Flannery O’Connor Revisited: A Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

Ordained Servant: June–July 2024

End-of-Life Care

Also in this issue

Hospice and Palliative Care at the End of Life

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Develop Your Whole Person in Three Areas, Chapter 15

Christianity and Nationalism: A Review Article


Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? by Jessica Hooten Wilson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2024, 191 pages, $24.99, cloth.

In the July 1963 Esquire, Flannery O’Connor contributed an excerpt, “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” from the beginning sections of her work on a new novel. She spent the rest of the summer working on the novel “like a squirrel on a treadmill” but was questioning the quality of the material she produced. Afflicted with lupus and struggling to maintain physical strength, she said, “I’ve reached the 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” (42). She would die the next August at the age of thirty-nine with the book unfinished.

Now, six decades later, Jessica Hooten Wilson has gathered and edited O’Connor’s manuscript pages to produce Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress. Organizing the scenes that O’Connor had written into a proposed order, adding paragraphs and transitions, and hypothesizing about a possible ending, Wilson presents a version of what the book might have been if O’Connor had lived.

Positively, Wilson understands the religious dimension in O’Connor’s writings, that O’Connor “created worlds where the invisible was brought high to the surface” (10). Wilson states that when people argue about whether the grandmother was saved at the conclusion of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” they are missing O’Connor’s thrust. She writes, “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?’” (20).

The way that O’Connor sought to solve the challenge of how to write about spiritual realities for readers who believed in nothing was to scandalize them. That is, she dramatizes belief as a stumbling block that prohibits or obstructs a character’s way followed by a moment of grace where the character chooses whether or not to believe in God.

But after O’Connor’s polished opening chapter, “The Porch Scene,” from which the Esquire excerpt is taken verbatim, I could not help but to think that with the succeeding selections—some showing the characters with different names, others showing the characters with different traits, others as short as one brief paragraph or less than two pages—O’Connor would have been displeased to have her material prematurely revealed in such a manner.

O’Connor never hid the fact that her writing process involved continual revision. When writing Wise Blood, she told a friend, “I don’t have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.” But, she continued, the rewriting also reflected her perfectionism, “I can’t exhibit such formless stuff.”[1]

Wilson anticipates the objection and acknowledges that this element is not present in Why Do the Heathen Rage? She writes, “As much as we might wish that O’Connor had finished her third novel, we cannot invent what does not exist—a well-crafted, revised, full-length piece of fiction” (19). But she justifies moving forward with filling out O’Connor’s story nonetheless, with the contention that “to be faithful to O’Connor’s stories, especially her unfinished one, is to wonder about what happened after her last words” (20).

O’Connor’s method for writing her novels involved the reworking of a previously published short story as a starting point. For Wise Blood, she revised and expanded “The Train” to become the opening chapter. For The Violent Bear It Away, she rewrote “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” to serve as the first chapter. O’Connor turned to adapting “The Enduring Chill” for Why Do the Heathen Rage? The “heathen” in view in the “The Enduring Chill” is Asbury Fox, an aspiring New York City writer who returns to his rural Southern home because he believes he is dying. What he has contracted, however, is undulant fever from drinking unpasteurized milk from his family’s dairy. His drinking the raw milk and the sickness that followed came about because of an attempt at communion with the two black farmhands. At every turn, however, those he deems unsophisticated when compared to what life in New York offers—the local doctor singing a hymn as he draws blood, the catechizing Catholic priest who tells him his problem is that he does not speak to God, his mother with her declarations that he is not dying, the two farmhands who refuse to drink the milk with him—turn out to be wiser than he is. When it is revealed that he is not dying, he is emptied of his arrogance. The doctor tells him that undulant fever is not so bad, it is the same as Bang in a cow. Everyone leaves the room, and Asbury stares at a water spot on the ceiling, which to him appears as the Holy Ghost descending in piercing icy terror.[2]

O’Connor explained why revisiting the story interested her. She wrote, “I’ve thought maybe there is enough in these characters to make a novel of them sometime but it would be a novel with this story as the first chapter and the rest of it would be concerned with the boy’s efforts to live with the Holy Ghost, which is a subject for a comic novel of no mean proportions” (42). The newness for O’Connor would be, in Wilson’s words, how to write about a convert.

In the manuscript drafts, Asbury appears in one selection, “Asbury’s Childhood,” but in the rest the protagonist is typically renamed Walter Tilman. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury’s father died when Asbury was young, but now O’Connor has the father, T. C. Tilman, play a major part. His stroke, from which he is diminished greatly both physically and mentally, provides the main action in “The Front Porch” scene. A repugnant figure, his racism, both past and present, is brought out, as is his poor judgment and lack of grip on reality. He is also the only Christian in the family, a Baptist.

Walter’s rebellion is also against his mother and his older sister. O’Connor describes the mother: “She never thought about Jesus himself but her sense of election had never failed her. She thought of others above herself, always did the right thing, without any fuss, and that was that” (33). A further description reveals that she stands in the same line as the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” One thing that Walter’s mother “had always prayed was that if her children were religious, they would not be religious in a bad sense, that they would not be too religious” (33). Walter’s sister, like Rayber in the The Violent Bear It Away, is an atheist whose vocation is that of a schoolteacher.

The new central character that O’Connor introduces is Oona Gibbs, a social rights activist. Walter, who “wrote people he did not know and ignored those he knew” (24), had written Oona after reading her account of “Fellowship, Inc.,” a commune where everyone lived together in love. She wrote back, a letter that repulsed and intrigued Walter simultaneously. He responded giving real and imaginary details of his family, but identifying himself as the Tilman’s Negro worker, Roosevelt. When Oona replies that she wants to visit in person, Walter starts to panic.

Wilson sees the Walter and Oona relationship as the opportunity to provide her commentary on what she calls O’Connor’s “Epistolary Blackface.” She observes that O’Connor believed that the attempts of whites pretending to be black were preposterous and condescending. But Wilson laments that O’Connor stated that she did not feel capable of entering the mind of her Black characters and consequently presented them from the outside. She also tries to steer a middle ground on O’Connor’s use of the derogatory racial language in the mouths of her older White characters.

Mark Greif in his 2015 book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, takes the opposite side of the argument and maintains that O’Connor’s posture of portraying her black characters from the outside was one of O’Connor’s great strengths. Greif writes,

O’Connor certainly does not suggest in her mature prose that actual black people are worse than whites or deficient in any way. She is unusual, and more admirable than some “compassionate” white liberal writers, because she goes out of her way not to suggest that she has any idea what her black characters’ inner lives and interior consciousness are like. She portrays them entirely from the outside, and lets her white characters talk about them without the black characters assenting, and gives her black characters autonomy, while still letting them seem human, not ciphers or symbols.[3]

Why Do the Heathen Rage? from that point on limps to its conclusion. O’Connor searches for how to develop the relationship between Walter and Oona. Wilson speculates increasingly about O’Connor’s mindset, forces a fragment from The Violent Bear It Away into the narrative, and suggests a possible ending. I found myself in a position that I had never encountered before in reading O’Connor, I was uninterested in how the story ended.

That judgment sounds harsh, but one does not read Flannery O’Connor for a mixed opinion. Wilson herself notes that other scholars over the years have examined the Why Do the Heathen Rage? pages and concluded that they were unpublishable, which speaks to the high bar of Wilson’s project. What makes O’Connor unparalleled, however, was that she did not give an inch on either craft or substance. Every word was meant to contribute, not just sentences or paragraphs or segments here or there. Every story was meant to be an encounter with Jesus. O’Connor said as a novelist,

I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means for me the meaning of life is centered in our redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in things to make transparent in fiction.[4]


[1] Robert Giroux, “Introduction,” in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Noonday Press, 1971), ix.

[2] In the Esquire, published “Why Do the Heathen Rage? O’Connor ends the segment with the mother recalling seeing a passage in a book that Walter had been reading and had left open. It concerned a letter that St. Jerome wrote to Heliodorus in A.D. 370, urging him not to abandon the battle, for the General marches fully armed. In the closing sentence, O’Connor has the mother realize who the General is. “Then it came to her, with an unpleasant jolt, that the General with the sword in his mouth, marching to do violence, was Jesus” (32).

[3] Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 214.

[4] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” in Mystery and Manners, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 32.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, June-July, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2024

End-of-Life Care

Also in this issue

Hospice and Palliative Care at the End of Life

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Develop Your Whole Person in Three Areas, Chapter 15

Christianity and Nationalism: A Review Article


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