[Jonathan Rogers's new biography of Flannery O'Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, hits the streets today. Now available in the Rabbit Room store. Don't miss this great podcast in which Jonathan and Andrew Osenga discuss Flannery O'Connor and her life.]
I first encountered Flannery O’Connor’s fiction in a modern American literature course I took in college. Wise Blood, O’Connor’s first novel, was on the syllabus that semester, and I gave the book a week of dutiful attention. I found some of it funny and some of it trashy. The rest of it, I’m sorry to say, was simply lost on me.
The course’s professor was our university’s writer-in-residence, a gruff old poet who translated Greek myths and snarled his way through lectures. (I am not kidding. To this day, whenever I think about Wise Blood, I see his twisted lip and bared teeth.) His delivery aside, those lectures on Wise Blood were some of the first bites of solid food I tasted as a reader. Among other things, he covered several of the themes in O’Connor’s writing that other Rabbit Room articles have explored: her faith, her understanding of grace, the purpose of violence in her fiction, and her fascination with what she called “the grotesque.” His lectures helped me begin to read O’Connor’s work with open eyes. I’ve been hooked ever since. (At this point, I think I’ve read all the fiction she published, with the exception of two or three short stories.)
Jonathan Rogers has given us a similar gift (albeit with less growling) in his latest book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor. Jonathan says he wrote the biography “for all those people who have heard they’re supposed to be getting some spiritual meaning out of O’Connor’s stories but just can’t get there.” The book is an outstanding introduction to O’Connor’s life and work that combines exuberant storytelling with thoughtful literary analysis. Terrible Speed should be required reading for anyone who believes there is such a thing as serious Christian fiction.
Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by family tragedy. She was born in Georgia in 1925, an only child. Her father developed lupus when O’Connor was twelve; he died of the disease when she was sixteen. After college, she attended the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, where she began working on what would become Wise Blood. At the age of twenty-five she was diagnosed with lupus and moved back home to the dairy farm her mother owned outside Milledgeville, Georgia. She would live there, producing two novels and thirty-two short stories, until her own death from lupus at age thirty-nine. Jonathan describes the contrast between Milledgeville society and the characters O’Connor wrote about in her fiction:
“Flannery O’Connor and her mother…rose every morning for six o’clock prayers, then rode together to Sacred Heart Catholic Church for seven o’clock Mass. They sat in the same pew every day.
“After Mass, the O’Connor women returned to the farmhouse, and Flannery sat down at the typewriter in the front room that used to be the parlor. There—every morning including Sundays—she spent four hours writing stories about street preachers, prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, backwater prophets, hardscrabble farmers, sideshow freaks, murderers, charlatans, and amputees while her mother tended to the business of the house and farm.”
The book’s subtitle is “A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.” As Jonathan notes in the introduction, “The story of Flannery O’Connor’s life is the story of her inner life more than her outer life.” To record O’Connor’s “spiritual biography,” Jonathan drew from O’Connor’s prodigious output of letters to her friends and readers, as well as her interviews and talks. These pieces reveal her sense of humor, as well as the degree of integration between her “theological vision” and her writing.
The result is a biography whose pages chime with Flannery O’Connor’s unmistakable voice, as in this excerpt where she describes what Jonathan calls her efforts to communicate “the truths of the faith to a world that, to her way of thinking, had mostly lost its ability to see and hear such truths:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Many readers balk at the violence in O’Connor’s stories. The biography’s title, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, hints at the connection between O’Connor’s characters’ violent experiences and their readiness to accept God’s grace. The title comes from O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. At the novel’s climax, a reluctant young prophet named Tarwater hears the voice of God as he kneels in the dirt, consumed by a vision of “a red-gold tree of fire”: “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy.” Jonathan summarizes O’Connor’s perspective on the use of violence in her fiction:
“If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been.”
Jonathan Rogers has given us something truly special in The Terrible Speed of Mercy: a portrait of a writer who was deadly serious about her art and at the same time devoted, heart and soul, to Jesus Christ. Flannery O’Connor endured great suffering, yet meditated “every day on the province of joy, preparing herself lest she be ignorant of the concerns of her true country.”
The Terrible Speed of Mercy is now available in the Rabbit Room store.