer Journal, the contents of a devotional notebook that O’Connor—a turbocharged Catholic—kept from January 1946 to September 1947, while she was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It is a miraculous and rather terrifying document, both a blueprint for her fiction and a prophetic dreaming-out of her life’s purpose and pattern: letters to God, basically, from a woman in her early 20s who would later tell a correspondent that she was a Catholic, “not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist, but like someone else would be an atheist.”

Iowa was where spiky, brainy Mary Flannery O’Connor from Milledgeville, Georgia, became Flannery O’Connor, writer. Arriving in 1945 as a postgraduate student at the University of Iowa, she promptly homed in on the creative-writing classes run by the poet Paul Engle. Women were a minority at the time: by 1946, more than half of Engle’s pupils were returning servicemen, many of them writing stories about their experiences during the war. On the surface, as O’Connor’s biographer, Brad Gooch, tells it in Flannery, she was a quiet but significant classroom presence: “She scared the boys to death with her irony,” remembered one visiting lecturer, Andrew Lytle. Beneath the surface, as recorded on the 47 and a half handwritten pages to which we now have access (A Prayer Journal includes a facsimile), she was refining her vocation with the muscularity and spiritual ferocity of a young saint-in-waiting. The first page or pages of the notebook have been lost, and it begins—how poetic is this?—mid-sentence, with “effort at artistry.”

“Smash the ego,” wrote Peter Schjeldahl in a 1979 poem called “I Missed Punk,” “which always reconstitutes / (and if it doesn’t, well, / your worries are over).” For O’Connor, the space left by the destroyed ego—we can imagine it as a kind of humming vacancy, drifting with pieces of burned paper—was holy because it belonged to God. And she wanted it. Or, more precisely, and more poignantly, she wanted to want it. “Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss … 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 Fulfilment.” Electric with literary ambition, she prays to be erased. A paradox? Hardly. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God,” she pleads, “that I was anything but the instrument for Your story.”

Not much of everyday life finds its way into the journal. A Mr. Rothburg gets a mention, evidently because she was mean to him in class—“I got a good punishment for my lack of charity to Mr Rothburg last year. He came back at me today like a tornado”—but O’Connor seems to be more or less the only writer in the universe, which is perhaps how she felt. She reads Kafka (“Mr Kafka”) and Bernanos, and alludes warily to Freud, Proust, and Lawrence. But it takes a fire-breather like Léon Bloy to really crack the crust. “Bloy has come my way … He is an iceberg hurled at me to break up my Titanic and I hope my Titanic will be smashed.” Bloy was a radical French Catholic and a street prophet, furiously mustached, a denizen of fin de siècle literary Paris who turned upon the world a face of almost interstellar indignation. A penny given “grudgingly” to a poor man, declared Bloy, “pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe.” Here, exactly, is the catastrophic moral context that O’Connor was seeking to enter with her fiction. “To maintain any thread in the novel,” she muses in one of the journal’s rare moments of literary theory, “there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of world is conception of love—divine, natural, & perverted.”

The boys in the classroom were right to be scared of her irony. O’Connor’s was not the shifty, reactive, and merely local variety that passes for irony today: sitcom irony, skinny-jeans irony. It was vertical and biblical: the irony by which the mighty are lowered, the humble exalted, and the savior dies on a cross. And she would shortly be required to submit to it herself, in full. Within three years of leaving Iowa, where she had prayed for desire of the Lord to claim her like a disease, she was diagnosed with lupus. Stricken, she returned to her mother’s farm in Milledgeville, her base of production for the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and the short-story collections A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, the latter published posthumously. Health and sex and adventure had been taken from her, and in their place was a vision, her world, blast-lit and still reeling under the first shock of creation. “The air was so quiet,” she wrote in “The River,” “he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water.” It was a gift. And we are left with a question: Without this terrible narrowing-down, would she have achieved the greatness she prayed for? This illness, this thing that confined her, that hauled her, crutches clanking, into a premature spinsterhood, and finally killed her at the age of 39, can we call it by the name of grace? Dare we?

O'Connor's Ironic Inversions

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Was O’Connor the pioneer of the now-popular serial-killer-as-moral-philosopher trope? The Misfit— antihero of this, her most famous story—is a handy theologian: “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead … and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.”

“A Circle in the Fire”

Try to be nice and see what happens. When three indigent boys arrive at Mrs. Cope’s farm, her most anguished request is that they don’t burn down her woods. And so, with “wild high shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace,” they burn down her woods.

“The Enduring Chill”

Asbury Fox—sweaty and sick, his writerly Barton Fink aspirations in ruins—comes home. Dying, or so he thinks, he still finds the strength to be horrible to his poor mother. Mercy intrudes in the form of an unimaginative and half-deaf hulk of a Jesuit priest, who upbraids him at bedside.