The Flannery O’Connor Novel That Might Have Been

Her final work was continually revised but never finished. Can we know what she was aiming to achieve?

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. …

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