Jessica Hooten Wilson, Editor: Flannery O'Connor's Why Do the Heathen Rage?

Why Do the Heathen Rage? is Jessica Hooten Wilson's attempt to salvage the novel of the same name on which Flannery O'Connor was working at her death. Last month I attended the Global Catholic Literature Project's online seminar/discussion of the book, so I have read it and listened to a good deal of talk about it, including an extensive introductory lecture by Dr. Wilson.

It's not a criticism of her, or of the other presenters and participants in that seminar, to say that it confirmed my suspicion that there's really not that much to the book, because O'Connor didn't leave that much to work with. If the novel had been anywhere near completion, "unfinished" in the same way as, for instance, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, someone would long ago have published it. The publisher's prominent blurb on the cover, "The Unfinished Novel In Print For the First Time," is misleading at best. The actual subtitle is much more accurate: "A Behind-The-Scenes Look At a Work In Progress." 

It seems that O'Connor left only draft fragments, and apparently there are multiple versions of many of them. Wilson has selected and arranged these to provide an incomplete skeleton of what would presumably have been early chapters of the book, providing characters and a situation. Where the story might have gone from there can, obviously, only be a matter of speculation. The book is only 182 pages long, not including footnotes, and, without actually counting, I'm guessing that only about half of the words are O'Connor's. The rest are Wilson's commentary and her "presumptuous attempt to end the novel." (I'm not going to comment on that, because I never had enough sense of what the story might have been to judge of whether her ending was plausible.)

The main characters are mostly familiar O'Connor types:  a bookish young man along the lines of Asbury in "The Enduring Chill"; his father, a somewhat brutish hick partly incapacitated by a stroke; his extremely practical mother, who now runs the farm and is outraged by her son's idleness. And there's a character who's a new type, of whom more in a moment. It appears that O'Connor was trying to go in a new direction, one striking indication of which is that unlike the violent conversions, or at least collisions with grace, in her other work, this one--which is that of the young man, Walter--takes place early on (or so I thought--it isn't really clear), and rather quietly and abruptly (as far as we can tell). On the basis of what we have here it doesn't strike me as very convincing. That's hardly fair, but the brief scene describing it is all I have to go on.

Walter has a peculiar pastime: he writes letters, more or less as pranks, to people whose names he encounters in the news and elsewhere, usually because they annoy him. Then, depending on the response, he may play with them--for instance by praising a poet whose work he actually detests. But:

Whenever one of his correspondents, from being a caricature, turned into a human being, pathetic, undemanding, full of ridiculous encroaching love, Walter wrote DECEASED across the letter he had just received and put it back in the mail.

One such victim is a young woman, Oona Gibbs, a left-wing activist/dreamer, writer for a radical New York magazine. (I immediately thought of Myrna Minkoff in A Confederacy of Dunces, a character of whom O'Connor would not have known, since she didn't appear in print until 19180.) Walter imagines her as an early '60s bohemian sort:

Oona Gibbs would wear sandals and a peasant skirt and be a veteran of Mississippi jails.

He could visualize the whole lot of them, the whole pack of lean, hungry-eyed young people, moving from place to place on the scent of injustice. The very thought of them generated a peculiar fury in him, even though, as far as the moral issues were concerned, he was more or less on their side.

I thought the name "Oona" an odd and possibly poor choice, wondering if it was invented. But it is indeed a name in actual use, having originated with an Irish word for "lamb." (Eugene O'Neill had a daughter named Oona; she married Charlie Chaplin.) That etymology suggests, in light of what we learn about Oona, that it was carefully chosen. 

We don't see Walter's first letter to her, in which he apparently presents himself as being enthusiastic about her ideals. She responds with a wildly gushing letter, full of the excitement of her own liberation and the thought that she has found a kindred spirit. A sample:

I've broken through the ceiling of everything that suffocated me--conventions, manners, religion--and have suddenly like breaking into outer space, understood that nothing matters but that you be open to everything and everybody. For the first time in my life, I'm afraid of nothing.

Well, that sure sounds like the sort of revolution of consciousness for which there was so much enthusiasm among some in the '60s. Walter is repulsed, and apparently decides to put her to the test. He replies that as much as he appreciates her offer of friendship: 

...I don't believe you can give that friendship to me, and I'll tell you why.... Miss Oona Gibbs, I am a Negro!

Wilson suggests, very plausibly, that this device may have been suggested to O'Connor by Black Like Me, a book in which the writer, John Howard Griffin, blackened his face and traveled the South to see what the experience of being black was really like. O'Connor does mention the book and the writer in her letters, so we know she was aware of it.

Thrilled, Oona resolves to hurry down to Georgia and meet this person on whom she can exercise all her fascination for the downtrodden and exotic. She writes to Walter that she is coming, and he tries to warn her off by claiming he has hepatitis: "VERY DANGEROUS. Do not come." But she is already on her way:

She was even then only sixty miles away, speeding forward as deadly and innocent as a flame in her little red automobile.

Now, that sentence is a real Flannery O'Connor gem, the most striking in the book for me. But those brilliant touches are relatively few here. And I'm skeptical that that the novel would have been successful. The premise is outlandish, but not in a way that strikes me as plausible--especially if, as seems the case, the execution was to go in a direction more serious than comic. That seems to have been meant to include a love story.

One reason for my skepticism is that, on the basis of the work we have, O'Connor's range was limited. I think most people who love her work acknowledge that her range is deep but narrow. One obvious possibility--obvious to me, anyway--is that these limits were fundamental: that is, not just the effect of her illness and truncated life, but an intrinsic limitation of her gifts. I find it a little difficult to imagine her writing a serious love story. I find it much easier to imagine her making wild comedy of the collision of Oona and Walter. 

It's Wilson's view, a very plausible one, that O'Connor was trying, or planning to try, to take on some of the social questions of the time (the mid-1960s), specifically the racial problem. We would like to think that, had she lived, she would have, one way or another, covered new ground: different situations, different characters, different concerns. Wilson seems to believe that these fragments represent just such a movement. It's certainly plausible; let's grant that it was indeed O'Connor's intention. As I say, I'm a little skeptical that it would have been successful. But I have just re-read a longish section in which Oona is introduced, and it strikes me now as being much better than I had thought. If I had written this review without taking a second look at the book, I would have said "Don't bother." But I did take that look, and now I find myself feeling a little sad that there won't ever be any more of it. I almost said "I hope I'll be proved wrong."

No, there isn't much here, and if you're not an O'Connor enthusiast I would still say "Don't bother." But if you are, and I mean an enthusiast not only for her fiction but for her letters, her thought, her whole persona, it's worth your while.

One thing that I don't consider to be worth much of anybody's attention is picking at the question of O'Connor's views on race, on which Wilson spends too much time. Considering the intellectual and ethical wreck that is current academic-progressive thinking on race, I just don't have any patience for it. And there's a certain resemblance here to the nice folks who were scandalized by O'Connor's work and wanted her to write "something uplifting." I think I said what I want to say about that some weeks ago, in this post: A Note On Flannery O'Connor And Race


Dvorak: Violin Concerto in Am

I've been rather busy for the past week or so, and will be for several more days, so I'm going to make this brief.

Continuing my tour of the great 19th century violin concertos, sparked by Joseph Joachim's judgment of the four great German ones (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms), I've branched out from the Germans. I was only vaguely aware that Dvorak had even written a violin concerto. Apparently, according to Dave Hurvitz (see video below), my ignorance was until relatively recently not that unusual: all the attention went to the cello concerto. Well, people were really missing something.

I described the Brahms concerto as being somehow larger than the other three named by Joachim. By a similar measure, I would describe the Dvorak as somehow smaller than the Brahms and Beethoven. It is in length literally smaller than those: three movements of comparable and modest length, very unlike the, so to speak, front-loaded Brahms and Beethoven, with their very long first movements. It's also lighter than the Germans, including Bruch and Mendelssohn. It doesn't seem to strike as deeply as the others, in their most intense moments, do. In spite of the fact that it's in a minor key, it's more bright and fiery than somber in the first movement, very sweet in the second (which flows without a pause from the first), and in the third simply joyous. And in that third movement it stands out from all the others. 

In all the others the third movement is either a little less impressive than the first and second, perhaps just a bit of a letdown, or, in the case of Beethoven, a definite letdown. But this one is possibly, depending on your mood, the best of the concerto. I don't see how anyone can listen to it without being lifted up into its high spirits. It makes me smile.

Is this a great work? Well, maybe not in that quasi-physical sense of the term which I applied to the Brahms. But in the sense of being a classic, a work that stands with the best work of its time as deserving of attention and commanding love, yes, it's great. 

I was going to go to Dave Hurvitz for advice on which recording to try, but as it turned out I didn't listen to his recommendation until I had heard the concerto several times. That was because I discovered that I have a recording, an LP from 1980--this one:


As far as I recall, I had not even heard of this violinist before. I figured I would listen to the LP once, then see what Hurvitz would recommend and probably try it (or them). But I just kept listening to the LP. It's perfectly satisfying to me. What can I say, with my limited vocabulary? It's just beautiful, crystal clear, lively, sure, and precise. 

I did finally listen to Hurvitz, just a little while ago, and learned, as I mentioned, some things about the concerto which I hadn't known. I found Hurvitz annoying when someone first recommended him to me, but I've come to like him now. Perhaps I'll listen to the recording he recommends, a Supraphon recording from the '60s, Josef Suk, Karel Ančerl, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Or perhaps not. 

I see that there is no lack of performances of the concerto on YouTube. I will leave you to pick one of those if YouTube is your preference.

Now on to Tchaikovsky.

Lord of the World Revisited

As I mentioned in the previous (but one) post, I've been wanting to re-read Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, which I first read almost exactly eleven years ago. Since it concerns the Antichrist and the end of the world, the subject matter seems even more timely now than it did then. I wrote about it at the time--click here to read that post--and for the most part what I said there still applies after this reading. But I enjoyed it much more, and think it's a better book, this time.

Some part of this upgrade, so to speak, may be due to the fact that I read an actual printed book this time, the nicely printed and bound one from Cluny Media, rather than a Kindle version. I just don't much like reading anything more than a couple of thousand words on an electronic device. And some part may be due to my having given it more attention this time. Whatever the reason, I found it more involving on every level than I did before. I didn't find the lack of narrative drama that I complained about before, and I found myself more involved with the characters than before. In particular the story of one character, Mabel Brand, wife of a major political leader, is quite moving. I can't say much more about that without giving too much away. It's still not a great work from the literary point of view, but it's a good one, a better one than I thought on first reading.

I still find--I'll try to keep this vague--that some parts of the actual spiritual and physical collision of Christ and Antichrist are vaguely depicted, which is not a surprising flaw in such an attempt. And the extent to which Benson imagines the 21st century Catholic Church to be more or less the same as it was in his time remains a striking feature--not necessarily a defect, just strikingly not what has actually happened. Which is true of most of his imagined 20th century history. And almost ludicrously, he envisions the establishment of a new compulsory secular worship as requiring the assistance of an apostate priest who designs ceremonies as elaborate and minutely choreographed as a High Mass in the Vatican in Benson's time. If that is to be the way things go at the actual end, it must be a long way off yet. (The apostate priest, by the way, is named Francis, which amused me.)

The story, as I mentioned, is also more timely, which makes it more interesting. The idea of a compulsory secular worship is not as far-fetched as it was only eleven years ago, with corporations and governments and universities making life difficult for anyone who does not actively join in the celebration of "Pride" (!).  And moves by the federal government in the past few years to put some Christians under surveillance as potential terrorists make the persecution described in the book much more easily imagined. 

Note: I feel obliged to say that I don't think the word "persecution" is accurate as applied to Christians in this country right now. We may see the potential for it, but it isn't here now, and to claim that it is here is the mistake we refer to as "crying wolf." 

And, just for the record, I do believe--in fact I think it's obvious, in fact I think it would be difficult and foolish to deny--that the spirit of Antichrist is very much active in Western culture right now. Whether this means we actually might be near the end of the world is not a question on which I have anything like a definite opinion--not for public expression, and not even in my own mind. 


NOTE: the Cluny edition is a hardback and thus on the expensive side. But as of this writing it and many other titles are going for 20% off, which makes this one $26.36 vs. $32.95. I don't know how long this will be the case. You'll see the discount applied in your cart before you check out.