Prospects of a Catholic literary revival

Can a Catholic literary revival take place and again take part in challenging and perhaps transforming our culture?

Left to right: G.K. Chesterton, Georges Bernanos, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O'Connor

At a recent wedding for one of my wife’s former students, the father of a current student asked me about my recently completed semester. I excitedly recounted teaching “The Search for Happiness in the Catholic Tradition,” a course I had changed almost entirely from the last time I taught it several years ago. Rather than shorter units and readings, I organized the course around a number of great and near-great books, punctuated by lectures and shorter selections on natural law, virtues, and Old and New Testament passages related to happiness. The first big book was Homer’s Odyssey (in Robert Fitzgerald’s superb translation), in which we gained a magnificent view of the questions of happiness and the heroic in a non-Christian setting. Next was Chesterton’s Manalive for a reflection on finding happiness in the ordinary. We read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to explore how happiness might be found under brutality and totalitarianism and Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori to think about happiness amid aging and death. The course was capped with C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which prods readers into seeing how the choice for happiness and God in this life call for a clear decision here and now that will echo into eternity. After speaking for too long (professors share what Ogden Nash calls “the occupational disease of preachers and politicians, eloquentiasis”), I was caught up short when my student’s father asked me what contemporary literature I have assigned.

Contemporary? Perhaps it is an effect of getting older, but I think of Spark and Solzhenitsyn as contemporary writers, though the books I assigned from them were published in 1950 and 1962, and they died in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Of course I could have said that all great writers are truly our contemporaries. Or that my rule is taken from a letter of Newman in which he complained about students studying John Stuart Mill and then observed that no book less than fifty years old should be assigned as part of a curriculum. But both of these are dodges.

The reality is that I tend to look back toward that golden age of the twentieth century, when serious Catholic and fellow-traveling novelists were recognized as superior producers of real art and were recognized for their literary power and the way in which that power was wielded on behalf of a distinctly Christian view. Henry Zylstra, a legendary figure at Calvin College, my own alma mater and a place known for its serious and Christian intellectual rigor, wrote in a 1955 essay titled “Literature and Dogma” about the serious “reassertion of the role of faith in life and literature” provided by W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, buttressed by their “younger successors such as Anne Ridler, Sidney Keyes, John Heath-Stubbs, David Gascoyne, Norman Nicholson, and others.” Sixty-two years later none of the names of these successors says long-term literary success (though the poet Anne Ridler needs a rediscovery). Zylstra continued, however:

And what is one to say, in this quick account of the changing dogmatic temper of our time, of the massive Catholic literary witness in these decades of our century? The quality and scope of the work is staggering; a mere catalogue of the bigger names is itself impressive: Leon Bloy, Charles Peguy, St. John Perse, George Bernanos, Ernst Psichari, Paul Claudel, Francois Mauriac, Ignazio Silone, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and many besides. Their work is nothing if not a spiritual protest to the fundamental bearings of the Renaissance mentality, that is, to the Baconian-Rousseauist moral world.

While St. John Perse and Ernst Psichari may not roll off the tongues of literary people today, Catholic or not, the rest are figures who have endured and appear headed toward, if they are not already there, the hall labeled “classic.” The list of “many besides” to which Zylstra alluded (which should have included G. K. Chesterton) came to be known as the “Catholic Literary Revival” and kept growing over the next several decades, adding such figures as Muriel Spark, J. R. R. Tolkien, Malcolm Muggeridge, J. F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Alice Thomas Ellis, David Jones, Paul Horgan, and on and on. Until it stops.

When the novelist Jon Hassler died in 2008, Andrew Greeley claimed he was the “last Catholic novelist”. Hassler most certainly was not. But he was perhaps the last one to have a broad critical and popular following in the way that writers such as the above-named figures did. Piers Paul Read and Ron Hansen are probably the closest we have to one of those golden era figures, but I don’t think they have the same caché as the earlier figures. The poet Dana Gioia is certainly accomplished, but poetry rarely pierces the walls of the university and a few small literary circles. Dean Koontz, a convert, is certainly popular, but his books are not treated, rightly or wrongly, as serious works of art. Gene Wolfe has some critical and popular appeal, but it is limited by his staying almost entirely in the genre of science fiction. Michael O’Brien certainly has had some success, but his novels are almost exclusively read by serious Catholic believers, in part due to the fact that they are published by the distinctively Catholic Ignatius Press.

The young and successful novelist William Giraldi has been labeled a Catholic novelist, but he revealed in a 2015 New Republic article that though his childhood Catholic faith is useful in that it “gives a writer that dramatic itch for sin, for judgment and damnation, for the rottenness of the world and the holy in us all,” he had not actually believed Catholic teaching to have any truth for more than twenty years.

If my being a Catholic must be predicated on the belief that the God of the Israelites decided to inseminate a peasant woman in the Levant in order to birth a human sacrifice who would rise from the dead and redeem the world, and whose resurrection would then inspire an apostolic company who could interpret the sacred while taking my money and demanding my servitude, then you’ll forgive me, but I can’t call myself a Catholic.

Similarly, Mary Karr, a convert who has remained in the Church, while having the critical and popular appeal necessary, professes to not believe in much of Catholic moral teaching.

Many serious Catholic writers are out there, but none of them has the same cultural or literary stature combined with a serious belief in the Church’s teachings as characterized the Revival figures. Why no serious novelists? One answer might be that there aren’t any novelists of the same stature these days. In a recent essay on approaching the age of eighty, Joseph Epstein writes of being caught reading Theodore Mommsen’s four-volume history of Rome and asked if it is true that he has given up reading “crappy books.” He admits that, with “the grave yawning,” he has given them up along with any effort to keep up with contemporary fiction: “No more 500- and 600-page novels for me written by guys whose first name is Jonathan. I have given the current batch of English novelists—Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie—a fair enough shot to realize I need read no more of them; their novels never spoke to me, and are less likely than ever to do so now.” This rather flippant dismissal might be dismissed as the preeminent casual essayist of our time using a Hey-kid-get-off-my-lawn persona for effect in a funny essay, but it’s important to note that he means it.

more serious contention, put forth by the cultural critic Roger Kimball (himself a Catholic), is that while “most of the novels that get noticed today (like most of the visual art that gets the Establishment’s nod) should be filed under the rubric ‘ephemera,’ and often pretty nasty ephemera at that,” the problem is not that there are no good novelists out there—he cites the “spare, deeply felt novels of Marilynne Robinson, especially Gilead, her quiet masterpiece from a few years back” as an example. (It might be noted that the seriously Calvinist Christian Robinson is perhaps closer to those venerable figures of old than even Read or Hansen.) Rather, the problem is a cultural one that involves the “tremendous competition for—I was going to say ‘the reader’s attention,’ but reading is part, a large part, of what has suddenly become negotiable.” The world of the internet and television (which has now largely been subsumed in the former) provides “a panoply of superficially attractive objects for our consumption and delectation” noted more for a “gratification . . . so ephemeral that it is conspicuously unsatisfying, more nominal than real.” But more importantly, this world “proceeds by attacking the very capacity for attention. Often, it seems to operate not by offering new objects for our attention, but by offering us a substitute for attention itself: a sort of passive receptivity that registers sensations without rising to meet them with the alertness of critical attention.”

In other words, if a book falls open in the forest and nobody looks up from the iPhone, does it really matter?

Kimball observes that even if a new Melville, Twain, or Faulkner were to appear on our scene, it’s not clear that such a writer would be recognized because of changes in the relationship between life and literature and culture more broadly: “We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance.” For a literary revival of any sort to occur that would create a cast of authoritative figures like the mid-twentieth century crew, there would have to be a culture that could recognize such significance, one that shared more assumptions than does American culture at this moment.

In a widely discussed 2013 article titled “The Catholic Writer Today,” the aforementioned poet and critic Dana Gioia made a number of points echoing Kimball’s observations but also attacking the specific problem of Catholic art. Regarding the difficulty of modern, particularly American writing, Gioia noted the problems for art of a globalized society in which a childhood or adolescence in one large metropolitan area is largely the same as one in any other: “Is it any wonder that so much new writing lacks a tangible sense of place, identifiable accent, or living connections to the past? Nourished more by global electronic entertainment than active individual reading, even the language lacks resonance and personality. However stylish and efficient, writing with no past probably has no future.” What Kimball applies to the demand side, Gioia does to the supply.

One might observe that Catholics should be at an advantage on both sides. We have a culture that emphasizes the concrete in sacraments that come in the forms of bread, wine, water, oil, voices, and the touch of hands, none of which are downloadable as an app. We have a concrete teaching and intellectual life that are not reducible to the generic. We have a past full of these doctrines and ideas explored in print, canvas, marble, and all sorts of media. And we have a tradition of silence with which to fight the hyperactive and slothful attachment to the ping of social media, thus creating conditions for the next Twain or Melville, Waugh or O’Connor—and the kind of critical reader who could validate such a presence.

And yet the reality is that Catholic doctrinal, sacramental, artistic, and ascetic practices have been greatly weakened over the last fifty years. What some have called “suburban rite Catholicism” often has the same deracinated, placeless feel as the kind of globalized metropolitan existence that Gioia finds so destructive to American writing in general. While Gioia is correct that theology and philosophy cannot create culture on their own, a robust embrace of Catholic teaching and a true wrestling with the reflective traditions around it is necessary on a broad level to create a community with enough common assumptions to both inspire and sustain a vigorous intellectual and artistic life. That this has often been absent is witnessed to by the old joke about what CCD stands for: Cut, Color, Draw. The artistic and sacramental are summarized by Gioia: “Nowhere is Catholicism’s artistic decline more painfully evident than in its newer churches—the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies. Saddest of all, even the liturgy is as often pedestrian as seraphic.” And silence has suffered not merely in liturgy but in everyday life. The Church has joined the world of social media and the internet (Popes Benedict and Francis both tweet!), but it’s not clear that online Catholicism has produced or can produce at this point more light than heat—or noise. Today’s Catholic cultural situation has left more than one Catholic asking,“Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo?”

Will it happen? Will a Catholic literary revival take place and again take part in challenging and perhaps transforming our culture? I think Kimball is right that the broader cultural unity and deep attention to art that would allow a Catholic revival to have the kind of cultural stature or influence it did on America, Europe, and elsewhere in 1955 is absent and will not be quickly forthcoming. But what about the Catholic community itself?

Gioia compares Catholic literature and the arts to the immigrant Catholic communities in America in 1900—with little financial capital, they nevertheless built up, brick by brick, a durable set of institutions that could support a blossoming Catholic cultural life. The situation is different for us. We have plenty of financial capital, but both inside and outside the Church cultural capital has been abandoned or forgotten. The task for Catholics is, in Gioia’s phrase, “to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition. … Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay to have the right home.” Perhaps we can correct the poet Gioia and suggest that the task is not merely to “occupy” but “dwell” in the tradition, for it is itself our home. When we dwell in the tradition we have and breathe its air deeply, we’ll discover that it makes a mighty fortress from which to issue anew a spiritual protest the fundamental bearings of our own post-Christian world.  We’ll also discover that its artistic and literary adornment, though not effortless, will again be, quite literally, inspired.

(This essay is adapted from the preface to the Spring 2017 issue of Logos.)

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About David Paul Deavel 33 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. The paperback edition of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available in paperback.

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