Sometime when you are going to Emory, stop by here and pay me a visit,” Flannery O’Connor told Alfred Corn in a letter in 1962. “I would like to fit your face to your search.”Share
She was a novelist, age thirty-seven, who lived with her mother and a flock of peafowl on a farm south of Atlanta. He was an Emory University freshman who heard her speak on campus and then wrote her a letter about his struggle to maintain his Christian faith. She wrote back, and he wrote back, and she wrote twice more. In college, she told him, “you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas.” You feel “an activation of the intellectual life which is . . . running ahead of your lived experience.” She went on: “After a year of this, you are beginning to think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it.
She recognized his search because she had gone through such a search in her own student days. As Mary F. O’Connor, the saddle-shoed editor of the yearbook at the state women’s college in Milledgeville, she had found herself in the predicament akin to his: that of a bright student, raised religious, who suddenly had as many questions as answers. Then, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, she introduced herself as Flannery O’Connor, inventing herself as a writer; and the questions of faith weighed on her as she tried to figure how to reconcile her Catholic piety with the strictures of literary modernism and the nasty characters, violent episodes, spicy idiom, and low jokes she was drawn to write about.
That is where we find her in the notebook of prayers that she assembled in 1946 and 1947, age twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two. She is full of faith, but the complexities of the religious point of view are running up against her literary ambitions, on the one hand, and her sense of her own limitations on the other. The Prayer Journal is an early work by a writer whom it has been unusually hard to see as a “young writer.” More than her other early work, it fits her face to her search. (Read more.)