Jonathan Rogers. The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 208 pp. $15.99.
Jonathan Rogers’s biography of Flannery O’Connor is one of two recent such efforts with “spiritual” in the subtitle, the other being The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey by Lorraine Murray. The near simultaneous appearance of these books reflects the considerable following that O’Connor still enjoys among Christian readers. It also shows that in the eyes of many such readers, Brad Gooch’s widely reviewed 2010 biography failed to do justice to the religious dimension of O’Connor’s life. For O’Connor, religion wasn’t just one element in a well-rounded life; the church was the anchor of her very being. Rogers understands this, and it’s one of the great virtues of his book.
The history of O’Connor biographies is a topic worthy of its own article. For years, the O’Connor world awaited the book that close friend Sally Fitzgerald promised. Fitzgerald, the only person with full access to O’Connor’s manuscripts and correspondence, died in 2000 without having written the expected definitive biography. Into this void have stepped several authors despite being denied access to O’Connor’s papers, the most ambitious of whom has been Gooch. Rogers doesn’t attempt to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the facts of O’Connor’s life with original research. Drawing on the work of others, he takes published material—primarily Sally Fitzgerald’s magnificent selection of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being—and renders a believable and winsome portrait.
Soul of Steel
Rogers correctly locates the essence of O’Connor in her sense of vocation, which in one of her letters she calls “the accurate naming of the things of God.” The Christian writer feels the obligation shared by all artists to tell the truth, but more particularly, to bear witness to the often missed operation of God’s grace. It takes a soul of steel to acknowledge the banality of life while affirming the ray of transcendence that shoots through it. And this is exactly the sort of unflinching realism to which O’Connor devoted herself. Rogers captures this attitude through his comments on the death of the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:
[T]he story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he or she claims to believe already. O’Connor invites us to step into such mysteries, but she never resolves them. She never reduces them to the manageable. (xvi)
Rogers treats O’Connor’s life as representative of such mystery—the unfathomable depth of God’s grace—and the result is a book that does justice to the spirit of the woman and her work.
Rogers is especially adroit in placing acute critical comments on O’Connor’s stories in the context of her life. For example, in a brief discussion of “The Artificial Nigger,” Rogers insists, correctly, that O’Connor believed the story to be a testimony to “the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all” (89). However, he also notes that in the story the two bigoted white characters never overcome their bigotry. Thus, Rogers admires O’Connor, but he is far from slavish in his admiration. And for the sort of book he is writing, his touch is just right. He discusses representative stories, but he does so briefly, and without enmeshing his reader in the extensive O’Connor criticism. Almost always, I found myself nodding in agreement with his judgments.
Despite the lack of original biographical research, Rogers also offers genuine insights into significant parts of O’Connor’s life. For example, many critics have noted the tension between Flannery and her loving but unintellectual mother, Regina. But Rogers further observes that many of Flannery’s humorous anecdotes of rural Southern life come originally from her mother, who must have had a good ear for them herself. What the book lacks in firsthand interviews and new archival discoveries it makes up for in its shrewd piecing together of what we already know.
The weaknesses of the book have to do with omissions. We hear relatively little about O’Connor’s crucial formative years in Iowa, which gave her her first taste of independence and provided a launching pad for her career as a professional writer. More generally, O’Connor’s extended family, with its deep roots in Georgia and network of cousins that reached to Boston, was more important to her sense of identity than Rogers indicates. Likewise, Rogers underplays the Catholic connections and influences that shaped O’Connor. We learn nothing of her interest in the Trappist monastery at Conyers and only a little of the priests and nuns who were important to her. She wrote reviews for the diocesan paper as much out of an effort to raise the level of intellectual life amongst her co-religionists as to get free books, which was her standard line.
At the theological level, Rogers does not do justice to O’Connor’s sacramentalism. The word mystery itself, important to Rogers and O’Connor, always has overtones of the Eucharist for O’Connor. One can go too far in making O’Connor Catholic—to call her an “abbess” as Murray’s title does is hugely misleading—but Rogers doesn’t go far enough. Of much less importance, but irritating nonetheless, are the occasional typos that plague the book. The most humorous one names Flannery’s mother “Regional.” O’Connor herself was a poor speller, but at least her spellings were phonetic.
None of these reservations will prevent me from recommending this little volume to friends and students. One closes this book with a strong sense of what drove O’Connor to write the kind of fiction she produced, and of the faith that sustained her in her vocation. For general readers who want a short, highly readable, and engaging introduction to O’Connor’s life and work, this is the best book I know.
John Sykes is the Mary and Harry Brown professor of English and religion at Wingate University in Wingate, North Caroline. He serves on the Scholars Council of the Flannery O’Connor—Andalusia Foundation. His most recent book is Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation.