Literary Birthday: Flannery O’Connor

When Flannery O’Connor (born in Georgia today in 1925) first met her teacher Paul Engle at the University of Iowa in 1946, because of her thick accent he had to ask her to write down what she wanted to say. She wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?” Two years later, she had an agent and a story published in Mademoiselle. Many other stories, including her classic “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” followed.

Robert Penn Warren mentored her curiously powerful and Catholicism-haunted writing. On reviewing a collection of her short work, Evelyn Waugh noted that “If these stories are in fact the work of a young lady, they are indeed remarkable.” According to O’Connor’s biographer Brad Gooch, after the publication of her first novel—the twisted Gothic fable Wise Blood (1952)—at least one scandalized local in her hometown burned a copy in the backyard.

Writers’ Corner: Flannery O’Connor

flanneryoconnor1Nobody ever accused Flannery O’Connor of being a lightweight. Books like Wise Blood got her slapped with the Southern gothic label; all those eccentrics and deeply wounded souls. But her writing exists in a curious, dark, God-haunted world all of her own.

Last week’s New Yorker featured a surprise installment: Selections from the journal that O’Connor kept while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946 and 1947 when she was in her early 20s. The excerpts included in the article reveal a work that is less personal journal than it is a series of impassioned pleas to a God who seems both loving and unimaginably punishing:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. 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…. I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell…. I believe in hell. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven…. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God.

No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me.

There’s a lot of overheated adolescent self-punishment in these entries, but also a powerful dose of love, looking for a target. In addition, O’Connor shows an acknowledgment that many non-religious writers would agree with: That she is not the author of what she writes. Many aren’t sure where that gift comes from, but they don’t completely trust that it emanates from themselves alone.