Just over a year ago my Facebook book club decided that we wanted to harness some of the fun we saw in books like 84 Charing Cross Road and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. We developed a pen pal group and started exchanging letters with book friends all over the world. As things progressed and letters got fatter, the need for nonstandard postage grew. As fate would have it, this was the same time that the Flannery O’Connor stamp was being sold by the U.S. Postal Service. I bought the beautiful stamps even though every time I looked at them, I knew that I was a coward and a fraud.
I was terrified of reading Flannery O’Connor.
Everything that I had heard about Miss O’Connor was that she was Southern Gothic and that she wrote horror stories. I can’t do horror stories. I always presumed her work to be macabre and something unholy. As a Catholic and lover of classics I always puzzled over her name being connected with great modern Catholic writers, but was too cowardly to meet her on her own terms.
Last winter I started binge-listening to CiRCE Institute podcasts. I was new to CiRCE and I was drinking deeply from their fountain of goodness. I became particularly intrigued by Dr. Brian Phillips’ podcast “The Commons.” I made sure to listen to his interview with Jonathan Rogers on Flannery O’Connor. I was intrigued, encouraged, and, unbelievably, excited.
At the same time an online friend was reading Flannery O’Connor with her in-real-life book club, so we started talking about all things O’Connor in our online book club. Heidi had just read Rogers’ biography of O’Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, and she was able to share enough quotes with me to allay my fears and excite my interest. I bought the little book and tucked it into my suitcase for reading on a long distance trip.
This is a beautifully crafted book. It was the most perfect orientation to the heart and mind of Flannery O’Connor and it gave me the confidence to meet her writing with the right openness of mind. I credit Mr. Rogers with helping me to fall in love with this remarkable author and her important fiction.
“And more than ever now it seems that the kingdom of heaven has to be taken by violence or not at all. You have to push as hard as the age that pushes you.” The Habit of Being, 229.
This beautiful biography has some spoilers in it for the new O’Connor reader – but I confess – those spoilers were a mercy to me. Knowing the fate of the grandmother in one particularly dark story prepared me and helped me to read the story with the right focus.
I think that Jonathan Rogers must really love Flannery O’Connor. He works very hard to let her tell her own self-story by citing countless letters and essays. While he gives us the outline, he fills it in with her own words and ideas and does it in a way that feels relaxed, friendly, and intelligent – like his subject herself. He shows profound respect for her theology and faith and works hard to help the reader understand how those beliefs influenced O’Connor’s attitudes and writing.
I genuinely feel like I have met and chatted with this remarkable soul, thanks to Mr. Rogers. I sobbed at her death and appreciated his beautiful treatment of it.
“It is remarkable to think about this woman – who had made a name for herself with stories of earthly terror and grotesquerie – meditating every day on the province of joy, lest she be ignorant of the concerns of her true country. All that darkness was in the service of eternal brightness. All that violence was in the service of peace and serenity.” (p 162)