The Terrible Speed of Mercy

Daniel Train
Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012. xviii+186, $15.99.

Given Flannery O'Connor's hallowed standing in American Literature and the undeniable influence she continues to have on artists and theologians of all stripes, most readers are shocked to find out that an authorized O'Connor biography has yet to be published. Out of the handful of unauthorized biographies that have been written since her death in 1964 at the age of 39, however, Jonathan Rogers' The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor will likely be one that continues to draw interest even after the official biography is published in the next few years. 

To be sure, Rogers' work makes no pretense of offering anything new or original--nothing that couldn't be derived from reading O'Connor's collected letters in The Habit of Being or from other secondary sources. But it is precisely for this reason that I think both casual fans and educators will continue to find Rogers' short work valuable: having no need to discover (or uncover) the "true" O'Connor despite the strictures imposed by the O'Connor estate, Rogers is freed to simply offer a very readable, introductory synthesis of what is reliably known about this remarkable artist's life. 

Indeed, it is primarily Roger's ability to synthesize a great deal of material while demonstrating remarkable sensitivity to the various issues that O'Connor's life and stories have raised which makes it so valuable for classroom use and for fans (new and old) of O'Connor's fiction. And, if the main consequence of his work is that readers will be inspired to return to O'Connor's writings themselves to explore further questions which Roger's biography often only raises but does not explore in depth, I am sure few would protest. In fact, given its brevity and clarity, it is possible that The Terrible Speed of Mercy might prove the more useful in a classroom setting even when the scholarly biography is completed--at very least, there is much greater chance that a relative newcomer to O'Connor's life and work will read the work cover to cover.

The biography proceeds straightforwardly. After a couple of introductory chapters discussing O'Connor's childhood and college years, the remaining chapters offer a healthy interpolation between Roger's account, references to the most well-known stories O'Connor was working on at the time, and significant quotations from her letters and essays. Roger's generous selection of quotations draw out both O'Connor's incredible literary wit and willingness to make fun of herself as well as the seriousness with which she approached her life's work and the Catholic faith which informed every dimension of her life. As the chapters develop, Rogers returns again and again to the paradox suggested by his use of a quotation from O'Connor's second novel in his title: "The Terrible Speed of Mercy." Indeed, his reading of both O'Connor's stories and her life effectively becomes an extended exploration of the mystery suggested by a "terrible mercy," and this is primarily what I think is meant by a "Spiritual biography." 

Given this subtitle, however, some readers may be disappointed to discover that Roger's work is not sufficiently hagiographical and that much of the material is either not explicitly related to religious concerns or would presumably be included in a biography anyway. Some will no doubt be left asking, what exactly makes this a spiritual biography? Certainly, the subtitle markets itself to a particular audience and is a way perhaps to distinguish its appeal among the other biographies, but Roger's treatment of O'Connor's religious beliefs is never heavy-handed and is even, at times, understated. As a biography, then, it can still speak to a much larger audience which may not already share in O'Connor's (or Roger's) religious beliefs. What the subtitle does allow him to do, however, is simply assume that O'Connor's material and the historical facts of her life--perhaps especially her suffering from lupus--are intrinsically related to and illuminated by spiritual concerns. Fortunately, Rogers does not use the biography as an occasion for making a saint out of O'Connor nor as an opportunity to proselytize. 

On this point, I suspect not all reviewers would agree with me, perhaps especially in regards to the way Rogers deals with O'Connor and the question of racism. In a telling line, Rogers summarizes, "The troubling thing about O'Connor, perhaps, is not the fact that she had two minds about racial issues, but that she seemed to enter so easily and comfortably into the mind of the bigot" (p.118). Earlier, Rogers acknowledges that, "O'Connor's views on race are complex and sometimes self-contradictory," (p.116) but the ease with which he then characterizes her racist comments in her correspondence with Maryat Lee as a kind of self-caricature or ventriloquism, will no doubt do little to dissuade his readers who are already suspicious that Rogers has merely been a willing ghost-writer to O'Connor's autobiography. Even so, given the parameters of what he sets out to accomplish in this biography, Roger's has at least signaled the major points of contention for O'Connor's readers and has provided a very useful, readable lay of the land.

My only hesitation in recommending Roger's work, especially for use in an academic setting, is due to the fairly obvious and all-too frequent typographical errors. In some cases, these prove rather humorous as in the case when Flannery's mother is referred to as "Regional" rather than Regina. These kind of errors tend to become more frequent (and more glaring) as the work nears the end, suggesting unfortunately that the publishing of this text was too hurried and not sufficiently attended to. 

Nevertheless, both my students and I have been grateful for a work which captures so much in such a short space--though, of course, no one ever really "captures" someone like O'Connor. But Rogers never pretends do so, and in so doing has offered a work that will no doubt prove fruitful for anyone who has already been (or is soon to be) captured by this remarkable artist's life's work. 

Daniel Train is a Postdoctoral Associate for the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. He has a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University and is currently completing a book on Flannery O'Connor's theological aesthetics.