To the Editor:
. . . Michael Novak, in his review of Michael Harrington’s Fragments of a Century [Books in Review, May], refers to the fear of the autobiographical mode as “an American-Catholic affliction,” seeming not to recognize that the essays in Daniel Callahan’s book to which he refers are almost exclusively by Irish- and German-Catholics, mostly Jesuit-educated, of the same class, and, in essential response, very much of a kind. Later, he makes apparent Harrington’s ethnic and class and educational background, again, of a distinct kind: Irish, upper-middle class, and Jesuit-trained. These two positions simply will not stand together: the seeming equation of American-Catholic with a specific class, educational, and ethnic grouping.
My background is Catholic; I am Polish, and I avoided Jesuits as if they were an especially dangerous form of disease. . . . May I point out too that Michael Novak is of Catholic background and Slovak . . ., and as distinctly unlike Harrington as I am; how then can the fear of autobiography be, to any determinable extent, “American-Catholic”? I know that if you ask the Irish and Germans of “that” class about Catholicism, it always comes out looking Irish, mostly, and a little (not much, actually) German, soaked in Jesuitisms, and particularly odious to me. Again, since Novak is certainly not of this bunch, why is he unaware of the impropriety of this troublesome equation?
As I reject the equation, I also begin to see where just being Catholic in America, in an Irish-dominated Church, might give trouble to any number of Catholics who might think about approaching the autobiographical mode. I even sensed it in Mr. Novak’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. . . .
. . . It seems to me that Poles, Italians, Greeks, and other Slavic and ethnic Catholics just might . . . un-Irishize Catholicism in America, and if nothing else, free me from that painful sight of the T-shirted, young Irish priest, all smiles and gymshoes, the whistle hanging menacingly from his neck, calling fouls to unwary kids playing basketball. Or maybe, if I can indulge my fantasies, I might see Going My Way not done in Irish brogue. . . .
To the Editor:
. . . We are all “ethnics” of one variety or another, rooted in particular experiences that influence everything from the way we write to the way we eat. Michael Novak reminds us of this. . . . But this reminder . . . amounts to presuming to tell us who a person really is, what he or she is really saying. . . . If, for Michael Harrington, socialism “‘is problematic, even difficult to imagine,’” just as is the “Vision of God,” does that amount to a reduction of the Marxist/Pascalist “socialist” imagination to Irish Catholicism; or is Harrington painfully expanding an earlier vision and discovering in it a wider and transcendent imperative? Mr. Novak writes that “it often happens that those who pass over from one world to another do not so much change themselves as appropriate materials to their own purposes.” Tu quoque. I get the feeling when I read Mr. Novak that he is, however kindly and politely, rubbing our ethnicity, or our “lack” of it, in our faces . . . exposing us . . ., disclosing with disarming compassion what he finds us to be. . . . He would superimpose on us a finitude that restricts and constricts what we could become because he already knows exactly what we are. . . . If Harrington can be faulted for failing “to grasp the limits of his own imagination, Irish-Catholic to the core . . .,” then Mr. Novak might be faulted for the same thing, with a change of ethnic label. This objection comes from one who has argued for “the diversity of human stories.” Quite a trick of cultural relativism: we are to accept Mr. Novak’s story and reject Harrington’s.
In The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, Mr. Novak suggested that while Jews are more concerned with making a better world, Catholics are more concerned with making a better life. Harrington would seem then to be both Jewish and Catholic. But Irish Catholicism no more fully explains Michael Harrington’s socialism than Jewishness explains Kafka’s literary genius. . . . How was it possible that Harrington’s The Other America fired the imagination and moral energy (and self-righteous moralism) of so many non-Irish Catholics and became the “manifesto” for the War on Poverty? As for the failure, does Harrington really “fudge” the true point by saying that we did too little, not too much? What we did was done, in fact, only half-heartedly, without full commitment to the ideal envisaged, and often in bad faith. Behind the scenes, unknown to those “in the field,” the venture was condemned from the outset, hence the rage of those idealists who became inflamed when disillusioned. Harrington’s despair (or shall we reduce it to Irish stupor?), and his almost hallucinatory hope . . . may not be a fault of his vision or plan, but of the travesty that was made of it. Harrington’s socialism is an Augustinian City of God. Mr. Novak’s alternative is the truncation of this imagination; his realism is a myopic narrowing of vision. Against the mythos of the “New Class,” Mr. Novak has advanced the ideology of a fossilized and idealized world of ethnic “urban villagers” (the title of Herbert Gans’s well-known study). Behind the extravagant paternalism he shows to Harrington, Mr. Novak has apparently failed to grasp the limits of his own imagination. It seems to me that part of a long-term solution to such clashes of ideology is that we must look for answers to our problems both within ethnicity and beyond it. . . .
Howard F. Stein
Meharry Medical College
To the Editor:
Michael Novak opens his review by mentioning a fear of autobiography and preference for the abstract that Daniel Callahan noted among some “young Catholic leaders” in 1965. That opening sounded what seemed to me to be the most important theme of Mr. Novak’s review—how Michael Harrington struggles against this affliction in trying to articulate a personal vision fused to a social vision “in singleness of heart.”
Perhaps the strongest evidence that the fear of autobiography is still present among American-Catholic thinkers is that Mr. Novak avoids mentioning himself as one of those leaders with that fear. As recently as this March, Wilfred Sheed mentioned some examples of “Catholics shrinking from personal witness even where their witness is part of the necessary data,” and he specifically mentioned Mr. Novak’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. . . .
It seems to me that Mr. Novak’s failure to write from an autobiographical standpoint even while desiring to deal with his past and his identity has led him to write about individuals mainly as products of their environment. And in so doing, I think he overlooks the personal power one can have over one’s life. Harrington’s imagination is Irish-Catholic: “His apologetics for socialism are almost identical to the Jesuit apologetics he learned in his earlier years.” But although Harrington may be using the intellectual tools he acquired in a particular background, he uses them in a different way. . . .
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Michael Novak writes:
To Mitchell Wojtycki: May the number—and quality—of autobiographies, short stories, novels, plays, and films by Slavic, Italian, and other Catholics soon increase.
To Howard F. Stein: The stories of others can and do take us beyond our own story, show us new possibilities we ourselves hadn’t thought of. Hearing one another’s stories is a way of enlarging the common culture. The wedding in Michael Harrington of Irish-Catholic and Jewish themes is one model of what we all do: learn from each other. But just as there is self-hatred among Jews, so there is self-hatred among Catholics: one sees signs of it in Harrington, Wilfred Sheed, Garry Wills, Daniel Berrigan, myself, and others; Mr. Wojtycki’s letter touches on it.
To John Lafferty: On the evidence of his latest book Michael Harrington does not appreciate the full personal power of his imagination; he undersells the persistence of the Irish-Catholic part of it. Michael Harrington is not a “product” of his environment; we are each freer than that. He is explicitly struggling for clearer connections between his present and his past. Mr. Lafferty’s desire for writing “from an autobiographical standpoint” would be amply sated by my books. It ought to be his punishment to be obliged to read them all.