Flannery O’Connor was an inveterate rewriter, working, reworking, and deleting episodes from her stories and novels. Her archives, collected at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, bulge with deleted scenes and alternate versions of characters scarcely recognizable as the people who inhabit the published versions of her stories.

O’Connor spent five years crafting Wise Blood, her first novel. It took her seven years to complete a draft of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away—and it was only 45,000 words long! (In her defense, she was simultaneously producing some of the best short stories ever written.)

When O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39, she left behind scraps and pieces of a third novel called Why Do the Heathen Rage?—a dozen or so episodes repetitively, even obsessively rewritten. In the early 1980s, the scholar Marian Burns described these literary oddments as “an untidy jumble of ideas and abortive starts, full scenes written and rewritten many times, several extraneous images, and one fully developed character.”

In the intervening decades, Why Do the Heathen Rage? has been mostly ignored. But in the last few years, author and Pepperdine University professor Jessica Hooten Wilson has dived into that untidy jumble, hoping to make sense of it for the rest of us. The result is Flannery O’Connor’s “Why Do the Heathen Rage?”: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress, a book that alternates between Wilson’s explanatory essays and scenes from the novel that might have been.

Editorial choices

The manuscripts from O’Connor’s archives totaled 378 typed pages dispersed over 20 file folders, in no particular order. O’Connor left no indication as to which iteration of a scene or character or sentence she considered closest to a “final” version. Nor did she leave any indication as to how the episodes should be sequenced. More to the point, it seems unlikely that O’Connor herself had a good idea what any final version might look like. She very much seems to have been feeling her way through.

Describing her own editorial process, Wilson writes, “My version of these pages comes from intersplicing sentences and paragraphs from the left-behind pages, making editorial choices about which words O’Connor meant to cut or keep, and presuming to show the best of what was left unfinished.” The fact that Wilson boils O’Connor’s 378 manuscript pages down to 60-something pages gives a sense of just how many editorial choices she had to make.

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O’Connor indicated in her letters that she conceived Why Do the Heathen Rage? as a sequel or continuation of her short story “The Enduring Chill.” In her novel-in-progress, the protagonist is a version of Asbury from “The Enduring Chill,” though he is now named Walter (except in those fragments where he is named Julian, or Charles, or Asbury).

Walter exchanges letters with a civil rights activist from New York named either Sarah or Oona (again, depending on the fragment), who is either his cousin, his aunt, or a stranger. In his letters, Walter engages in what Wilson calls “epistolary blackface,” posing as a Black man who works for Walter’s family. Things move toward a crisis when Walter realizes that Sarah/Oona is speeding toward him in her convertible and will soon discover that he is not one of the “poor black people of the South,” as she supposes, but an overprivileged, overeducated, overfed slob.

Things move toward a crisis, but they never reach a crisis. There are experimental scenes, false starts, and contradictory character sketches in which O’Connor is clearly trying to get a feel for the story she’s telling and the characters who inhabit it. But the moment before Sarah/Oona’s racial naiveté collides with Walter’s racial cynicism feels like the place where the main trunk of the story is lopped off. From this point, O’Connor is unable to find any way forward. Here is the fundamental narrative problem, and O’Connor died before she solved it.

Any number of factors help explain why O’Connor never finished (indeed, barely started) Why Do the Heathen Rage? A slow writer in any case, she was slowed further by the illness that killed her a few years into the project. She was writing about social and political issues (civil rights, poverty, even euthanasia) much more directly than usual. Furthermore, she was writing for the first time about a protagonist who receives grace early in the story rather than at the end.

After all those spectacular and terrifying conversions in her previous stories, O’Connor was now trying to write about a protagonist who would have to undergo the long, slow business of sanctification. Wilson quotes from a letter O’Connor wrote amid her work on Why Do the Heathen Rage?: “I’ve reached a point where I can’t do again what I know I can do well, and the larger things that I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing.”

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Wilson makes a convincing case, however, about the greatest difficulty O’Connor might have been confronting. She had written herself into a situation of needing to deal with race and civil rights in a more honest and thoughtful way than she ever had before. She knew that her customary glib and contradictory treatment of race was insufficient for her subject matter, yet she didn’t know how to be less glib or more consistent.

On matters of race, O’Connor was only slowly learning to live (and write) up to her own ideals; she was still growing into her better, more sanctified self. A deeply theological writer, O’Connor nevertheless tended to treat the civil rights movement as a social, political, and cultural matter rather than a theological matter. Wilson writes, “She is trying to write about race as one element of a story about the theological problems that face secular contemplatives and secular social activists. By not reading the issue of race with theological significance—which must include the Black perspective that so often eluded her—O’Connor seems to have been unable to finish the story she longed to tell.”

Acts of imagination

If Black perspectives are absent or elusive in O’Connor’s prose, New Orleans artist Steve Prince offers a corrective in nine haunting and thought-provoking linocut illustrations, and in an afterword commenting on his images.

For her own part, Wilson’s insights into O’Connor’s inner life and cultural milieu are almost as valuable as the work she has done in organizing and editing O’Connor’s manuscript fragments. “This book tells the story of the unfinished manuscript,” writes Wilson. “I consider Flannery as she drafted the novel and what would have influenced her creation of the story: what was she reading, what news stories were making headlines, who was giving speeches on her new television?”

Less valuable is Wilson’s attempt to compose a “potential ending” to Why Do the Heathen Rage? She admits that it is presumptuous to write a final scene for a novel by Flannery O’Connor. Nevertheless, she argues, “all acts of imagination are presumptuous.” That may be, but some acts of imagination are more presumptuous than others.

I must register one other complaint, this one about the cover. A badge on the book jacket proclaims that this is “the unfinished novel in print for the first time.” That is a misleading claim. Calling these fragments an unfinished novel is like calling a pile of Leonardo da Vinci’s pencil studies an unfinished Leonardo painting. I don’t imagine this badge was Wilson’s idea. Its promise of an unfinished novel is neither fair to O’Connor nor true to Wilson’s accomplishment.

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O’Connor’s prose accounts for about a third of Flannery O’Connor’s “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” It is prose that O’Connor considered unready for public consumption. I can’t help but look, but I still have misgivings. I had similar misgivings in 2013 when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a book of private prayer journals O’Connor had written at age 20. (I looked that time too.)

In the prayer journals, as in those first ten stories of her celebrated short story collection (also written during her student days), we see a very young Flannery O’Connor struggling to figure out how to be Flannery O’Connor. In these fragments of Why Do the Heathen Rage? we have a reminder that even when Flannery O’Connor was as mature as she would ever be, she was still struggling to figure out how to be Flannery O’Connor. She struggled every time she sat down to the typewriter. Writers everywhere, take courage.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor. He is the host of The Habit Podcast and the author of The Habit Weekly on Substack.

Flannery O'Connor's Why Do the Heathen Rage?: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Flannery O'Connor's Why Do the Heathen Rage?: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress
Brazos Press
Release Date
January 23, 2024
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