October 1989

Possum and Other Receits for the Recovery of “South­ern” Being.  By Marion Montgomery. University of Georgia Press. 158 pages. $16.

In the best tradition of Southern Agrarianism, Marion Montgomery com­bines spirited intellection with firm rootedness in the humble commonplaceness of existence. In other words, there are possums and possums. The first is that lugubrious marsupial famed for his astonishing ability to head across a road at the precise moment a car comes roaring along. Some people probably think this creature exists solely to be squashed flatter than the proverbial pancake. For Montgomery, this droll little animal — as ubiquitous in the South as chiggers, kudzu, and beauty queens — reminds one of the givenness of the created world and of the limitations of human mastery. Plodding along, oblivious to the vault­ing ambitions of man and his hurtling machines, the possum survives. One sus­pects that in the event of a nuclear holocaust Mr. Pos­sum would scrabble out of the rubble, sigh dolefully — and start all over again.

Montgomery’s other possum is a possum — “the first person, present tense, singular form” of the Latin verb posse, a word that gives rise to our terms “possible,” “potent,” “potential.” This possum spells trouble, for with it “a person detects within himself the glimmer of his own potential and so is moved to eager presumptuousness.” This impels man to a technological arrogance that disdains the lowly marsupial he has left splat­tered on the pavement. Against this haughtiness Montgomery poses “Southernness”: “this recognition of and acceptance of existence with the awful consequences of its givenness.” He evinces no regional chauvinism in his choice of terms. It is simply a way to express man’s acceptance of creaturely limitations, his glad embrace of the modest reali­ties of the created world, his refusal to unleash a prideful urge to attain god-like dominance over creation. Or, the recognition that possums are preferable to possums.

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All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca.  By Dorothy Galla­gher. Rutgers University Press. 321 pages. $24.95.

Blessed be the man with “all the right enemies.” When the anarchist leader Carlo Tresca was gunned down in 1943 by a hired killer, no one knew whether to blame the Communists, the Mafia, or former pro-fascists within New York City’s Italian-American community. As Dorothy Gallagher points out, all three groups hated him and had ample reason to desire his death. Tresca won his enemies because he warred unceasingly “against all varieties of tyranny,” a risky business in our century, when it has been prudent to be selective in choosing which tyrants to fight. But Tresca did nothing by halves, whether it involved women, food, wine, or poli­tics.

He was no saint. He abandoned his wife and child and ignored an illegit­imate son. He was once indicted for seducing at 15-year-old girl (he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge), and even into old age he chased women with the gusto of a tomcat on the prowl. He feuded endlessly with the Catholic Church, routinely referring in his writings to priests as “pigs in cassocks” and “rabid dogs.” Despite his detestation of the Mafia, he “often boasted,” Gallagher reveals, “of the protection afforded him by his friendly relations with some members of the underworld.”

Against these blotches on his life, one must weigh the boldness of his champi­oning of the poor, the op­pressed, the powerless, and the magnificence of his unremitting hostility to the enslaving and murderous ideologies of the 20th cen­tury. Max Eastman said of Tresca: “He was the last of the great revolutionists who fought with love instead of hate in their hearts.” After Tresca’s death his last mis­tress wrote to Ignazio Silone: “Carlo shared with you that rare and beautiful gift — he loved people as people and not merely as systems….” Dorothy Gallagher’s lively and discerning biography convinces one that Carlo Tresca has been unjustly forgotten.

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Letters of C.S. Lewis and Don Giovanni Calabria: A Study in Friendship. Edited by Martin Moynihan.  By Jim Forest. Servant. 125 pages. $5.95.

Fr. Calabria was beati­fied in April 1988 for, among other things, his work on behalf of Christian unity. In addition to a fine Introduc­tion, Moynihan, a Roman Catholic member of the Inklings (Lewis’s literary circle), gives us the full texts in Latin and English of the seven extant letters of Cala­bria to Lewis, 21 from Lewis to him, and seven to Fr. Luigi Pedrollo, the inheritor of Calabria’s ministry to Lewis.

Upon reading the Italian translation of The Screwtape Letters, Calabria wrote a letter of encouragement to its author, Lewis. There commenced an affectionate spiritual correspondence which lasted from 1947 until 1954, the year of Calabria’s death. Anyone interested in Lewis’s thinking on ecume­nism, petitionary prayer, forgiveness, and like matters will relish the mutual en­couragement the correspond­ence records between two “morning stars of the Reun­ion,” to use Chesterton’s felicitous phrase.

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This Tremendous Lover. By M. Eugene Boylan.  By Christian Classics. Harper & Row. 393 pages. $7.95.

Eugene Boylan yokes together two horses that rarely pull harmoniously: cogent doctrinal exposition and exalted spirituality. Too often, they strain in opposite directions, the former labor­ing to tug toward flat, uninspiring explication, the latter champing to kick up his heels and gallop into ineffability. Boylan induces the pair to haul in unison, for, he insists, “the proper foundation of devotion is dogma.” That we generally view these as incompatible indicates how blind we have become to the unity of belief and practice. Boylan restores one’s vision.

Boylan’s efforts result in a book of extraordinary wisdom, keen perception, and compelling spiritual vigor. It is a love story, an account of the mutual love between God and man “which achieves its consum­mation in Christ.” Fired by the grandeur of this love, Boylan at times soars to a poetic splendor worthy of the Song of Songs; just as readily, though, he strips his prose to a diamond-hard epigrammatism.

Boylan transforms the seemingly impossible goal of perfection in Christ into an attainable end for all believers. One reaches it not by feverish activity, nor by heroic deeds and astounding feats, but through a childlike abandonment to the will of God. One must embrace faith, hope, humility, but above all, one must love God, his creatures, and the entire order of creation with every fiber of one’s being. This command at once frightens and exhilarates: the one, because it demands the hardest thing of all — aban­donment to Christ; the other, because God promises oneness with him in the mystical Body of Christ. And what God promises, he delivers.

When This Tremendous Lover was originally pub­lished in 1947 it shot to the top of every discerning Catholic’s list of essential books. One hopes that its republication will elicit a similar response from a new generation.

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Southerners and Europeans: Essays in a Time of Disorder.  By Andrew Lytic. Louisiana State University Press. 308 pages. $32.50.

Only the magnificence of Andrew Lytle’s novels prevents one from wishing he had devoted his special gifts to criticism. In an era when literary critics have debased their discipline into a bedlam of screeching idiots savants (Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist — a malady for every predilection), Lytle has labored inconspicuously (alas, in all too few essays) to preserve a measure of sanity and good sense in the study of literature. Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Caro­line Gordon, and other “Southerners and Euro­peans” provide the occasion for these essays. The topics are superficially disparate, but Lytle’s Christian vision and sensibility bind them into a coherent whole. With Lytle’s coaxing, literary criti­cism reclaims its noble es­tate, and if even then it is incapable of redeeming the time, as Eliot urged, it is yet able to hold the Yeatsean center a while longer against what Lytle calls the “folly and corruption and mad­ness” of our age.

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