"Breathing In Nihilism": O’Connor's Critique
In the midst of the affluent, successful, but fearful culture of the 1950s, Life magazine saw fit to ask why American novelists had failed to produce fiction that celebrated America. Why, Life’s editors asked, despite the virtues of the age, was there no “representative American literature” (“Wanted” 48). The simple truth was that for critics of the culture, America’s presumed “accomplishments” covered over deeper social ills.

From the perspective of O’Connor’s religiously based critique, these ills were symptoms of a globally pervasive evil:

Another reason for the negative appearance: if you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now. With such a current to write against, the result almost has to be negative. It does well just to be. (HB 97)
Her critique of modernity and its specific expression in American culture centers on this perception of “nihilism”. At its most general application, the term expresses the modern rejection of metaphysical and traditional religious understanding of the nature of reality. This general evil breaks out in specific and local evils; that is, the world is broken by evil and produces evil results.

In O’Connor’s specific historical perspective of post-war America, the purveyors and inhabitants of a society devoted to material consumption and paranoid Cold War aggression, convinced of their own virtue, become the perverted instruments of a narcissistic culture, embodied as intellectual complacency and amorality ending in violence.