Joshua Hren is Assistant Professor of English at Belmont Abbey College. He is Editor-in-Chief of Wiseblood Books and also serves as editor of Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith. He has published scholarly essays and poems in First Things and short stories in Cobalt. His first academic book, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy, is forthcoming in 2018, and his first collection of short stories, This Our Exile, is forthcoming through Angelico Press in November of 2017.
Professor Hren recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about Wiseblood Books and Catholic literature today.
CWR: Wiseblood Books is one of some small Catholic presses founded in the past few years. When was Wiseblood founded? How is it tied to the Catholic literary tradition? What as the goal and how has it grown and developed since its founding?
Joshua Hren: Four years ago, on the feast day of Blessed James Duckett, patron of book publishers (at the time I did not know it was his feast), I flung Wiseblood Books out the window of a small apartment in a bohemian neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The apartment was located—as is everything in Milwaukee—between a bar and a church. It was little more than a blueprint. I was sober. And I was praying. No windows broke, and I didn’t hear it hit the ground. In the days that followed it was clear that a fair wind had caught the thing and scattered pieces of it across the States. I suppose you could say that I founded the press singlehandedly, alone, but you could say a lot of silly things. With startling frequency others began to join in.
Before then, I’d been coming through the editorial slush pile of Dappled Things literary magazine and coming across truly well-made, beautiful, truthful stories that seemed to contain inklings of a new idiom in the Catholic literary tradition. When I corresponded with these authors, I came across a familiar refrain: we can’t find a publisher. Many claimed that the faith-charged vision that governed and grew out from the very hearts of their stories set them at a disadvantage against a publishing industry that is immodestly secular. I started scouring the neon pages of the world wide web; and just as they said, so it seemed. When conversations surrounding this problem of secularization, and of the seeming decline of “Catholic” (and more broadly Christian!) fiction emerged in the pages of The New York Times, or in The Wall Street Journal, some began to contend that religious questions had disappeared from literature, others that secularism is a myth. Still others openly wondered whether Catholic writers who failed to get their “great” novels published weren’t merely nursing the wounds of their bad artistry in the comforting arms of the Mother of God—blaming their failure to write good lit on the wolf of secularism at the door of the Cathedral.
In Whose Justice, Which Rationality? Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre offers a definition of tradition that may help us to characterize the debate concerning Catholic letters. Tradition is “an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and refined in terms of two kinds of conflict.” There are the critics outside the tradition who reject they key elements of the tradition, and there are “those internal interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements came to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.” The argument, which is mostly internal, continues, which helps all involved to keep the momentum.
We situated ourselves within the Catholic literary tradition by the very name of the press. I taught Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood this past semester. It’s a good novel, but not a great one: I’m not dogmatic about her work. And yet Flannery O’Connor, in spite of her crutches, gave us legs to stand on. She gave us, in spite of her bad eyesight, a vision. She raised some crucial problems: in literary works written in a world that lives as though God is dead, do we need to shout so that the deaf can hear, draw large and startling figures so that the blind can see? Does not grace feel like violence, sometimes, and is not fiction particularly capable of dramatizing the awful conversions that can come of such disruption? Certain things have changed a great deal since O’Connor’s time. And yet things have largely stayed the same. When we try to say “God” in contemporary fiction, should we fake a sneeze at the same time, lest it actually sound as though we were narrating some of the eternal questions of religion—of the nature of grace acting upon human life, of the problem of suffering, of the sacramental dimensions of nature, of conversion—even here in the Year of Our Lord 2017?
Since I founded the press in 2013, we’ve published six fine poetry collections and twelve works of fiction. Wiseblood has also been given an uncanny grace: the support of Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and California Poet Laureate. We published his The Catholic Writer Today as an elegant monograph. The last lines of that essay argue that “if the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the big city—where we can renovate these remarkable districts that have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition . . . Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay to have the right home.”
Wiseblood Books has become a home. Soon after I started renovating in my little corner of Milwaukee, Charles Schmitt came by and said that he’d like to help do a bit of editing on the side—the way you tell your friend you’d be happy to help him sand those floors that are stained where mold spots block gorgeous hard wood. Now he’s the Director of Marketing. Extensive correspondence with Louis Maltese produced evidence of a deep fit. Now he is one of our editors. Angela Cybulski abdicated her throne over at Dappled Things and has been putting her uncannily painstaking editing skills at the service of our authors ever since. Now she’s Managing Editor. Countless interns—including the stunningly astute Jade Becker—have helps us expand our reach. Renovation has been hard work, requiring pigheaded stubbornness and total abandonment to Divine Providence. But we have the right home.
CWR: You now teach English literature at Belmont Abbey College, just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, after completing your doctorate at UW-Milwaukee. How would you assess, first, state of serious poetry and fiction in the U.S. in general, and, secondly, the state of Catholic literature?
Joshua Hren: I’ll leave the critique of contemporary poetry to James Matthew Wilson’s The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, which we published a few years back, but suffice it to say that if the Catholic literary culture is happening in a ghetto, most contemporary poetry seems to be out to sea.
David Foster Wallace, who was not a Catholic writer but who went through RCIA, and who certainly explored the eternal questions in his fiction, saw irony as the spirit of our times, in both art and life. He argues that pervasive irony marks a “weary cynicism” which is essentially a mask to cover “gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete . . . What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human.” Wallace notes, though, that, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage”. This, Wallace notes, “is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function”. I think he’s mostly right. Irony of the ilk he describes doesn’t produce lasting works. Though I read a great deal of contemporary fiction in graduate school, much of it escapes me. I remember it seeming clever, much of it, and anxious, or overly moralistic in a progressive sense, but it is also mostly unmemorable. I admit that after devotedly reading Dostoevsky and Dante, it’s hard to really be enamored of most contemporary literature.
The best of today’s lit has fulfilled Wallaces’s hopes for a new generation of literary anti-rebels, “born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” We see evidence of this shift—marked at times by a preoccupation with questions of Faith—in a number of contemporary novels, but I’ll name just a few. First, there’s Catholic novelist Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast, which is written in a voice that imitates Faulkner, whose language calls attention to itself, and deals with some post-colonial tensions in that in that it is set in Ceylon, in part in the past, but at the heart of the story is a search for and discovery of those “single-entendre principles.” Then there’s Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which stars a disoriented recent college graduate trapped in San Franciscan confusion, is preoccupied with surveillance and the pervasiveness of the internet, but which also probes plain old untrendy human troubles between mother and daughter. Also, there’s Bird’s Nest in Your Hair, published by the small Catholic imprint Korrektiv Press, a novel that ironizes pornography but nevertheless has at its center a bartending woman’s reverent hunt for God.
I agree with Gioia’s earlier characterization of contemporary Catholic letters as an abandoned immigrant neighborhood. Though I think the place is looking a touch less dilapidated these days. piece. In addition to an expanding Dappled Things, Wiseblood Books, and Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, we have Cluny Media. Still, we are more ghettoized than any of us would like to be. As Catholic novelist Randy Boyagoda once quipped to me, “we are in the ghetto but don’t need to be of the ghetto.”
CWR: In a recent post you noted that Wiseblood came about in part because you saw “the need for literature that possesses a sacramental vision of reality”. What are some examples of great works of Catholic fiction that possess that sacramental vision? What are some Wiseblood titles that seek to present that same vision? What are some other works you hope to publish soon?
Joshua Hren: Dante’s Divine Comedy is sovereign over all Catholic literature—all else is just a footnote of Dante. In that poem, we see a fascinating alternation between Dante’s inability to articulate the realities of paradise and his striving to do so sacramentally. As he approaches the beatific vision, the blessed Trinity, the poet notes that:
Now in my recollection of the rest
I have less power to speak than any infant
Wetting its tongue yet at its mother’s breast
And yet, in spite of this speechlessness, elsewhere Dante describes the Empyream, a heaven of pure light that should also, in a strict sense, be unseen. He sees and says it as a rose, an immense three-dimensional image which is formed from a ray of light reflected off of the Prime Mover. Mary, whom traditional frequently represents as a “mystical rose,” is the queen. Here you can’t help thinking of the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals. Sacramentally, Dante shows us the host of souls singing Christ’s glory as bees, giving us a glimpse of the unseen through the seen. The utterly common bees become heaven’s souls, swarming the mysteries:
Like a swarm of bees who in one motion dive
Into the flowers, and in the next return
The sweetness of their labors to the hive.
Catholic poet and essayist Allen Tate has a marvelous essay called “The Symbolic Imagination.” In it, writing of Dante’s use of the mirror, he says that a mirror is a manmade thing—and as such is a “common thing.” But in The Divine Comedy, the mirror is used to show us that the entire universe is a “replica in reverse of the supernatural world.” I can’t here sufficiently set the scene, but suffice it to say that the sacramental mirror reaches its peak when Dante sees in the mirror of his beloved Beatrice’s eyes the sensible world turned inside out.
In terms of Wiseblood Books that seek this same vision, and works we hope to publish soon, I’d point to Oregon Confetti by Lee Oser, which is due out in October. This novel, written under the influence of Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Chesterton, is about an absurd quest—a life-or-death adventure that stretches from the temples of junk to the corridors of power, from the shadowy streets of gangland to the wide, wide deserts of lust. It has the backdrop of a thriller—replete with a conspiratorial plot thread, but it is deeply metaphysical and contains a number of theological twists.
In terms of the “sacramental imagination,” I’d point to a moment that is especially beautiful in that it reaches into a particularly dark moment of the plot like a gentle light, what some might call the whisper of God. In the following scene, we have what could feel like a sentimentally sweet moment, what could have been reduced to a weird Freudian Mother Complex, but through which Oser artfully points, sacramentally, to God the lover—an image many mystics have also employed. Knowingly or not, Lee Oser’s gives us a mirrored man and woman, and is so extending a symbol we saw in Dante:
Agatha knocked on the door. She had a tortoise-shell comb in her hand and she wanted me to stand in front of the mirror, where I could study my crow’s-feet, the bags under my eyes, the lines on my forehead, and other sobering effects of time and gravity. She stood very close behind me.
“Where did you get your red hair?” she asked, going slowly with the comb so as not to tear the roots from the scalp.
“My father. My mother had black hair, though now it’s all gray. You know, she used to comb my hair like this.”
“You never talk about your father.”
“It’s because he’s been in jail my whole life. I was in the womb when they arrested him for stealing from Catholic charities. It was big-time embezzlement, years of white-collar crime, millions of dollars. He and his Bishop were busted by the FBI in a major sting operation. They had wiretaps showing the mob was involved. They nailed a couple of priests too. Then he copped a plea and perjured himself. The judge threw away the key.”
. . .
When she finished she ran the tip of her finger along the top of my ear. I felt it as I watched her do it in the mirror. We looked at each other, reflection to reflection, one reflection to another.
As I read this scene I hear Tate’s insistence that though you can naturally explain a manmade mirror, “there is no natural law which explains man as a mirror reflecting the image of God”
CWR: What sort of critical reception have various Wiseblood books received?
Joshua Hren: I could tell you—and I would not be lying—that Jennifer the Damned, a novel by Karen Ullo, which is about a vampire adopted by nuns, has found more fans at ComicCon than anywhere else. I’ll also give three species of reviews—one from well-established literary scholar, one from a major Catholic public intellectual, and one from a Bishop.
The major Robert Penn Warren scholar William Bedford Clark recently offered his thoughts on Bearings and Distances, by Wyoming Catholic College president Glenn Arbery: “[It is rare to find a work that can] sustain a rare combination of wit, action, character, and pathos throughout. I can’t detect a single false note, and I especially appreciate the Catholic vision that permeates these pages. You establish that vision forcefully, without sermonizing in the least. I know of no contemporary novel that does as fine a job defining the meaning of Southern history and portraying the diminished world of modernity.”
Of James Matthew Wilson’s The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, Anthony Esolen wrote: “I know of no contemporary scholar possessed of his breadth of learning and clarity of expression, who is at the same time a poet in love with the art, loving it with true intellectual passion . . . Wilson shows us why we should love poetry, and why we should scorn all those who in the name of the pragmatic or even the poetic have sold her down the river of oblivion.”
Of Cynthia Haven’s monograph “Everything Came to Me at Once”: The Intellectual Vision of Rene Girard, Bishop Robert Barron wrote, “Some academics beguile you with a few interesting ideas while other academics shake your world. René Girard belongs in the second camp. He demonstrates the uniqueness and indispensability of Christian revelation to a culture that is skeptical of the Gospel. Though he described himself as an ordinary Christian, this account of his conversion, as well as his academic work, supports my claim that in centuries to come René Girard may be remembered as one of the great Fathers of the Church.”
We have a lot of work to do to find a broader readership for our books. But when we get them in the right hands, the response is almost always thoughtfully encouraging, even when rightly critical.
CWR: You describe Dana Gioia’s essay The Catholic Writer Today, as Wiseblood’s “constitutional document.” What are some of the key insights from that essay?
Joshua Hren: Dana Gioia writes in The Catholic Writer Today that there is no cure-all definition of Catholic literature, but this doesn’t stop him from trying to define it, which is no small thing. At a lot of the conferences held on Catholic Lit. over the last few years, be it the Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination at USC, or “Trying to Say ‘God,’” at Notre Dame, one pervasive problem has been the denial that there has been a decline in Catholic literature coupled with a conspicuous unwillingness to define it. Here’s Gioia: “it is possible to describe some general characteristics that encompass both the faithful and the renegade among the literati. Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death.”
Gioia does not dodge the paradoxical fact that, though there is an abundance of Catholics in the U.S., our time is marked by a startling absence of Catholic literati in the highest levels of our national culture. Gioia does not argue that there are no living Catholic writers, only that they are buried in a subculture of a subculture, and this is undeniably true. To counter this would be to engage in hyperbolic, even prideful exaggeration of what gains we have made. It would be to navel gaze when, to put it in the Extraordinary Form, we ought to be tirelessly making and steering new naviculam, literary vessels that can navigate our contemporary waters, delivering the Catholic vision in an idiom that makes the moral depth of our heritage compelling, gives dramatic representation to the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and is charged with the beauty that shocks us out of ourselves and brings us to worship God’s goodness and submit to His truth.
Thank you for shining a little light on Wiseblood. We’ll continue to try and reflect the Light, no matter how dark the night.