THE CURIOUS CASE OF A WANNA-BE CATHOLIC
Henry James's Literary Catholicism

January-February 1993By Edwin Fussell

Edwin Fussell lives in exile in Paris. His latest book, The Catholic Side of Henry James, will be released by Cambridge University Press early this year.

In one of his last tales, "The Bench of Desolation" (1909-1910), Henry James gives us this curious passage, curious all the more be­cause he is not, so far as we can tell or will ever be able to tell, a real Catholic:
He [the protagonist on his bench] might, in these sessions, with his eyes on the grey-green sea, have been counting again and still recounting the beads, almost all worn. smooth, of his rosary of pain -- which had for the fingers of memory and the recurrences of wonder the same felt break of the smaller ones by the larger that would have aided a pious mumble in some dusky altar-chapel.
The man knows his Rosary all right, in a rather nonsubstantive sort of way, but "pious mum­ble" is not an especially gracious phrase. The one thing we may be sure of is that here is an author anxious to weave some Catholicity into his text -- otherwise quite un-Catholic -- and let the fabric ravel as it may. James did so all his writing life. He would make endless met­aphors by combining a Catholic element (a Rosary) with a secular element (memories, not Catholic at all). The result may be called, al­ternatively, a secular sacred or a sacred secu­lar.

That -- and comparable performances -- is a striking example of literary Catholicizing, an ugly term of my own devising, useful in the designation of texts by persons who pose as Catholic when in real life they aren't. Willa Cather in at least two of her major novels is just such another. James and Cather are the opposite of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, even Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy: All of these to varying degrees were recognized and read, with condescension and envy, as Catholic writers by a populace mainly un-Catholic, which knows not what it does (and so must be forgiven) but which holds Catholic Literature to be chic and cute. Consider the Times Literary Supplement as quoted on the back cover of The Diary of a Country Priest (Image Books paperback edition of 1954): "In daring to describe the awareness of the supernatural, M. Bernanos has successfully brought to birth a kind fiction which had seemed inconceivable." Since 1954 the form has darkened: Now no ome especially loves Catholic Literature, or American Catholics either.


You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.



Back to January-February 1993 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this story!