A Review of
The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor
Reviewed by Mary Bowling
It would seem that a biography about as spiritual a person as Flannery O’Connor must necessarily be a spiritual one. However, to the casual reader of O’Connor’s works, the circumstances of her life and spirituality are far from expected. How the gritty, filthy, mulish characters could issue forth from the frail, high-bred and deeply Catholic O’Connor is a question that adds a deeper level of interest to stories that already tend to hit the reader sideways.
The Terrible Speed of Mercy travels chronologically from O’Connor’s childhood through her schooling and her early years of writing. Rogers chronicles her upbringing nicely and highlights particular episodes that illustrate the spark and insight that appeared early on and that from a connection between her own personality and her portrayal of people she had no way of experiencing personally. Born to a genteel family in Georgia, and having been raised very properly by an upstanding community of devout women, (her father was busy trying to make a living in her early childhood and died of lupus when she was in her teens) Flannery O’Connor began writing early and took a single-minded path to pursue writing as her vocation. She had the drive and the talent to attend a well-known writers’ workshop in Iowa and to be invited to spend time at the Yaddo artists’ colony as well. But behind the propriety was an ornery side that showed itself in an inability to play nicely with her peers in her youth and a surprising ability in later years to write what she wanted without concern for who she was offending.
She made many lifelong friends in her few years out in the world before the illness she inherited from her father sent her home to her mother’s farm in Georgia for the better part of the rest of her life. There she was especially well-served by her writing, as it was the only means she had of communicating with the world outside of rural Georgia. Rogers relates that her days were spent methodically going to mass, writing fiction in the mornings, riding to town with her mother for lunch, and then writing letters in the afternoons. Copious amounts of her correspondence have been saved and compiled into a book entitled “The Habit of Being”, and it is from this volume that Rogers has been able to glean many of the details of her daily life, as well as many witty offhand observations she made about her life and the people around her. Many of these had to do with the treatment of her illness, which she seemed to always cast in an amusing light despite the fact that it was very debilitating.
It is refreshing to read about O’Connor in such a straightforward and fluid way, and about her unpretentious lifestyle and deep faith, given that much of her own writing reflected people who had ulterior motives or who couldn’t bear their own situations and could only be reached through violence. It is instructive also to see the way in which she was able to elucidate her own views and advocate plainly for her faith in her letters in a way she felt she was not able to in her fiction. Writing for an audience that she felt was ‘de-Christianized’ or who thought God was dead, Rogers states that O’Connor had to “…find a whole new language. A writer like Dante, living in the thirteenth century, had the luxury of sharing a basic set of convictions with his readership. By contrast, O’Connor had to make up a new literary means of communication for her natively unsympathetic audience, drawing startling large figures to get the attention of the almost blind, shouting in the ear of the almost deaf.” Statements like these that come throughout the book provide a helpful juxtaposition between her personal and her professional writing.
Rogers seeks to draw a connection between O’Connor’s inward life and her published writing that will give her readers a greater understanding of her purpose and a more full appreciation of her characters and their actions. In several instances he draws comparisons between her fiction and her own home life, noting that one recurring situation in her stories involved an adult child living under the roof of an overbearing mother. Characters also appear that, like O’Connor, have severe physical limitations or find themselves confined by sickness.
Rogers’s book is easy to read and engaging. It deals seriously with the life of a very gifted and often misinterpreted writer without being heavy or preachy. What is not always immediately clear to O’Connor’s readers is that she sought to bring a message of salvation through stories of people who seem to endeavor to avoid it at all costs. Jonathan Rogers, through his own reflections on O’Connor and her life, help to bring her ideals into focus and provide a greater understanding of her work and life, and his book should prompt readings or re-readings of O’Connor’s works with her own purposes and views in mind. What O’Connor wanted was for her characters to find the redemption that she had already come to know.
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