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Flannery O'Connor and Her Prayers

Posted on the 16 September 2013 by Erictheblue


The current New Yorker includes a selection of prayers (behind a subscriber wall) by Flannery O'Connor, best known as the author of A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge, two story collections that she completed before dying, at age 39, on August 3, 1964.  After graduating college, she spent a year at the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa, where she kept a ruled notebook in which she addressed handwritten entries to God. 

They're sort of crazy.  Her stories have a hard kick--someone said, I think aptly, that you laugh and laugh and then finally may wonder what it is that you are laughing at.  But these prayers, or diary letters to God, aren't funny at all.   She's relieved to have the peace that comes from having banished sexual desire, but then it comes calling again, and she's full of self-reproach.  She's serious about heaven and hell.  She disparages science.  Regarding her fiction, she analogously credits God for whatever is meritorious in it: God is to her as she is to typewriter.  Perhaps you, as I, think this might all be more interesting if you knew more about abnormal psychology.  Predictably, abnormal psychology is another subject for which she has nothing but disdain.  Ha, ha!

When I was in college, I had a short story course for which we were required to buy The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.  It came in at around 1500 pages and included 109 stories by 87 authors.  O'Connor was represented by three stories.  In one, a family is going on a car trip.  The grandma is chatty, full of what barely qualifies as conventional wisdom.  She keeps up a running commentary, part of which involves current events--a notorious criminal known as the Misfit is on the loose.  Then there is car trouble.  Sure enough, the Misfit and his men come upon the scene. The whole family is murdered.  One of the Misfit's men makes a joke while sliding down a ditch with a body, and the story ends when the Misfit rebukes him:  "'Shut up, Bobby Lee,' the Misfit said.  'It's no real pleasure in life.'" In another, the main character decides to have a likeness of Christ tattooed on his back.  The tattoo artist gives him a book of Christian art to look through for possible models.  He flips past the familiar ones--"The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician's Friend."  Finally he chooses, to have tattooed on his back, "the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes."

Hers is an unusual sensibility.  She's really popular at Catholic universities but I wonder what she'd think of her most enthusiastic admirers. 



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