Book Review / Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do The Heathen Rage?

Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do The Heathen Rage?: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress by Jessica Hooten Wilson

Cover of "Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do The Heathen Rage?: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress."

The Dream of Discovery

People dream of finding that unpublished work hidden among the papers of a deceased author. Readers knew Flannery O’Connor had one such work, but was it complete enough to publish on its own?

By getting access to, and getting access to Flannery O’Connor’s papers, Jessica Hooten Wilson hoped to find out. After ten years of exploring 378 pages of typed and handwritten material, we have in this slim volume, what she found.

Rather than a narrative, Hooten Wilson discovered, isolated episodes and character development written and rewritten, with clear intended direction.

So, instead of being able to publish Flannery O’Connor’s unpublished novel with some piecing together as the project first intended, Hooten Wilson offers an insightful examination of the pieces and the questions surrounding them and their context. And there have been questions lately about the perspective of Flannery O’Connor.

Was Flannery O’Connor racist?

Paul Elie, writing for The New Yorker, does not even ask this question. Rather he asked, “how racist was she?”

Her works deal with race. They include racist slurs by racist characters. Her letters reveal her own discomfort on the “race question.”

So rather than fall into the trap of prematurely canonizing those Catholic authors and artist we admire, Hooten Wilson takes the question head on, because as it turns out, Why Do the Heathen Rage? would also set out to do the same thing.

Hooten Wilson tackles these questions, piece by piece, by presenting the writing of the historical context, then the writing of O’Connor and then a discussion on the questions contained therein. Hooten Wilson shows us how the elements of Why Do the Heathen Rage? are drawn from previous stories and themes.

It is only at the final section that Hooten Wilson, makes the creative act of developing the character’s conversion scene.

Grace in action

This was the work in which O’Connor struggled to present not only the initial act of grace in a broken character’s life, but to explore the conversion from the that moment, to its conclusion, to show grace at work. And how she struggled, and struggled unsuccessfully as her final moments ticked away before she died of Lupus in 1964.

But the attempt was bold. Taking the intellectual young adult of many of her stories and positioning him of connecting by letters to strangers, pretending to be a black man writing a white female activist, and then meeting her. There is something in this activist that brings about the conversion in Walter.

What happens next?

We cannot know. Hooten Wilson explores why that is.

O’Connor’s class position in Georgia, her family history and her health condition, which isolated her to her farm and Andalusia. That she would have very little, very few encounters with people of other races beyond those who were hired to work on their dairy. And so it’s from this perspective that she writes about race, she acknowledges in her own writing that she could not get within the black man’s mind and doesn’t try to.

Hooten Wilson sees this limitation as a loss and asks if this was the journey O’Connor would have continued on had she lived beyond the age of 39.

Why Do the Heathen Rage? needed more than literary skill and an understanding of grace. It needed empathy for the other, and this was something, by her limited position, O’Connor did not have.

O’Connor isn’t one who’s likely to be canonized. She was an American woman of her time, trying to work out her salvation. Through her fiction she strove to work out these problems and like so many of us, falls short.

Excavating with Love and Respect

And as critical as this exploration is, Hooten Wilson does it with love. Her familiarity with O’Connor and her works come across on every page. Deftly she summarizes stories and character arcs and their connection to O’Connor’s personal life. Like her advice in Hooten Wilson’s book Reading for the Love of God, Hooten Wilson approaches her source material and her source with humility, respect and genuine curiosity. For questions that need to be asked, fans of Flannery O’Connor could not ask for a better approach.

Hooten Wilson is willing to look at Flannery as a whole person, beyond the labels or taglines, acknowledging from the beginning, that the characters of Flannery’s work seem so much more real to her than Flannery herself.

“Flannery O’Connor was a genius, but in process,” says Hooten Wilson. “I hope we learn from her incomplete work how to see and engage our time with humility and perseverance.”

For any fan of Flannery O’Connor or anyone who questions her place in the Catholic American literary canon, Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do The Heathen Rage?: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress is essential reading.

Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do The Heathen Rage?: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress by Jessica Hooten Wilson will be available by Brazos Press in January 2024.