I’ve been binging on Flannery O’Connor’s journals of late, poring over pages she likely never meant others to read. Last month, Image published, for the first time, a brief college journal written by O’Connor when she just was eighteen years old. (Note to self: burn all your teenaged journals immediately.) At the same time, I’ve been slowly digesting O’Connor’s prayer journal, from a similar period in her life, when she was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Karen Swallow Prior, writing for The Atlantic, sees in this newly released journal a young Mary O’Connor who is crippled with self-doubt. She concludes that O’Connor’s apparent unease about her writing is a classic case of authorship anxiety, a malady that plagues all women writers, according to the conventions of feminist literary criticism. O’Connor’s apparent lack of confidence in herself and her writing, then, can be chalked up to a struggle to assert her authority as a female writer.
I can’t help but notice, however, that Prior’s piece does not provide any compelling evidence from O’Connor herself to support such a reading. Instead, Prior invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and claims that Woolf’s account of women’s literary history “goes a long way toward explaining the near-paralyzing insecurities of a budding female writer like O’Connor.”
But is this familiar feminist reading the best way to understand the young Flannery O’Connor? Based on what I’ve read, especially in her prayer journal, I would argue that it’s not. The college journal reveals a teenaged O’Connor who is wry, self-aware, and professes to have a robust sense of “affection” for herself, second only to her affection for her mother. Although she is preoccupied with how others perceive her, like most teenagers, and struggles with self-motivation, she hardly seems “paralyzed” by insecurities. And even her writing woes are regarded with consummate dry wit:
My greatest trouble in marketing a manuscript comes in the fact that I never send it off. I have it accepted, live through a glorious period of congratulation and money-making and excellent offers—all before I have typed the manuscript.
It is in the prayer journal, not the college journal, that O’Connor’s agitation about her work becomes more pronounced. But this writerly angst seems far less related to her sex than to her soul.
In the first entry of her prayer journal, written when she was just twenty, O’Connor expresses a desire to be successful, but also a concern that this desire will occlude her love for God:
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
Her prayer journal, as a whole, is a heartfelt attempt to ensure God remains in her work, that divine concerns animate and guide it. There seems to be one central prayer throughout the journal, clothed in varying words – a single underlying plea: that her writing would reveal the things of God.
Much of O’Connor’s inner struggle comes from a desire to belong wholly to a Christian worldview. An appeal from the college journal – “Oh dear God, please don’t let me be taken in by this vast nonchalance with which the socially scientific world looks at eternity!” – reveals this to be an ongoing concern, one that is heightened in the later journal. This question of worldview is not separate from her ambitions as a writer, but integral. O’Connor is well aware that “to maintain any thread in the novel there must be a view of the world behind it,” and she is praying her way more deeply into a Catholic cosmos even as external forces attempt to lead her elsewhere.
While at Iowa, O’Connor finds herself confronted with the rigorous secularism of academe and pervasive Freudian accounts of religion as mere human projection. She refers intermittently and sardonically to “the psychologists” as a way to invoke and reject the Freudian lens, to expose its poverty and pray herself beyond it:
Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling & for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one. Let me get away dear God from all things thus “natural.” Help me to get what is more than natural into my work—help me to love & bear with my work on that account.
The desire and turmoil that O’Connor expresses in these pages seems the inverse of the “authorship anxiety” thesis of feminist literary criticism. She does not express too little faith in her own authority, but is wary of having too much. She is not afraid of being overshadowed; she is afraid of overshadowing. Confining the spiritual throes of her interior life to a “natural” explanation of the female ego struggling to assert itself overlooks the explicitly supernatural focus of her work. Let me get away dear God from all things thus “natural.”
O’Connor’s writing, both her fiction and her journals, comes alive under a Catholic lens, rather than a feminist one. In the pages of her journals, she exhibits little concern with her identity as a woman vis-à-vis men, remaining far more preoccupied with her identity as a creature before her Creator. “Let Christian principles permeate my writing,” she prays. “Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.” Any careful reader of O’Connor can see that this prayer was answered in abundance.