After the Fall of Richmond, What?
Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South
By Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr.
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Price: No price given
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
Conversations with Walker Percy. Edited by Lewis A. Lawson & Victor A. Kramer. University Press of Mississippi. 325 pages. $9.95.
General Robert E. Lee might well have said “Apres moi le déluge” when on an April day in 1865, under the watchful eyes of his rumpled adversary, General Grant, he affixed his signature to a document that spelled the doom of the old order. The South’s vaulting dream of establishing an agrarian republic lay shattered in the wreckage of a ravaged land; in defeat the Southerner found himself peering anxiously into a future whose configuration would be determined not by himself, but by the agents of an alien urban, industrial society. In 1865 he stepped reluctantly into the modern world and entered the era of A.G.L. (After General Lee). Or, as Robert Brinkmeyer phrases it in Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South, he faced the relentless challenge of “how to live after the collapse of the Old South’s Stoic tradition.”
The future could be staved off for a while at least: defeated, impoverished, free to impose his will upon the liberated blacks, and relegated to the stagnant backwaters of a bustling nation, the Southerner could temporarily delude himself into believing that the old regime, though battered, still maintained its sway south of the Potomac. But by the time Allen Tate — one of Brinkmeyer’s trio of writers — came of age in the 1920s, the Southerner found it increasingly difficult to ward off the assaults of the modern world. If the “Stoic tradition” of honor, duty, courage, loyalty, and fortitude no longer sufficed to impose meaning on the world, then how did one cope with this new order? For some, Tate included (at least until the mid-1930s), the answer lay in clinging tenaciously to venerated traditions and insisting that a gentleman was still a gentleman, even if the yahoos mocked him as an anachronism. Other Southerners embraced modernity, out-Yankeed the Yankees, and created a strain of Babbitts who reduced Sinclair Lewis’s enterprising booster to an amateur by comparison. Religion — to which men have immemorially turned for solace and meaning — thrived in the new South: for those ascending into the middle classes it afforded respectability and confirmation that God blesses the righteous; for the masses, sunk in ignorance and poverty, fundamentalism offered orgiastic release in the here and now and the promise of eternal bliss in the life to come.
For some Southerners — three of whom, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, and Walker Percy, form the subject of Brinkmeyer’s book — neither tradition nor wealth-getting nor Protestantism answered the question of questions: Wherein lies the meaning of existence? Each of these writers found the answer in the Catholic Church, an odd conclusion in a region that had by the 20th century fashioned Catholic-baiting into a refined art. Born in 1899, Tate resisted conversion until 1950, striving to find in the traditions of the Old South and in the modernist’s religion of art for art’s sake the elusive purpose that would order his life. Four years Tate’s senior, Caroline Gordon (who became Mrs. Tate in 1924) looked to the image of the classical hero, embodied for her in her father whom she fictionalized as Alec Maury, to unify fragmented experience, until in 1947 she embraced Catholicism. That same year Walker Percy, a generation younger than Gordon and Tate, similarly entered the Catholic Church. With Richmond fallen, only Rome remained.
A book such as Brinkmeyer’s has been long overdue, for the odysseys of Tate, Gordon, and Percy are not unique; throughout the 20th century a number of Southern writers have either converted to Catholicism or at least flirted with the Church. Among the converts one thinks, for example, of Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, and the literary critic Walter Sullivan. John Gould Fletcher, Imagist poet and contributor to I’ll Take My Stand, briefly felt the pull of Rome. Donald Davidson, who reacted with horror at Tate’s attraction to Catholicism, apparently (according to a former colleague of his) was moving toward the Church at the time of his death in 1968. Although Brinkmeyer has not told the complete story, he has supplied a trenchant and insightful beginning for whomever undertakes to encompass the broader phenomenon. Such a work must delve further into biography than Brinkmeyer ventures, for Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South sticks mainly to literary criticism, to a close analysis of Tate’s poetry and the fiction of Gordon and Percy. Even among intellectuals, religious conversion is generally a deeply personal and emotionally wrenching event, something that Brinkmeyer fails to capture. One wonders, for example, why he did not interview Walker Percy in order to question the elusive Mr. Percy on the specifics of his conversion and belief. And why did Brinkmeyer not consult the Tate manuscript collection at Princeton University? Surely these papers contain nuggets worth mining.
Brinkmeyer discerns a pattern that many Southern converts, especially those of Tate’s and Gordon’s generation, followed: first, a realization that the classical virtues and agrarian ethos enshrined by the gentry of the Old South would not suffice to order existence in the 20th century; then, the casting about for a more secure foundation; and followed by a turn toward Rome. But as Brinkmeyer recognizes, Walker Percy cannot be squeezed into this scheme. As Percy recently remarked to an interviewer: “I’m kind of a maverick; I don’t fit into the Southern pattern.” The two dozen or so interviews contained in Conversations with Walker Percy reveal why. Moreover, they provide what one rarely finds in such interviews: genuine illumination of the writer’s work. The pieces collected by Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer far surpass the usual fare of the genre: ego-massaging by a cooing interviewer who encourages the writer to spout arrant nonsense tricked out as wisdom.
Percy has been chided by Southern traditionalists for evincing insufficient piety toward the old ideals. This is not completely fair, for as Brinkmeyer points out, Percy greatly admires his adoptive father, William Alexander Percy, a Mississippi poet, planter, and lawyer who exemplified the Southern code at its best. Will Percy’s autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee, published just before his death in 1942, exhibits with charm and affection the practical workings of noblesse oblige. Will Percy was an old Roman of whom Marcus Aurelius himself would have been proud: honor, decency, courage, loyalty, and duty guided his course like a ship’s compass. Though he observed these virtues firsthand, Walker Percy, unlike Allen Tate, never believed they would adequately order his experience in the modern world. Percy commented to an interviewer: “I think a time comes when you can spend too much time ruminating over family sagas and epics, defeats and the lost war. And then a time comes when you have to figure out how to live in the here-and-now.” How to survive the mundanity of an ordinary Wednesday afternoon (as Percy would say): that is the crucial question. That one’s ancestors were men of honor, that they fronted the withering Yankee fire on Cemetery Ridge, that they lived with the bitter taste of defeat: these facts do not, according to Percy, enable one to endure that proverbial Wednesday afternoon. Percy was not, then, in his pre-Catholic days the anguished defender of tradition with his finger in the dike; he was, instead, modern Western man, cut loose from his moorings and searching for answers in a society that had largely forgotten even the appropriate questions. One suspects that the South of today contains far more Walker Percys than Allen Tates.
For Percy — and here again he offends Southern traditionalists, as well, this time, as many orthodox Christians — the road to Catholicism was paved with existentialism, specifically the writings of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus, and Gabriel Marcel. Brinkmeyer fails to elaborate adequately this side of Percy, a side that contains the key to an understanding of Percy’s novels. The elusive, allusive, subtle, elliptical, and often problematical nature of faith as presented in Percy’s novels (the results, one suspects, of Kierkegaard’s towering influence) has led to misunderstanding; as Percy says: “Catholics think of me as a real nut But Percy knows that one rarely accomplishes much by seizing the sophisticated novel reader — perplexed and confused modern man that he is — by the scruff of the neck and bludgeoning him about the head and shoulders with the Gospel. Instead, says Percy, “the so-called Catholic or Christian novelist nowadays has to be very indirect, if not downright deceitful, because all he has to do is say one word about salvation or redemption and the jig is up…. ” Percy’s way offers little to those who dwell within the fortress of faith, but for those on the outside it might just work. Chesterton wrote over 50 years ago: “The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” Who knows? Walker Percy may be onto something: a new angle.
That the grace of God still flows abundantly through what some would call this godforsaken century perhaps receives no better verification than that a fair number of Southern writers — Tate, Gordon, and Percy among them — have threaded their way through secularity and a culture hostile to Catholicism to find haven in the securest way station one can discover on the journey through this world — the Catholic Church.
© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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