Genius Breaking Through

A Prayer Journal

by Flannery O’Connor, edited and with an introduction by W.A. Sessions
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $18.00
Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images
Flannery O’Connor, 1950s

For some weeks before I read Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published A Prayer Journal straight through, I read around it. The book’s length was not the problem. (At forty pages, not including a facsimile of O’Connor’s handwritten notes, this lovely volume rests in the hand like a collection of verse.) Nor was the ostensible subject matter—O’Connor’s Catholicism. Rather, what put me off were the dates she produced it. Written between 1946 and 1947 and more or less abandoned when the burgeoning author was twenty-two, this apprentice work emerged when O’Connor, a Georgia native, was not too long out of the South, and enrolled in the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. While I looked forward to her no doubt interesting views on belief, I didn’t want to stumble across those aspects of O’Connor’s past that were of her time and place, a segregated world where “nigger,” for example, was not a sliming slur, but an epithet.

She grew up in a world defined by segregation. Born to middle-class Irish-American Catholic parents in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925, O’Connor, an only child, was herself part of a minority. Along with blacks and lawyers, Savannah’s Catholic population was banned from the Georgia Trust of 1733; in 1916, the Convent Inspection Bill became law. “Under this weird legislation,” writes Brad Gooch in his biography of O’Connor, “grand juries were charged with inspecting Catholic convents, monasteries, and orphanages, to search for evidence of sexual immorality and to question all the ‘inmates,’ ensuring that they were not held involuntarily.”

In short, belonging was provisional, and society was fueled by exclusion and hatred. O’Connor’s brilliant mature work showed all that, and more: how divine intervention—the hand of God—looked on the map of a civil rights era world. No one was safe there, least of all those whites who tried to blindly uphold the old order with mean, red-faced grit.

But O’Connor’s themes and interests—redemption, mystery, transcendence, bigotry, all depicted in a hard, ecclesiastical light—had only the crudest relationship to the work she would produce in graduate school. When she arrived in Iowa City, escorted by her widowed mother and lugging a fifteen-pound muskrat coat to ward off the impending winter chill, she did not know what she wanted to say except that she needed to say it.

The tales O’Connor produced while at Iowa eventually made up her master’s thesis, called “The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories,” which was completed in 1947, five years before she published Wise Blood, her first novel. By then the girl from Georgia had become an artist. Her master’s thesis, on the other hand, is a book by a student who had yet to find the courage or the intellectual means to leave her people. Indeed, many of the blacks in O’Connor’s first stories, for instance, are referred to as “niggers”—evil, shiftless, funky, and shut…

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