What Is a Catholic Novel?

June 1992By Edwin Fussell

Edwin Fussell is Professor of Ameri­can Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His latest book is The French Side of Henry James, and his The Catholic Side of Henry James is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He is currently in Paris taking a long va­cation from Americanism.

Biographical Dictionary of Con­temporary Catholic American Writing.  Edited by Daniel J. Tynan. Greenwood. 341 pages. $49.95.



The Road to Rome: An An­notated Bibliography (Garland, 1986) dealt with converts, and we all know who they are: Yes­terday they were not and to­day they are. But the listing seemed confined to Americans and British. I did not find Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger (Archbishop of Paris) or Jac­ques Maritain. C.S. Lewis, al­though not Catholic, was there, as he is everywhere these days. The Catholic Novel: An Annotated Bibliography (Gar­land, 1988) also suffered from want of definition. Brian Moore, although lapsed, was there, Joyce Carol Oates was not. Cather was in, Dreiser out (and don’t ask about Joyce!). Most of the items were Ameri­can, but a few were European. Flannery O’Connor was ex­cluded because she wrote about Protestants.

The Tynan book, under review here, is much the most capacious in generosity of def­inition and inclusion; capacious too in Tynan’s assigning the various entries to a roster of 66 contributors besides himself. As usual, inclusions and exclu­sions are fascinating. Fitzgerald and Hemingway are missing, as is Dreiser, but as recom­pense numerous borderline cases are included (but what is a borderline case?; do we know more than God?). Unlike some other works about Catho­lic writers, the inclusiveness and candor are delightful. Alison E. O’Hara, identified as a law student at the University of Colorado, writes about her uncle Frank O’Hara: “The Church demanded restriction of sexual behaviors, but O’Hara was a practicing homo­sexual who drank heavily.” Other marginal types include Katherine Anne Porter, Eugene O’Neill, and John O’Hara. Andrew Greeley, despite his crotchets, gets his due and perhaps more than his due. The beautiful John Berryman is in. Robert Lowell is here and so is Galway Kinnell. The mere mention of names keeps bringing up the question of criteria. The criterion of inclu­siveness is wonderfully carried out in practice but is erroneous in theory — viz., all these writers were baptized Catho­lics. The editor should have reread the Nicene Creed (“one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” i.e., it makes no differ­ence if the writer was baptized a Baptist). Despite the luxury and extent of the feast — is there any gentile writer in the U.S. who is not a Catholic writer? — I continue to feel that Flannery O’Connor is so far the chief American contri­bution to Catholic literature, which, we must remind ourselves, is not national but as wide as humanity. She is number one because of her talent in fiction and because of her faith and because she knew what she was doing. Her nightly dose of St. Thomas Aquinas might be emulated by others.

Such creatures of habit we are and especially verbal habit! Say to yourself the syllables “Counter Reformation” and watch your mind click forth, in no particular order, the Society of Jesus, the Council of Trent, the Tridentine Mass, the Ba­roque (Bernini, Borromeo, Mi­chelangelo’s dome at St. Pe­ter’s), St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa. That Counter Reforma­tion which we carry in our heads, so as not to think too much about it, is doctrinal, or­ganizational, visual, mystic; it is Spanish and Italian. Clearly it is not French or English or American and it is not espe­cially literary. As a footnote, speculate why your mind did not click forth the names of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, and Giotto, four famous Italians who lived about 300 years earlier, born within years and kilometers of one another. The composite dates of these four persons are 1181-1337. Should we call it the 13th-century Renaissance? Was it also a Reformation or even a Counter Reformation? The lines are still not drawn. We await news of the great 16th-century Disaster — Protest, Dissent, Destruc­tion, Betrayal, Secession, Vilifi­cation: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox. Their composite dates are 1483-1572. It is to their threat that we imagine our Counter Reformation as re­sponding and co-responding.

I want to propose a second Counter Reformation and be­yond that to suggest that there is always a Counter Reforma­tion going on because there is always an attack to be fended off. This second Counter Ref­ormation is, however, easy to detect. It is democratic and literary and it depends on the invention of printing and the large-scale distribution of printed works, which in turn depends upon widespread literacy. You are indulging in its benefits at this very moment. It is much less Spanish and Ital­ian, and indeed it is more French and American and En­glish and even German. It may be typified by Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, where the sorry life and early death of the violent creative-destructive Lutheran-type composer-genius is checked and controlled and co-responded to by his lifelong friend, a mere Catholic human­ist teacher of literature in a lyceum, who survives, as the genius and Hitler’s Germany do not. It is the Catholic and not the Lutheran who writes the pages that we read. These pages are printed on paper and bound. They have been read by millions and can be read by millions more. In that sense, numerical if not other, the later Counter Reformation in litera­ture is more important than the Counter Reformation we automatically click forth. It started later — say, in the 18th century — and is still going on.

It is in that broad context that the three reference vol­umes mentioned here find their place and raison d’être. They point us to that fascina­tion, “the Catholic Novel,” equally suitable for inquirers, sympathizers, converts, faith­ful, and lapsed. The trouble is, no one knows what a Catholic novel is. How can one, when so few know what is meant by a Catholic? (I have just listed five types and there are thousands more.) Do you have to be a Catholic to write a Catho­lic novel? Think of Thomas Mann or Willa Cather. Do you have to attend Mass regularly? Think of Honore de Balzac. Do you have to admire the faith or just be affected by it? Think of Theodore Dreiser or F. Scott Fitzgerald. We all know what the nationalities of these peo­ple are. Nationality is easy. It usually involves no free will. Religious affiliation is all free will and grace, and is therefore nearly impossible to define.

Take the case of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, a Tril­ogy, which came out as a Modern Library Giant in 1938, with a new preface by the author, who defines the prob­lem of his protagonist and in­deed of all his people as “spiritual poverty.” Farrell had left the Church for other things. And in the Biographical Dictionary, we learn further: “Unlike Dreiser (who though baptized and raised as a Catho­lic never used the Church as important subject matter [but see Jennie Gerhardt]), Farrell emphasized the Church’s role in a society which spoils the [American] dream [success, money] and stifles the dream­er, thwarting the individual’s search for self-discovery, growth, satisfaction. No Amer­ican writer of his or any other time has produced a more severe indictment of American Catholicism.”

If so, we begin to see the danger of relying on baptismal records. And of assuming that an author’s intentions are automatically realized and that a reader will agree with them. Let Farrell’s Catholicity go for a moment and consider two other issues first. (1) Studs Lon­igan reeks of Americanism. If you aren’t a flag-waving, George Bush, yellow-ribbon superpatriot, you won’t like this book, even if it tickles your leftish bigotries, especially if you are Catholic: Farrell nev­er seems to notice that his Americanism is mainly Protes­tantism, even though his novels run from Presbyterian Wilson to Quaker Hoover. (2) Male chauvinism. The novels are told from a certain male point of view, mainly that of Studs Lonigan (vocabulary of 400 words). Broads and janes exist to be felt up, jazzed, solo or gang-shag; knocked up; not married, not honored, not cherished, not cared for or even talked to. The women are labeled as conservative, con­formist, dull, and far more Catholic than the men. It is a token of their stupidity. (If they get knocked up, the priest will put pressure on the man to marry them.)

Finally, (3) the Catholic point, which is basically a point in literary criticism, namely, that the reader, not the writer, controls meaning and value. If you are writing an anti-Catholic diatribe, you had better not run Catholic liturgy into the text; the Catho­lic liturgy is so much lovelier than the prose which is telling you how stupid Catholicity is — yes, even Latin prose is far better than Farrell’s English. At the end of the novel, Studs Lonigan dies — mother, nuns, and priests at bedside. Farrell quotes the Last Rites. If one is merely generously disposed to Catholicism, one shall regard them as harmless at worst, and at best, beautiful, true, and indispensable. Where does that leave Farrell? Let us remember that his readers are not by any rule of Canon Law prohibited from praying for him. Let us all pray for him. Let us pray that if he is in, say, Purgatory, he signs up for a basic course in the writing of fiction, includ­ing prose style and point of view.



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