From the new issue of Touchstone.

A Fierce Holiness

The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor
by Jonathan Rogers

reviewed by Ralph C. Wood

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton famously described the United States as “a nation with the soul of a church.” Unlike virtually all European countries of his time, America had no established state church. Yet it was still founded on a creed—namely, on a set of stated Enlightenment principles that overtly acknowledged God while refusing to enforce religious tests. Though Chesterton was far from convinced that Americans had created a sure remedy against tyranny, he might have noticed what was strange about his attraction to the obstreperous and boundary-bending Walt Whitman.

It was strange because Whitman’s heterodoxy is in thorough accord with the other major nineteenth-century American authors: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Twain, Melville, Dickinson. Like Faulkner and Frost and Stevens in the twentieth century, they all had deeply religious concerns, but none of them was animated by a confessionally Christian vision. On the contrary, they found themselves ill at ease with a Christianity that closely tracked the nation’s political life, such that being American and being Christian were virtually synonymous. The worship and witness of the churches offered them a challenge insufficiently distinctive for their embrace as imaginative writers.

Not until the middle years of the twentieth century did such a writer appear on the American scene, a woman who came from the margins rather than the center of the nation’s churchly “soul.” Flannery O’Connor was an outsider in almost every sense. She grew up in Milledgeville, a small city in middle Georgia. She was a devout Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant region. And she created a fiction marked by such physical violence and religious vehemence that many readers find it uncongenial. Yet therein lies her revolutionary importance: her fiction goes against the grain of American moral and religious life.