Garry Wills: An Important Writer

June 1991By John C. Cort

John C. Cort is a Boston-area writer. He has worked as a reporter, editor, union organizer, and Peace Corps and antipoverty official. He has written over 200 articles and reviews in publications such as Commonweal and The Nation.

Question: Among American Catholics, who is the most important writer of the 20th century?

The nominees are: John A. Ryan, Dorothy Day, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, J.F. Powers, Walker Percy, Daniel Berrigan, and Garry Wills.

The envelope, please. And the winner is (pause for effect): Dorothy Day.

The interesting part of this exercise is that until I looked up and saw Dorothy Day staring at me from the top of the bookcase, I had decided that the winner might well be Garry Wills. I had not read a book by Wills in 20 years, since Bare Ruined Choirs. But thinking to write something on justice, I was in a bookstore looking for John Rawls when my eye happened to light on Wills's latest, Under God: Religion and American Politics. I thought that might be relevant and took it home.

I was so impressed that I went to the library and took out five more books of his and later six more. The man is a brilliant reporter, with a lively and readable style, and a historian of formidable learning. Of those mentioned above he has, I would guess, received the most enthusiastic acclaim from the secular world. Though I disagree with him profoundly on several subjects, I think he has important things to say to both Catholic and non-Catholic readers. He has been so critical of the Church that one tends to assume that he has left it, but he keeps mentioning that he is still a Catholic and once noted that he reads the New Testament every day. So let's take him at his word.

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