FLANNERY O’CONNOR ONCE REMARKED that “a work of art exists without its author from the moment the words are on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who wrote it or why.” And yet anyone who delves deeply into O’Connor’s fiction becomes immediately fascinated with her life story and wants to know more of her. Happily, we have her occasional essays and letters to friends and colleagues to give us a knowledge of—and feeling for—the issues that came to shape O’Connor as a person of faith just as much as a person of remarkable talent. In her posthumously published critical essays, Mystery and Manners (1969), one can appreciate O’Connor’s southern roots and her Catholic faith as she discusses the craft of fiction. The connection between her religious life and creative life is made even clearer in The Habit of Being (1979), a collection of letters filled with insight and humor that show a theological intelligence in understanding herself as both an artist and friend. Fans and critics were offered another window into O’Connor’s world with the publication of a journal, written intermittently between January 1946 and September 1947 while she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Published as A Prayer Journal (2013), it illustrates the intellectual breadth of her studies, but, more profoundly, the intimate spiritual colloquies with God as she struggles with her vocation as a writer.
Four years ago my colleague Elizabeth Coffman and I embarked on a feature-length documentary about O’Connor’s life and work, and so we found ourselves at Emory University, where O’Connor’s archive had recently found a home. We already had over thirty hours of recorded interviews with O’Connor’s friends and family, and had ourselves filmed authors, critics, performers, and directors talking about the importance of O’Connor’s work in American arts and letters. It was time to see—and to touch—the physical objects of her life and photograph them for use in our documentary. We found in a box a Sterling notebook, standard issue for students in those days, inscribed “Higher Mathematics I.” On perusing it we discovered an earlier attempt at a journal when O’Connor was just eighteen years old and already in her junior year at Georgia State College for Women. She wrote her first dated entry during her Christmas Break, on December 29, 1943, and her last is marked February 6, 1944—in all, a mere thirty pages. Reading it, you see O’Connor trying out the journal form as a way to examine her thoughts. The forty days that the notebook covers give us a peek into O’Connor’s time in Milledgeville.
Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (2009), offers some historical context for her college years. He notes that the young Mary Flannery’s father, Edward O’Connor, died from lupus erythematosus when she was fifteen and living in Milledgeville. Regina Cline O’Connor, Flannery’s mother, moved her daughter to live with her relatives in the Cline family home, just blocks away from the Georgia State College for Women. After O’Connor graduated from the Peabody High School in 1942 at the age of seventeen, she immediately enrolled in a special wartime three-year college program at GSCW that required her to attend ten-week summer sessions. She did not love the classroom. In a letter to Janet McKane in 1963, O’Connor notes, “I enjoyed college and despised the progressive high school, but only remember people and things from both.” Indeed, it was a somewhat seamless transition from high school, for nearly all the young women who had graduated with her simply moved over to GSCW and continued to live at home. As part of the war effort, four hundred military servicewomen came to campus while she was there, as the women’s college was one of only four colleges with on-site training. O’Connor satirized the presence of the WAVES, as they were called (the women’s division of the volunteer Naval Reserves), in the many cartoons she produced for the school newspaper and yearbook. The war effort also brought soldiers to Milledgeville, and the Cline family would often invite a number of the Roman Catholic soldiers back home for Sunday dinners after Mass. There O’Connor met a handsome Marine sergeant named John Sullivan, and the two immediately developed what Sullivan called a “close comradeship,” if not a romance. But as he later noted in an interview with Sally Fitzgerald, they often played at romance to tease Regina and the many Cline women of the house. O’Connor stayed in touch with Sullivan throughout the war years and, after the war, into his first years of Catholic seminary in Cincinnati.
By all accounts O’Connor was a precocious student, drawn to the liberal arts and bored with the social sciences. She joined the Newman Club in her first year; named after Cardinal John Henry Newman, it brought together the few Catholics at the college. They met in the Sacred Heart Church rectory. Soon after, she also joined the newspaper and yearbook clubs. She liked and trusted her classical languages professor, Dr. Paul Boeson, perhaps because he was one of the only Roman Catholics and a Latin scholar. The books she bought for his class—Plato, Aristotle, and Montaigne—were still part of her library when she died. In Gooch’s many interviews with O’Connor’s college classmates, they note that her friendships were not so much with other students as with a small circle of teachers closer in age to her aunts. These professors encouraged her talent and would spend much time with her. In this early attempt at a journal, O’Connor writes about reading a Walt Whitman biography, probably at the suggestion of her professor Mary Thomas Maxwell, whose exams were reported to have been creative essays, such as imagining a dinner party with Whitman and Mark Twain sitting next to each other, conversing in learned and revealing ways. That O’Connor was figuring out just what this journal was for her at this time in her life is evident in the first two entries: the first is a humorous warning to others to mind their own business, while the next is a crafted, artful examination of conscience and a plea to God. This early experiment of keeping a journal lasted less than two months. Yet in this short space, we get to see O’Connor’s humor, her critique of the Whitman biography, her delight at getting more sophisticated-looking glasses, her visits to the cinema, and her interest in Sergeant John Sullivan—both as a way to get a rise of out her family and perhaps for other reasons. Her observations about love and its possible “disastrous” distraction from her commitment to her own creative work are telling, even at this young age. As she wrote in an entry of January 11, 1944, “If I loved anyone as much or more than myself and he were to leave, I would be too unhappy to want myself to advance; as it is, I look forward to many profitable hours. I have so much to do that it scares me.”
It was a shock to me, too, that she writes at the age of eighteen about her arthritis, probably the first sign of her lupus, but only diagnosed as such when she was twenty-five years old, after a harrowing train ride from Connecticut back home to Georgia for Christmas in 1950. In this little notebook of thirty-odd pages called “Higher Mathematics,” we get a brief glimpse of a young Mary Flannery O’Connor as a dedicated young artist, committed to her work and God above all else.
The terms of our agreement with the O’Connor trust don’t allow us to put the journal online. Get it in hard copy here.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.