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Jessica Hooten Wilson – Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? [Feature Review]

Jessica Hooten WilsonA Brave Deep Dive into the Unknown

A Feature Review of

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

Hardcover: Brazos Press,2024
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Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay

For devoted fans of Flannery O’Connor who have lamented her early death and her slim corpus of work—exciting news!  A new encounter with those stunning sentences and eccentric sharp-tongued characters is suddenly possible.  

Flannery O’Connor was a novelist, short story writer and essayist who wrote from 1945 until 1964. Her thirty-one stories, two novels and collection of essays won numerous prestigious prizes; esteemed literary critics and scholars describe O’Connor’s short stories as some of the finest ever written. Numerous films and documentaries have vivified her stories.  Her work is known not only for its Southern and Catholic flavours, but its shocking and enigmatic plots.  Hard-working Polish immigrants are run over by tractors, little girls are murdered by their grandfather, Bible salesmen steal prostheses.  

 For the last several years of her life, O’Connor worked hard on a third novel, one she titled Why Do the Heathen Rage? Nine months before she died, she wrote to friend and novelist, Cecil Dawkins, “I’d really like to turn “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” into a long story (a version was published as a short story in 1963) … and use it in the collection, but this all takes time” (Habit of Being, 546).   

Fifty-five years after O’Connor wrote Dawkins, English scholar, Jessica Hooten Wilson, equipped with tenacity, skills, expertise and love for O’Connor’s work, decided to dig deep. In 2009 she began her excavation at the Georgia College and State University, home of O’Connor’s papers (and her alma mater), wading through nearly two hundred files of “unorganized manuscripts and unfinished material,” nearly 378 typed and handwritten pages. Hooten Wilson read and reread O’Connor’s unfinished novel manuscript, deliberating how it might come to light for the rest of us, asking—as several scholars had asked before—was the unfinished novel salvageable?  Equally challenging, Hooten Wilson deliberated how she might create a larger story—the story of an unfinished manuscript by a highly-regarded author. 

At first I was annoyed.  In Hooten Wilson’s Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress, she gives her readers a collection of scenes out of the manuscript, while interspersing commentary and reflection on them. I wanted the full unfinished manuscript to assess for myself. Couldn’t I have it all and make my own conclusions?  

Yet the further I read in this behind-the-scenes-look, the more I was convinced that Hooten Wilson has given us something even better.  She has created a four-strand braid with excerpts from O’Connor’s unfinished novel intertwined with relevant biographical, historical information and insightful reflection.  She carries on what O’Connor herself sought to do, to nudge readers to see themselves more clearly through the characters, and through O’Connor’s own life.  As Hooten Wilson writes,

“In trying to narrate how Flannery began this work but did not live to complete it, I feel as though I am relaying a story of one woman’s failure. But, just like O’Connor’s work, the full story includes the reader. When people finish reading her most anthologized story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” they argue about whether the grandmother was saved at the conclusion.  I’m quick to remind readers that Flannery did not set out to save the grandmother: she wanted to save her readers.  Through her fiction, O’Connor vicariously points a gun at her imaginary readers and demands, “What do you believe?”” (xvii)

The large chunks of O’Connor’s unfinished novel are fascinating. We meet new characters and revisit some we’ve met before. Why Do the Heathen Rage? is the tale of Walter Tilman, a young white intellectual, living with his parents in the deep south, working at a liquor store by night, pretending to be a black man in his ongoing correspondence with a white urban social activist named Oona Gibbs. 

“Ever since he was ten, Walter had been writing to people he did not know. Before he was fourteen, he had written to the President, his congressman, authors, artists, and people in the news. Notable people everywhere had heard from Walter and knew what he thought of them. His method had been honest insult: “You stink” or worse. As he grew older his interest in prominent people ceased. The relatively obscure began to hear from him. Sometimes he assumed personalities that fit the interest of his correspondents but most of the time he wrote legitimate letters to people he considered to have integrity. He had more friends he had never seen than friends he had met. The soul moves quickly without the body. Flesh is the greatest interference to love” (64).

While we do get to read passages about Oona and learn of her passion for the social concerns of racism and economic inequity, the remnants of the novel end before Walter and Oona ever meet, before the truth of Walter’s deception and its ramifications are revealed. 

Hooten Wilson acknowledges, “… to tell the story of a white man who pretends to be Black without being able to understand the perspective of a Black person seems an ill-fated project.” While O’Connor scholars have offered wise reflection on—and objections to—her racism, Hooten Wilson both synthesizes these perspectives and offers her own.  She draws connections between O’Connor’s writing and the current events of the civil rights movement.  She quotes letters in which O’Connor reflects on racism with her correspondents. Hooten Wilson brings us along as she works her way through this conundrum.  Writing about O’Connor’s use of the “N-word,” she concludes,

“I’d recommend we attend to what O’Connor suggests about the characters who use the word. We should think not only historically, about what the use of the word communicates regarding the division between races, but more theologically, about what the use of the word shows us about how language can perpetuate hate instead of love…. In these unfinished pages, characters speak offensively, and I hope we cringe to see the N-word on the page and refuse to read it aloud. Yet rather than judge these characters haughtily— “oh, that we’ve come so far!”—we should register the short distance between us and them.”

“Reading O’Connor’s 1960s unfinished novel, we must place ourselves in her time rather than judge her by the standards of our own” (60).

Navigating the painful challenges of racism in fiction and providing the story of an incomplete manuscript are ambitious tasks.  My guess is Flannery O’Connor would have written Hooten Wilson a fantastic letter of thanks.

Julie Lane-Gay

Julie Lane-Gay is a writer and editor in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is an avid gardener and trained horticulturist who writes for garden magazines in the US and Canada. She is also the Senior Editor of CRUX, Regent College's journal of thought and opinion and a Catechist at her Anglican church. She is the author of the forthcoming, The Riches of Your Grace: Living in the Book of Common Prayer, IVP (2024).

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