Review: The Terrible Speed of Mercy

In his introduction to his biography The Terrible Speed of Mercy, Jonathan Rogers wrote, “The outward constraints that [Flannery] O’Connor accepted and ultimately cultivated made room for an interior world as spacious and various as the heavens themselves.” It’s not surprising, then, that his biography of Flannery O’Connor is a spiritual biography.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a short book, only 162 pages when you exclude the notes; Flannery O’Connor had a short life, only 39 years. It was never exactly dramatic. O’Connor led, as Rogers said, a “pious” life, in straight grooves of routine. She never married, had no children, never sinned or succeeded in spectacular fashion.

Rogers deals with the events of O’Connor’s life, but his main focus is on her “interior world”, explored through her writing – her stories and, more often, her letters. To the author’s credit he searches beneath the shallow surface to the quiet struggles of O’Connor’s life and the meaning of her work.

The one fault of this biography is that Jonathan Rogers lets his bias toward Flannery O’Connor show too obviously. He just tried too hard. At one point he recounted how, as a child, O’Connor would try to “sock” her guardian angel, and then wrote, “Jacob, too, fought with an angel.” Which is like following up the story of how Don Quixote fought windmills with a reminder that David, too, fought giants.

The worst example of bias comes in the introduction, where Rogers generally suggests that disapproving of O’Connor’s writing is a spiritual failing. In the crowning paragraph, he writes:

The violence, the sudden death, the ugliness in O’Connor’s fiction are large figures drawn for the almost-blind. 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. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

The train of thought here, if I’m following it correctly, is that O’Connor’s literature is offensive in the same way that Jesus’ ministry among the “sinners” was offensive. But writing about fictional losers is nothing like putting out “the glad hand” to real ones.

Rogers, apparently, starts from the position that “conventional morality” – he might have told us whose – is Pharisaical. Even granting this extraordinary assumption, Rogers’ contention that O’Connor’s works only offend conventional morality because of the gospel strains credulity. It could never have been the gore? If only O’Connor had expunged the last rays of grace, all offense would have gone with it?

The problem is not that Jonathan Rogers defended Flannery O’Connor from her critics, but that he failed to do justice to them. If he could have addressed their arguments seriously – instead of hinting that they were Pharisees – the book would have been stronger.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a sympathetic biography, informative, well-written, and engaging. It is not what they call “definitive”, but it does help its readers greatly in understanding the spiritual underpinnings of Flannery O’Connor’s work and life. As a biography, what it brings out is not so much that O’Connor had an interesting life, but that she was an interesting person. And this ability – the ability to see, to consider, and to bring to written life – a public figure as a person is priceless in a biographer.