Religion & Liberty Online

There the Story Stops: Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

(Image credit: Associated Press)

The author of some of Southern Gothic’s greatest prose, Flannery O’Connor, was working on a third novel when death took her at age 39. A new book attempts to piece together what she left behind and thus give us a glimpse at what might have been.

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After a silence of nearly 60 years, following her untimely death from lupus, Flannery O’Connor’s hitherto-unpublished prose rises from the page like one of her own fictional epiphanies—electric, immediate, and alive. In a labor of scholarship and love, Jessica Hooten Wilson has reassembled and edited the fragments of O’Connor’s unfinished third novel, offering critical commentary that both frames these episodes and points to the work their author was struggling to envision and execute: a novel whose working title was Why Do the Heathen Rage?

Over the course of a decade, Flannery O’Connor’s two published novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), as well as her short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1953), had developed her fictional exploration of what she called “the action of grace,” or the salvific intervention of the Holy Spirit in human lives, an intervention generally figured in scenarios both grotesque and violent. Hazel Motes, the protagonist of her first novel, blinds himself with lye. In The Violent Bear It Away, as in the short story “The River,” baptism—dying to the old self and rising to new life—becomes a literal death, a shortcut conversion in which the convert’s new life presumably takes place in heaven, offstage. The self-satisfied Mrs. May of her short story “Greenleaf” undergoes conversion by being gored by a bull.

By 1962 this way of imagining the “action of grace” had become a settled trope in O’Connor’s fiction. As O’Connor’s fellow Catholic novelist J.F. Powers seems to have hinted, perhaps over time the trope had become a little too settled. Hooten Wilson describes a letter Powers had written to O’Connor after reading “Greenleaf” in which he “chastised” O’Connor for “her habit of killing off all her characters.” O’Connor took his criticism to mean that she “should have left [the character] alive so that [she] could write a novel about her.” But as she began to wrestle with material for a third novel, a deeper, though connected, problem presented itself. She could cast, in grotesque relief, a character’s moment of conversion. What she had not yet done was the hard work of imagining, then depicting, what might come next. Killing the convert had become all too easy. Keeping him plausibly, compellingly alive: that was the problem.

What if in art, as in life, conversion was not the end of the action but its beginning? What then? Hooten Wilson suggests that for O’Connor, the artist’s “dilemma is how ‘to make corruption believable’ so that the reader understands the significance of grace.” This problem had driven O’Connor’s fictional project throughout the 1950s, but the artistic challenge presented by her new novel was how to make a story of the continuing work of grace. How to make a protagonist of a person who has already surrendered to that grace, already undergone a change of heart? How does that surrender become dramatic action? If the mandate of grace is to change your life, how to inscribe that change in a narrative arc becomes the only real question for the artist. Every other consideration is a subsidiary of that primary question.

In the time left to her, as she strove to set her new novel in motion, O’Connor had completed enough short stories for a second collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, published posthumously in 1965. In reassembling experimental drafts and narrative episodes, Hooten Wilson teases out strands in those published stories that O’Connor was beginning to explore as a more extended narrative. In marked contrast to her previous two novels, whose protagonists she understood as prophets, the protagonist of this new work would be a different type, originating in some of those newer short stories. In some drafts, as Hooten Wilson notes, this new protagonist appears as a version of those previous characters and bears their names. Sometimes he is Asbury, the ineffectual scholar back home on the farm, who in “The Enduring Chill” drinks unpasteurized milk in a misguided show of solidarity with his mother’s farmhands and, while suffering from undulant fever as a result, has a vision of the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a water stain on the ceiling. Sometimes he appears as Julian, of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the enlightened and self-righteous son reduced to childishness by the spectacle of his foolish mother’s stroke.

This character springs, too, from the same genealogy as Hulga, of the earlier short story “Good Country People,” with her Ph.D. and her atheist credo. Thanks to her precarious health, O’Connor—overeducated for rural Georgia, often impatient with its confines—found herself, like these characters, consigned to the care of her mother on their Milledgeville farm. She imagined these characters, whose deadly pride sets them up for debasement, as figures for herself. It was easy to lead them to, and then leave them in, their epiphanic experiences of humiliation. To imagine a character fundamentally like herself in an ongoing narrative beyond that point presented, again, an entirely new level of difficulty. One thing was clear, however: this time the character would be not a prophet, but a penitent.

In the drafts Hooten Wilson presents in narrative sequence, the penitent appears under a new name, Walter Tilman. Like Asbury of “The Enduring Chill,” Walter is a failed intellectual who finds himself home on the farm, where he is no good to anybody, least of all himself. His mother agonizes over him as a manifestation of her personal failure but also as a spiritual paralytic, with “no conception of either sin or election.” The farmhands, black and white, view him with contempt and suspicion. His sister, Mary Maud, is an atheist with a doctorate in education, the kind of person around whom, as O’Connor writes, “people reverted to their childhood. It was impossible to act any age around her but eleven.” In most of these scenes, Walter’s father, already an old man, appears as an invalid, incapacitated by a stroke, though his malice toward his family remains unimpaired. In the one fragment in which Tilman Senior is up and about, he treats the languishing 28-year-old Walter as though his chief affliction were mortality (as indeed Walter thinks it is), offering him cigarettes and a television to ease him through his final days.

In these drafts, as O’Connor tries out her characters, seeking a way to launch her story, a narrative thread emerges, with the potential, however unrealized, to propel the action forward. The idle Walter, whose one consuming occupation is to write letters to strangers, has begun writing to a young civil rights activist, Oona Gibbs, possibly modeled, as Hooten Wilson suggests, on O’Connor’s friend Maryat Lee. The lie on which the narrative tension builds is that Walter has written to Oona, the idealist, in the persona of his father’s black caretaker. As a catalyst for something to happen, O’Connor has him invite Oona (whom we meet more fully in a separate, harrowing scene) to visit him on the farm. One of the final extant passages depicts Oona’s arrival at the farm, where one way or another truths wait to be revealed. But there the story stops.

Hooten Wilson includes a disjunct fragment, a scene “rewritten four times” and presumably intended to precede Oona’s descent upon the Tilmans, in which Walter undergoes what he thinks of as “a revolting conversion.” “He had not up until that moment been a believer,” O’Connor writes. “But he realized, with a shudder, that he was.” What makes him shudder is the epiphany that to be a Christian demands that he confront not the intellectual tradition of Christianity, with which he is all too well acquainted already, but the stark reality of being “bound for hell.” Walter discovers that he has boarded a runaway sin train, and that the only way off is to jump. All the novel’s subsequent action is meant to unfold from this moment of resolution, to make the jump. But despite Hooten Wilson’s “play” with a possible ending for the novel, and her speculation about the ways that current events might have shaped the story’s progress, we can’t know where it would have gone or by what means it would have arrived there.

As an excerpt from a letter included in the text indicates, O’Connor viewed then-new developments in racial justice in the South as “great fuel for my kind of comedy and my kind of tragedy.” For her, the prospect of seeing old wrongs righted must surely have seemed pregnant with implications for another kind of conversion, and therefore artistically useful. If, ultimately, she doubted whether race was her subject (as it was for the Mississippi novelist Eudora Welty in the same period), this doubt would seem to point to an aversion to writing something merely topical or political in which her more compelling, more transcendent concerns would be lost—and the fear of failing, artistically, to make those concerns clear.

Whatever weight we might grant her admission that her imagination failed to penetrate to the interior lives of black people, again the role of current events in her day seems entirely subsidiary to the question of how to write a novel of conversion. If she had been able to see her way to accomplishing that task, then the “great fuel” of current events would have had a steady fire to feed. At any rate, it’s telling that although O’Connor mentions this novel in letters to Caroline Gordon and others, describing her labors as the futile struggle of a squirrel on a treadmill, she never developed it sufficiently to send Gordon a chapter for critique. Whether she would have finally mastered her material or conceded defeat, we’ll never know. This is a frustrating and unsatisfying conclusion, but death has a way of leaving things hanging.

Nevertheless, Hooten Wilson’s careful editing of O’Connor’s typewritten manuscripts, her arrangement of these drafts into a plausible sequence, and her critical commentary to frame and contextualize them is a gift to interested readers. As an account of discovery and reclamation, her narrative has the feel of an archaeological dig in which things do not surface in their whole and intended forms, but enough comes to light to suggest what those forms might have been. This narrative suffers from an occasional indulgence in imagined, sometimes credulity-straining scenes, in which the reader is asked, for example, to envision Flannery O’Connor discussing her novel with her mother over morning coffee. Such moments feel both intrusive and unnecessary to the presentation of O’Connor’s own writing. Despite these lapses, Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? offers us a marvel: O’Connor’s written voice, risen from its long silence and, although fragmented, its utterances cut short, still vibrant with her imagination’s strange, electric life.

Sally Thomas

Sally Thomas is a poet and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, First Things, the New Republic, Plough Quarterly, Public Discourse, and Southern Poetry Review. Her novel, Works of Mercy, was published in 2022, and a new collection of short stories, The Blackbird and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Wiseblood Books. You can also sign up for her Substack, Poems Ancient and Modern.