Commentary Magazine


Catholic Novels & American Culture

Some fifteen years ago Harry Sylvester, writing in the Atlantic Monthly on the problems of the Catholic writer, began with the assertion that there were no living American Catholics who were major writers. At the time the statement needed no proof, it was so obviously true. In the course of his article, Mr. Sylvester enumerated several “problems” peculiar to the Catholic writer, among them the fact that he was committed to more children and fewer wives than the non-Catholic writer, which impinged upon both his practical life and his emotional development. Next there was the problem of freeing himself from the habits of mind developed by an unnecessarily rigid Catholic education. Add to this the very real danger that if he did so free himself, the Catholic powers that be would read his works with a closed mind while presenting to the writer himself a very cold shoulder, and you have a predicament of sufficiently mean proportions to make a lawyer out of Shakespeare. I mention Mr. Sylvester’s article because at the time it was written I agreed with it completely and thought it good that what he said had been said publicly instead of in the small groups of young Catholics who were or who intended to be writers, Fifteen years later, the very phrase, “problems of a Catholic writer,” seems beside the point. Either these “problems” are not peculiar to Catholics—a plurality of wives (or husbands), for example, can also create practical problems without being any guarantee of emotional growth—or they are not problems at all; that is, they cannot be solved. If one’s education has been too rigid, there is nothing for it but to go on from there. In this respect, James Joyce is a good example of what can be done. As to the pressures that may be exerted on one to conform or to “write nice,” I know nothing of them personally, but I suppose they will always exist. Censorship may be active and retaliatory or it may be passive and indifferent; there is, however, no way of doing away with it save by making art completely insouciant.

A more important reason for beginning with Mr. Sylvester’s essay is that it accepted a view of the Catholic writer that is still common. Stated simply, this view is that former Catholics are not Catholic writers. Eugene O’Neill, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James T. Farrell, and John O’Hara left the Church; therefore, they are not and cannot be Catholic writers. There is something to be said for such a position: it is clear-cut and commonsensical and avoids a good deal of confusion. The trouble is that it ignores and avoids too much.

It ignores the books the men have written and it avoids any consideration of an American Catholic ethos: does such an ethos exist? and if so, where, how, and for how long? No serious study of Joyce ignores his upbringing and formal education, which was Catholic, even though Joyce throughout his mature years was not. In the same way no serious study of American Catholic literature, as opposed to books by American Catholics, can ignore the work of James T. Farrell. It is clear that if a man’s personality and character have been formed in a particular way, he will not change them radically by renouncing that way. Therefore, American Catholicism is relevant to a study of Farrell’s novels just as his novels are relevant to a study of American Catholicism.

Let me hasten to make it clear that I am talking not about the Catholic religion as a set of dogmas but about that religion as it has been lived by three or four generations here in the United States; and while I would agree with those who say that American Catholicism is not in the strict sense a culture, I also think that it is a larger, more complex entity than a sect. My primary interest is how the living of this religion affected the imaginations, social attitudes, and art of those who grew up as Catholics, whether they later left the Church or not.

From this perspective, I consider James T. Farrell the most representative of the American “Catholic” novelists. Farrell, who was born in 1904, has written of his generation:

For many of us Americans there is a gap between our past and our present, between our childhood and productive manhood. We are the sons and daughters, the grandsons and grand-daughters of the disinherited of the earth. Our forebears partook little of the great culture of mankind. Their lives and destinies were hard; their contributions to our civilization were made with their backs. We have come from their poverty.

One of the virtues of Farrell’s work has been to reveal so clearly the gap of which he speaks. It is a gap that lies not only between poverty and plenty, or between the lower and the middle classes; it is also a gap of piety and, in Farrell’s work, of belief itself. Though one finds somewhat similar cleavages in the experience of the other religious and ethnic minorities in America, there were certain special factors in the Catholic situation that need to be taken into account here.

_____________

 

The fact that the Church in America was made up almost entirely of immigrants who were poor, seldom educated beyond an elementary level, and often illiterate does not by itself explain how the gap of which Farrell speaks came to develop. After all, a lack of formal education and even illiteracy need not deprive a people of its culture, and many of the Catholic immigrants to America—particularly the Germans and the Italians—had a very strong culture. It may be that if, as at one time seemed possible, the Church in America had developed along national and linguistic lines, it would today be less American and more “cultured.” But it was the Irish, not the Germans or the Poles or the Italians, who arrived first in great numbers, and the one problem that they did not have—it was the only one—was the language problem. They spoke English more fluently than Victoria Regina herself (she being German), and it was the predominantly Irish hierarchy that saved the American Church from foreign influences. With the end of unrestricted immigration in 1921, with the growth of elementary parochial schools which, like the public schools, taught only English, and with, later, widespread intermarriage among Catholics of different backgrounds, it became clear that the American Church had grown to maturity in the image of the Irish.

The image of the Irish! Enough, surely, has been said about that, and them. Yet only the other day I read that a recent book by Cecil Woodham-Smith on the great famine in Ireland is considered “controversial” in England. We need only remember here that the great numbers of Irish-Catholic immigrants who came to America from 1850 on were, to use a bit of current jargon, culturally deprived to a degree that Jews, Italians, and Germans were not. “America,” Simon Dedalus remarks in Ulysses, “What is it? The sweepings of every country including our own. Isn’t that true?” It is no wonder, then, that when the Catholic University of America opened in 1889, the original faculty of eight had to be recruited from six foreign-born professors and two native American converts. And this at a time when the rector, John Keane, was doing everything possible to counter the charges of “foreignism” made by such groups as the American Protective Association.

It has been said that the Catholic scandal of the 19th century in Europe was the loss to the Church of the working class. In this country the Church was nothing if not working class, and many influential churchmen consciously adopted a policy of making sure that the workers would not be lost here as well. Energy was devoted to the building of schools and to instruction in the elements of the faith. Culture was put between quotation marks and the arts were looked upon as ornaments cultivated by aesthetes and snobs. Such an attitude was by no means restricted to Catholics; many other Americans shared it. But despite widespread anti-intellectualism, there was ferment in American culture in the 19th century: the work of Hegel, of Darwin, of Marx was modifying the older Calvinism. There was nothing intrinsic to American Catholicism to prevent at least a minority of Catholics from taking part in such an experience. And indeed, there was an attempt by some Catholics, toward the end of the 19th century, to do just that—to come to grips, intellectually, with the American experience. The influence of men like Archbishop Ireland and of the converts Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker was such that conservative clerics both here and in Europe began to cry out against the heresy of Americanism. Thomas McAvoy, in The Great Crisis in American Catholic History, 1895—1900, has treated the controversy thoroughly, and Father Walter Ong has said:

There was a time at the turn of the century when the Catholic consciousness in America seemed on the point of taking explicit intellectual cognizance of the forward-look habits endemic in the American state of mind. But the circumstances terminating in the letter, Testem benevolentiae, of Leo XIII to Cardinal Gibbons, . . . abruptly killed off the dialogue between the Church and America which Hecker, Archbishop Ireland, Orestes Brownson and others had initiated, and dealt a blow to American Catholic self-confidence from which the American Catholic mind has never effectively recovered. Since then, the American Catholic has lived the myth of America, but he has hardly dared to speculate as to its meaning in relation to his faith, or to the spiritual, interior life which the faith demands of him.

Or again, as late as 1941, D. W. Brogan could write, without any fear of being disputed, that in no Western society is “the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful.” What should be remarked is that during those very years when American Catholicism was growing in wealth and numbers and strengthening its organization, it was marking time, if not retrogressing, both intellectually and imaginatively.

_____________

 

In general, as Hannah Arendt has remarked, the Church, wherever it has remained unchallenged, has stood between the “impact of modernity and the masses of believers”; in America this is what the Church succeeded, at least partly, in doing—although it had neither traditional nor official authority for the attempt. But it was, I believe, precisely this attempt that alienated so many of the young in the first three decades of the 20th century. O’Neill, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Farrell, all grew up in that era. Not one of them remained in the Church. I cannot agree that they left because they were intelligent enough to recognize that the Church was wrong; they were no more intelligent than Péguy, Claudel, Mauriac, and Maritain. The Church, I take it, cannot be true in France and false in the United States; the Church can, however, seem true and relevant in one place, but seem untrue and irrelevant in another. Which brings us back to the writers themselves, and Farrell first of all, because of the American Catholic novelists only he has really explored the gap I have been describing.

Farrell’s faults are well known and have been dutifully noted by a host of condescending critics. What has been ignored, in praising the Studs Lonigan trilogy and lamenting the rest of Farrell’s work, is his steady attempt to make art of an experience that is at once common and significant. Farrell’s world, his Chicago, is no mere landscape of the mind; that is to say, it never becomes a symbol. It is a place of gasoline stations and trucks; of dark churches where old women pray and are consoled and where young men shift their weight from one foot to the other in boredom; a city of gang fights, of graft, of impotent anger and banal lust; of family loyalty in the midst of poverty; of spring mornings when the young yearn for beauty and, since beauty is difficult, pursue it in libraries where the will flags and the eyes hurt from reading too much. His city does not exist for his characters, but over against them.

Nor, similarly, are his characters the creatures of his will. True, it is he who created them, but once born they do not move at his bidding. Farrell has written that he conceived of Studs as “a normal young American of his time and class . . . his dream of himself is a romantic projection of his future, conceived in the terms and values of his world” [my italics]. But, Farrell goes on, more and more this dream becomes a nostalgic image turned toward the past. Danny O’Neill is on the periphery in the Lonigan books; we know of him there only that he wanted to be a writer, wanted to “purge himself completely of the world he knew”—that is to say, Lonigan’s world. But that is just what Danny O’Neill never does; and it is what Eddie Ryan, the main character in Farrell’s most recent novel, The Silence of History, never does. In Young Lonigan Farrell quotes one of his favorite passages from his close friend John Dewey: “The poignancy of situations which evoke reflection lies in the fact that we do not know the meaning of the tendencies that are pressing for action.” One of the motives of art is to discover this meaning. Knowing the “terms” and “values” of that world, and how the terms conflict with the values, Farrell can imagine the tendencies pressing for action: Studs is led to his death. But he cannot do the same for the tendencies in Danny O’Neill or Eddie Ryan.

_____________

 

Why do the tendencies pressing for action lead to Studs’s death? Is it not the Danny O’Neills and the Eddie Ryans, the sensitive ones, who should be led to their deaths? I think not. I think Farrell is right about Studs, and right, up to a point, about Danny O’Neill, for they are both, not so much normal and average, but normal and representative. It may well be that in real life Studs would not have died, but in the Sophoclean sense, he should have. In the fate of Studs lies the impoverished world that formed him, doomed to atrophy. Farrell, however, has not succeeded in imagining the destinies of the Danny O’Neills and the Eddie Ryans. Like himself, they are creatures of the gap, powerfully attracted by the myth of opportunity and self-transformation but without the resources to sustain their aspirations. Thus they drift uncertainly and indefinitely. As the late Isaac Rosenfeld remarked of the Danny O’Neill books, Farrell shows what the reality is “against which he plays off the heart’s angry knowledge of the better life. But as he envelops it from one point of view after another, from character to character and incident to incident, reality envelops him until his anger is gone—and with it goes the knowledge. . . . He would let his anger carry away the burdens of his experience, but it only makes his burdens heavier by calling them back to life. In the end he neither forgets nor hates.” This is a brilliant insight into Farrell’s method, but Farrell’s failure does not lie in his method; it lies in the process by which the “angry knowledge of the heart” is lost, in the limbo between high aspirations and hard facts.

The tendencies pressing for action being obscure to him, Farrell is not the kind of artist who can force his vision on an intractable experience. But it is this very fidelity of Farrell to the experience he has imagined and lived, his tenacious refusal to force or to falsify it, that is his greatest strength and his most valuable legacy to younger Catholic writers.

_____________

 

However superior they were to Farrell as literary artists, Hemingway and Fitzgerald have only a peripheral interest for the American Catholic novelist who is trying to cope with his experience as an American and as a Catholic. For if Farrell has never left home, Fitzgerald and Hemingway left early and never went back. Neither of them knew the kind of lower-middle-class, big-city Catholicism that Farrell knew; neither ever felt, I think, outside the great middle class of America the way Farrell did. They may have opted out, but they at least had the option. Farrell might have stepped up and in, but since he was never in, he could not have stepped out.

Hemingway, after In Our Time, became intentionally cosmopolitan, a word he no doubt detested but which I think describes his work if it is not used invidiously. Not even Henry James, for all his Europeanism, ignored so completely the texture, the surface, the sentiment of American life as did Hemingway. His Americans are always someplace else; one may say that they think and feel and talk like Americans no matter where they may be, but that, even if it is true, is not my point: they do not confront a native reality, Catholic or otherwise. Hemingway’s imagination cuts off the adult from his childhood—that is to say, from his culture. Jake Barnes, Frederick Henry, Robert Jordan, even the Colonel in Across the River and into the Trees are all figures stripped of the paraphernalia—emotional, institutional, and occupational—of the time and place of their growing up; they are not cloyed and clogged by the life that formed them. A story like The Killers, so American, one might say, could nevertheless have happened in any place where crime is well organized and men are cowed by fear. Studs Lonigan, by contrast, could have happened only where it did. Which is to say that Farrell’s sense of place is emotional, even visceral, while Hemingway’s is acute and narrow; one sees his world through the sights of a rifle.

One could, I suppose, find a certain “Catholicism” in Hemingway’s writing. Some years ago in the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Burke Wilkinson referred to Hemingway as a Catholic, and to Faulkner as a Protestant, writer. It is true that Jake Barnes prays in church (a prayer that seems to me curiously toneless) as does the old man with the fish. One could even detect in Hemingway’s style an asceticism, a conscious self-denial that might be described as “Catholic.” But this would be pushing rather hard. In any case what is relevant here is not so much Hemingway’s religious temperament or the quality of his belief or disbelief, as his relationship to American Catholicism. He is in no way related to the surface aspects of the American Church, and yet it is curious that just as American Catholics adopted a negative stance toward the American experience, Hemingway, in another way, cut himself off, not only from his personal past, but from that of his country as well. All American literature, he said once, is descended from one book, Huckleberry Finn. That’s nonsense. What is not nonsense, what is curiously appropriate, is that Hemingway, in order to develop, felt it necessary to lop off so much of his background. Like Huck, he, too, had to light out for the territory, but his territory was not on the frontier; it was in places and cultures where he could be genuinely alien, alone, and courageous.

_____________

 

Fitzgerald’s case is more complicated. Always something of a snob, Fitzgerald disliked the dreary side of his Irish-Catholic youth and he was dazzled when he made the acquaintance of Father Fay, a converted Episcopalian who, as Fitzgerald was later to write, made of the Catholic Church “a dazzling, golden thing, dispelling its oppressive mugginess and giving the succession of days upon gray days, passing under its plaintive ritual, the romantic glamor of an adolescent dream.”

The only Catholicism Fitzgerald recognized imaginatively was European; and even then his attachment was more aesthetic than religious, and it was very far removed indeed from the lower middle classes who crowded the red brick American churches. I am not finding fault with Fitzgerald: a novelist does not choose his subjects; they choose him. Nevertheless, it is significant that Fitzgerald could ignore American Catholicism whereas Farrell could not. I wish to stress “could.” Catholicism, as a social reality in America, simply did not exist for Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota, any more than it did for Hemingway in Oak Park, Illinois.

Like other members of their generation of Catholics, Hemingway and Fitzgerald left the Church because the Church in America inhibited their capacity to confront the modern experience. While most of their generation who remained in the Church did nothing but wish that the scientific revolution and the upheavals and disorientations it brought in its wake would prove insubstantial, Hemingway and Fitzgerald (along with writers like Joyce, Yeats, and Eliot) were making the modern experience the center of their work. At the same time, however, having cut themselves off from the life out of which they came, they could find a home only in that large, dim, moribund cathedral sometimes called Western Culture which was mainly celebrating its own demise. The story is well known, so there is no need to rehearse at any length the conviction of decline and exhaustion that possessed (and obsessed) the best minds of that generation, some of whom transferred their faith to the socialism being built in the Soviet Union, only then to emerge twice disaffected.

Meanwhile, in the slums of Boston, New York, and Chicago, the immigrant Church was becoming naturalized. A rather complex process was under way. The Protestant culture that had unified the nation prior to World War I was breaking up; at the same time, the Catholic Church was becoming, not more Catholic, but more American. Catholic high schools and colleges were built, and those already in existence were improved. This has been a continuous process. (I am not yet forty, and I can see with my own eyes how much better Catholic higher education is now than it was twenty years ago.) But the process has also had the effect of creating a stronger centripetal force upon the thought and sensibility of the young. When Hemingway and Fitzgerald were growing up, Catholicism was only a religion; when the present generation of Catholic writers was young, the Church had become stronger, less defensive; it was more a cultural force in the lives of the young. There is such a thing, then, as an American Catholic experience, an experience that is more than personal and less than national. Given this experience, the novelist has no alternative to dealing with it imaginatively. And in this, I believe that Farrell, for all his flaws, has shown the way.

It has been a long while now since the novel was merely news. The great novels never were. But the creation of characters in time and place, some time and some place, still has to be achieved, for the novel, I think, can never be primarily concerned with ideas and problems; it must focus on things and persons, and to do this a visceral sense of place, an intuition of the way people and places grow and intertwine is, if not a necessity, then a great boon. Whether or not the contemporary American Catholic writers whom I consider most representative—Edwin O’Connor, J. F. Powers, and Flannery O’Connor—have been directly and consciously influenced by Farrell, they have all moved in the direction which he was the first to take.

Edwin O’Connor’s first big success convinced many critics that he need not be taken seriously, because despite the fact that The Last Hurrah was funny (as funny at times as anything Peter Finley Dunne ever wrote), the disparity between the passages, always in dialogue, featuring Skeffington or another politician, and the rest of the book, the part written “straight,” was so great that one could not but wonder what O’Connor would do without Skeffington. The answer, as somebody said, was to resurrect him in the person of Charlie Carmody of The Edge of Sadness. But this is a witticism that ignores two significant advances from The Last Hurrah. The first is in improvement of narrative technique; the second is the creation of a more specific and solid world than that of The Last Hurrah, dominated as it was by the hilarities and hypocrisies of a political campaign.

The world he created in The Edge of Sadness is the home field, as it were, of the Catholic ethos in America—that world within a world that exists in every big Northeastern city: the world of politics, usually local; of small business; of parish gossip; of wakes and weddings. This world has neither the amplitude nor the diversity of Balzac’s Paris or James’s London, and of course it is parochial; but not so parochial, let us say, as Greenwich Village or Palm Springs. O’Connor makes it an imaginatively valid world and his characters act meaningfully within it. What he does not do (and here, I think, is the clue to his unpopularity with the serious critics) is challenge its validity. There is pain and sadness aplenty but the characters never reach the extremity of a fundamental alienation. Many critics seem to think that the unalienated man is unworthy of their interest. But it is worth remembering that the alienated man is unworldly, and unless the writer can create both an alienated man and an imaginatively valid world, he had perhaps better settle for the world.

O’Connor’s world is rather more comfortable than Farrell’s—a softer world, but one more amenable to fiction. The Church is socially strong and respectable; religion continues to act as a stabilizer, almost as an inhibitor of change; and the priestly problems are the old problems of sloth and alcoholism in their parishioners and in themselves. This is an arena intellectuals ought to be better acquainted with, for if it is true, and it is, that whole segments of our culture are without any conscious involvement in the modern world, it is also true that intellectuals have no sympathy at all with the people who pray and fear and hope in the old way. Lower-middle-class Catholics are not the only people in America who never heard of the Enlightenment; the people who crowd into store-front churches never heard of it either—and don’t want to.

_____________

 

Like Edwin O’Connor, J. F. Powers has restricted himself to Catholic subjects. He has written so many stories about priests that there is an impression abroad that he himself once studied for the priesthood. From the beginning, however, it was the quality of his prose and the careful, craftsmanlike way he built his stories that earned him praise. His output has not been great: two books of short stories and one novel, Morte D’Urban, winner of the 1962 National Book Award.

On one level, Morte D’Urban is Babbitt in a Roman collar; but so thoroughly does Powers imagine Father Urban Roche that he finally transcends the satire and becomes a full-fledged character: in this respect he is comparable to Leopold Bloom. Just as Bloom is the modern Ulysses, Father Urban is the modern American King Arthur, with a touch of Launcelot, who instead of receiving his head wound from the sword of Modred at Lands End, is struck on the head by a golf ball from the bishop’s club. The novel not only adroitly parodies Arthurian patterns; at the same time, it explores certain relationships, not all of them healthy, between the clergy and laity. Powers, in short, has used the clerical establishment as a point of departure into the broader, lay world of contemporary Midwestern Catholicism.

_____________

 

Flannery O’Connor, like Powers, and unlike Edwin O’Connor, has received more critical than popular acclaim. But unlike both Powers and Edwin O’Connor, her subjects are Southern, rural or small-town, and Protestant rather than Northern, big-city, and Catholic.

That Miss O’Connor’s sensibility is intensely religious there can be no doubt, and yet, as Robert Fitzgerald has remarked, in most of her stories “we are aware of the Roman or universal Church mainly by its absence.” She herself is quoted by John Hawkes as follows:

I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.

For more than ten years now, in her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and her short stories, Miss O’Connor has been exploring this conflict. Her most recent work that I know of, a novella entitled The Lame Shall Enter First, presents the conflict more starkly, I think, than ever before. The central character, a widower and a father (not accidentally his name is Sheppard) ignores his own child in order to “save” an older boy named Johnson who is lame and very bright, an orphan turned delinquent. Sheppard means to make him a “good” man by delivering him from a life of petty crime as well as from the conviction that the Bible is literally true. As a result, he fails to save Johnson and he loses his own son. Toward the end this modern shepherd of souls (he is, characteristically, the city educational director) reflects: “He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself. He saw the clear-eyed Devil, the sounder of hearts, leering at him from the eyes of Johnson.”

Miss O’Connor has said of her characters: “My people could come from anywhere, but naturally since I know the South they speak with a Southern accent.” Well, nobody can come from anywhere, and Miss O’Connor’s characters could come from no place but the American South. Evident, I think, in Miss O’Connor’s work, as opposed to her statements about it, is the belief that the where and the how and the when of one’s upbringing are essential and inseparable parts of one’s humanity. It is true that, by abstraction, we can arrive at a universal man by divesting an individual of his color, his heredity, his nationality—all those so-called accidental qualities. But that is not the universality the novelist aims at. And it is not the universality Miss O’Connor achieves, for example, in The Violent Bear It Away.

Birth, birthplace, upbringing. Origins and destinies. Things and persons. One of the chief virtues of Miss O’Connor’s work is that she has imagined and shaped, in what she likes to call her “one cylinder prose,” the human countenance of the holy and has given “the air of the times” a local habitation and a name.

A writer can, I suppose, cut himself off from his past and, free of fetters, enter into strange new worlds. This is the way of deprivation, and it may (I doubt it) be valid. But there is another way, the way of assimilation—and that means bringing all of one’s heritage with one when one moves. I recall a scene from Brian Moore’s last book. The old woman arrives in New York and is taken to her son’s and his wife’s apartment. She remarks to herself that they have nothing there that belonged to any of their forebears, nothing around them to link them to the past. It is this neurotic, willful poverty that makes profundity in art impossible, for, psychologically, are not memory and profundity the same?

_____________

 

It is also well to remember that the novel is the most bourgeois of forms; it must deal with the commonplace (the exotic, whether it be Siam or the world of drugs, is always a trap); and if it manages to enter the realm of high culture so dear to various elites, it must enter with muddy shoes and a wilted collar. Some years ago Clement Greenberg, in his famous article “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” convinced me (not that he intended to) that avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating. Experience is reduced to expression for the sake of expression. And Greenberg quoted from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.

In the English novel the great examples of such an art are Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. I admire Joyce almost to idolatry, but it is difficult to see where one can go from him. He uses myth to awake from history, to freeze time not into a moment, but into an eternity, an aesthetic eternity, of truth. If this is the course the novel must take, then it certainly is dead, and we might as well all go to the movies and surrender ourselves to scatolatry. But is this the only course for the novel to take?

The Yeats of “Sailing to Byzantium” suggests that it is, but there is a late poem of Yeats’s, later than “Sailing to Byzantium.” It is called “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and the last several lines suggest another way:

   and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate
   memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems
       of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what
   began?
A mound of refuse or the sweeping of
   a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving
   slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s
   gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders
   start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the
   heart.

Old kettles, old bottles, the raving slut who keeps the till—these are the poetic equivalents of what I have called the ethos of society with which the novelist must be as much concerned as with the pathos of character, for the two intertwine, interact, nourish, and injure each other. It is within this area that I think Farrell’s example is so useful; ever since the Lonigan books, he has been trying to create characters who act, as well as suffer, in, with, and against the ethos of which they are a part. As for the Catholic novelist in particular, his task is not fundamentally different from that of any other novelist. It may be, however, that by entering imaginatively into the parochial American experience he can provide the Catholic community as a whole with that bridge between living as Americans and thinking as Americans which they have for so long been afraid to build. As Wallace Stevens wrote:

Nota: his soil is man’s intelligence
That’s better. That’s worth crossing seas
   to find.

Catholics crossed the seas years ago; it’s about time we started tilling the soil.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.