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Sophia StidApril 18, 2024
Flannery O'Connor in a Sept.

Flannery O’Connor once made a dinner-party defense of the Eucharist that became so well known in Catholic literary circles it was made into a T-shirt slogan. Around the table: O’Connor, the poet Robert Lowell and the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, the writer Mary McCarthy and her husband, Robert Broadwater. Writing about the evening in a letter to a friend, perhaps pointedly referring to Mary McCarthy as “Mrs. Broadwater,” O’Connor described how McCarthy said she thought of the Eucharist “as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one.” Compelled to speak for the first time that evening at a table where she felt out of place, both scornful of others and scorned herself, O’Connor said—“in a very shaky voice”—“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” 

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage?’by Jessica Hooten Wilson

Brazos Press
192p $25

In some ways, this scene from O’Connor’s life could be drawn from one of her stories: a misfit character, uncomfortable and out of place. A prophetic (and profane) voice, puncturing a self-satisfied culture. Language—an act of speech—becomes something more than itself, transcending dinner-party chatter. Something else is happening here. Continuing her letter to her friend, O’Connor writes, “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.” 

I found myself thinking of this scene—and these words—often as I read Jessica Hooten Wilson’s deft and important new book, Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress. Framing it as a “literary excavation,” Hooten Wilson builds the book around the previously unpublished manuscript pages of O’Connor’s third novel, which was never finished. Indeed, O’Connor was working on and struggling with the manuscript when she died at the age of 39 in 1964.

In the decades since O’Connor’s untimely death from the complications of lupus, she has at times been made into a kind of symbol, in the way artists who die young or tragically sometimes are, although her dark, complicated and theologically rich work defies that flattening. With this book, Hooten Wilson braved a fraught project; it would be easy to approach an excavated and eternally unfinished manuscript by one of American literature’s most canonized writers from an overly symbolic or hagiographical perspective. Throughout the book, Hooten Wilson mostly resists any symbolic flattening or posthumous domestication, bringing the reader back with her into O’Connor’s archives and into our past, and demonstrating how that past shapes our present and future. Like O’Connor, Hooten Wilson knows that we need more than symbols—we need a sacramental vision. 

To tell the story of the unfinished manuscript, Hooten Wilson uses three interwoven narratives: the materials and processes of O’Connor’s work-in-progress; Hooten Wilson’s research and relationship to that work; and the reader’s own relationship to what is found here. “Just like O’Connor’s work,” Hooten Wilson writes, in explaining the choice to share this unfinished work in this way, “the full story includes the reader.” 

As shown by O’Connor’s earlier epiphany (that she has said all she can say about the Eucharist “outside of a story”), she feels she can say more with story than she can speak. And yet the pages and scenes O’Connor left behind—excerpted, collected and contextualized in this book by Hooten Wilson—do not fully become a story, in the archives or in these pages. Hooten Wilson acknowledges this tension usefully in the introduction and throughout her curatorial and editorial material. 

Part of the story, then, becomes how Hooten Wilson makes sense of what is here. When she first visited the O’Connor archives at the Georgia College & State University in 2009, she was confronted with a daunting task. In 1970, when O’Connor’s papers were first acquired, the archiving librarians identified and separated out 378 typewritten pages that belonged to a new novel project, with the working title Why Do the Heathen Rage? Although these pages fill 19 file folders, they do not convey an order or structure. The names of characters change, along with their histories and contexts. Hooten Wilson notes that there are “a dozen or so episodes” found in the manuscript pages, 10 of which are included in the book. 

Hooten Wilson is meticulous with citations and sources, carefully detailing in endnotes the files from which each section draws. She notes that “my version of these pages comes from intersplicing sentences and paragraphs from 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.” At times, I desired a closer look behind the scenes of this process: Why were these 10 episodes chosen out of the 12? How exactly did the intersplicing work? How did the manuscript itself teach Hooten Wilson how to read it, if it did?

In one pivotal chapter, Hooten Wilson does give us a quick feel for O’Connor’s drafting process, introducing an initial opening sentence, showing it mid-edit with the writer’s strike-through marks, and then showing what O’Connor eventually landed on. On the whole, however, Hooten Wilson’s decision to feature the scenes from the novel interspersed with her own bracketed reflections and insights conveys a lovely sense of reading the primary text alongside her, sharing in the archival process of slowly turning pages between different kinds of work and mulling over the connections. 

Adding to that sense of turning pages and joining an ongoing conversation between thinkers and artists are the linoleum cuts by Steve Prince, created for this book, that offer a striking visual contrapuntal throughout, often paired with specific scenes in the novel. I found myself looking at each for a long time, and flipping back to look again after finishing the connected section, with what felt like a deeper vision. With characteristic editorial insight, Hooten Wilson was inspired to ask Prince to illustrate after a precedent set by the artist Benny Andrews’s illustrations for a special edition of O’Connor’s short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

The son of a sharecropper, Andrews was born in Georgia in 1930, just a few years and a few hundred miles away from O’Connor. Hooten Wilson quotes from Andrews’s accompanying afterword to that story, which he says describes characters “at the crossroads, but that’s just where they are.” 

In his own afterword to Wilson’s book, Prince shows a similar sense of nuance and generosity of vision, as he worked with a text that at times shows O’Connor’s failures of vision, especially around race. He names the guiding image for his part of the project as the sankofa, a Ghanaian mythical bird: “This bird moves forward while looking back.” 

Ultimately, I think that image also describes Hooten Wilson’s project with O’Connor’s work here: moving forward while looking back. Moving forward, in fact, because one has looked back, to see more fully what is there. Recounting her own journey with a Flannery O’Connor who taught her that “faith should never be used to sanitize fiction,” Hooten Wilson describes seeking out “professors…who would teach her to me.”

With this close and careful excavation, Hooten Wilson teaches us how to read O’Connor, and how to let O’Connor read us. She shows us both O’Connor’s sacramental vision and where it ultimately—and painfully—falls short. This way of reading invites us to see where we are falling short, where our own vision fails us: where we make the mistake of seeing symbols, instead of sacraments. 

Correction: Steve Prince's last name was misspelled in a previous version of this review.

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