Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

The last batch of Flannery O’Connor correspondence has been published and, as far as we know, this is it. The most recently published letters have been in the Emory University Special Collections for several years now and they have recently been published as Dear Regina: Flannery O’Connor’s Letters From Iowa (2022). O’Connor habitually wrote her mother Regina every day while she was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, and she, an only child, addressed her mother by her first name, hence the book’s title. O’Connor kept a diary during the same period that has previously been published as A Prayer Journal (2013) with a foreword by her long-time friend and the occasional butt of her jokes, the late William B. Sessions. Given the concurrence of her maternal missives and her spiritual diary, it is both instructive and fascinating to look at them side-by-side, especially since neither has been reviewed on this website. In doing so, what emerges in the letters to Regina is a graduate student who seems utterly ordinary. O’Connor’s spiritual diary, however, reveals a different O’Connor entirely, one who is striving to fulfill her spiritual and vocational “calling” as she understands it.

O’Connor is almost as well known for her correspondence as she is for her fiction and prose. The major compilation of her letters was edited by her long-time friend, Sally Fitzgerald, and was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux as The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (1988). The collection is at times redundant and weakly edited but valuable nonetheless: it provides perhaps the most extensive commentary on O’Connor’s fiction that any author has ever offered on their own writing. It also provides a window through which to enjoy O’Connor’s wit and her insight into theology, philosophy, and politics—including her respect for, but concern about, the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. 

The next major collection of O’Connor’s correspondence was intelligently compiled and keenly edited by Benjamin B. Alexander, Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends (2019) reviewed for this website. It enjoys a rank only second to that of The Habit of Being; though less comprehensive, it is better edited. Two more specialized volumes contain O’Connor’s letters to Brainard and Frances Cheney of Tennessee (at whose home O’Connor met Russell Kirk) and the correspondence between O’Connor and novelist Caroline Gordon, who gave O’Connor valuable advice on her writing.

Dear Regina is unremarkable. O’Connor’s correspondence with Betty Hester of Atlanta (referred to as “A” in The Habit of Being) draws from O’Connor her most meaningful discussions of philosophy and theology. Her letters to Maryat Lee, also in The Habit of Being, prompt exchanges about race in the South, exchanges in equal parts ironic, playful, and serious. O’Connor’s correspondence with Caroline Gordon are concerned with Gordon’s role of occasional literary mentor to O’Connor.

A Prayer Journal is as remarkable as Dear Regina is forgettable, because the diary presents an expression of O’Connor’s spirituality that appears nowhere else.

Unsurprisingly, O’Connor’s correspondence with her mother deals with overcoats, “kin,” and the complications, in the late 1940s, of scheduling holiday trips back home to Georgia. Anyone looking for material to rival The Habit of Being or Good Things Out of Nazareth will be disappointed. The editor of Dear Regina, Monica Carol Miller, seems to know that the product of her labors is of questionable value. She strains to suggest that her compilation will be valuable for scholars in such fields as “food studies” given Flannery’s frequent requests for her mother’s mayonnaise and cookies and the daughter’s proud reports of boiling eggs. Miller later suggests that O’Connor’s insistent but charitable request that her mother begin to call her by her middle name, “Flannery,” rather than her first name “Mary,” is indicative of the “complicated” relationship between mother and daughter that “deserves more attention by scholars.”

Or not. Try as they might, no one has ever written convincingly that O’Connor’s relationship with her mother was “complicated.” It was occasionally quirky perhaps, but not complicated. It is true, after falling ill with lupus when O’Connor had to return home, she worried that her mother would “smother” her and that her writing would suffer—but 9 out of 10 young adults would fear the same. As O’Connor once said about those who tried to over-interpret her fiction, “I think sometimes you folks strain the soup too thin …”

Though anodyne, these letters are modestly useful, even if any significant content was already known through other sources. As might be expected, O’Connor’s understated wit is evident in grad school. She reports that she agreed to volunteer for a fellow student’s intelligence test, a class assignment. At the conclusion, Flannery recalls, “She wouldn’t tell me the result but she looked worried.” Those who think that Regina was the model for the self-righteous mothers who populate O’Connor’s fiction will find no support for that hypothesis in this correspondence. The fact alone that O’Connor wrote her mother every day, and expected the same from Regina, suggests a bond of friendship, support, and affection, even if neither mother nor daughter tended toward sentimentality.

O’Connor first pursued a graduate degree in journalism upon arrival at the University of Iowa. Among other things, she hoped to develop her modest cartoon drawing skills which she employed in her college newspaper while an undergraduate at Georgia State College For Women, in Milledgeville. It was not long, however, before she switched to the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, directed by Paul Engle, from which she later graduated in 1947 with an MFA. During this period, O’Connor met, and received encouragement from, such luminaries as Andrew Lytle, Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren—as well as from Engle himself. Her graduate thesis consisted of six short stories that were included in the Library of America volume O’Connor: “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Turkey,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” and “The Train.” It was also during this time that O’Connor began work on her first novel Wise Blood. O’Connor was asked several times to read her stories aloud in class, but each time someone else had to take over because no one could understand her southern accent.

If O’Connor’s various correspondents brought out different aspects of her character and interests, it is no surprise that her interlocuter in A Prayer Journal—God—displays a dimension of O’Connor heretofore unseen. A Prayer Journal is as remarkable as Dear Regina is forgettable because the diary presents an expression of O’Connor’s spirituality that appears nowhere else. The entries in the diary depict a young woman who is pursuing more than a career; she has a “calling” and she seeks divine support in fulfilling that mission. Her spirituality in these entries is effusive and depicts her emerging understanding of the phenomenon of grace which is such a prominent theme in her mature writing. The six aforementioned short stories that comprised her master’s thesis had not yet fully incorporated the vision that characterizes almost all of her other stories: it is the violent intrusion of grace in the lives of her reluctant protagonists that brings painful self-knowledge, hence the need for “violence” to break their resistance to that grace.

Dear Regina spans the years 1945 to 1947 and A Prayer Journal covers the last of these two years, 1946-1947. It was during this latter period that O’Connor had begun work on her novel Wise Blood and was beginning to receive formal recognition for her writing, including the initial award Rinehart Publishing provided for that work—even if they declined to publish it upon completion, a task eventually taken up by Harcourt, Brace, and Company.  

Just as her fiction is exploring the need and longing for grace, so is Kafka. She makes this quite personal and hopes that her Catholicism will facilitate her personal search for grace.

In The Prayer Journal, though, O’Connor is praying for more than literary success: she is praying for holiness and to experience God’s grace herself. She petitions, “I would like to be intelligently holy.” In another entry, she writes, “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love. Take me, dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go.” There is a fervor, an urgency to her entries. She writes, “Oh Lord make me a mystic, immediately.” Evident in the journal, O’Connor’s intense desire to follow her vocation is tempered by doubt. She expresses ardent admiration for French writer George Bernanos but wistfully asks, “Will I ever know anything?” Frustrated by her self-described spiritual mediocrity, she asks, “Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?” 

One of the most intriguing connections she makes is that between her work and that of Franz Kafka. She offers a unique insight into Kafka that others have recognized, namely a search for grace, though she does so more explicitly than most. From her earliest publications, O’Connor’s work was compared to that of Kafka; these comparisons, however, have largely to do with style, and with the use of the grotesque. O’Connor implies a stronger spiritual affinity. To be sure, critics have characterized most of Kafka’s works as expressions of spiritual longing, for example, his novel The Castle, or his short story, “The Hunter Gracchus.” 

O’Connor narrows this shared concern down: just as her fiction is exploring the need and longing for grace, so is Kafka. She makes this quite personal and hopes that her Catholicism will facilitate her personal search for grace. She writes, “I have been reading Mr. Kafka and I feel his problem of getting grace. But I see it doesn’t have to be that way for the Catholic who can go to Communion every day.” In another entry, she prays, 

Dear God, I don’t want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness. I don’t want to have created God to my own image as they’re so fond of saying. Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.

The O’Connor in A Prayer Journal was unknown prior to its publication. In The Habit of Being her deep Catholic devotion is evident, but it is not the surprisingly effusive faith of her prayer journal. Her religious character in Dear Regina is expressed by her frequent references to Mass, including her support for her roommate Louise whose faith was far more tepid than O’Connor’s, and for whom O’Connor often scheduled her own mass attendance according to Louise’s whims.

These concurrent writings, Dear Regina and A Prayer Journal stretch from the mundane to the sublime, both within the same personality. It should be no wonder that Flannery O’Connor’s writing is so meaningful for so many. In Dear Regina she is, to quote Nietzsche, “human, all too human.” In A Prayer Journal, she is striving to transcend that humanity and mature spiritually as she fulfills that which she perceives is her life’s purpose.