That Red Wheelbarrow: Selected Literary Essays
By Robert Coles
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
One shudders when a psychiatrist lurches into the precincts of literature; a bull blundering into a display of Waterford crystal is, by comparison, a model of gracefulness. The psychiatrist who plays literary critic generally burbles with a craving to “explain” — that is, to reduce a novel, poem, or play to the consequence of a particular (usually warped) psychic configuration. Thank heavens that Robert Coles, dreaded combination of psychiatrist and litterateur, recognizes the perils that lurk in this confusion of disciplines. “To see fiction as an interesting kind of psychiatric fall-out,” he cautions, “is to be a dreary and ignorant reader.” Coles regularly frequents the house of literature, but when he does so, he checks his professional credentials at the door. Love of the story, not an itch to finger the neuroses and psychic distresses of the teller, distinguish his method.
That Red Wheelbarrow collects 44 of the literary essays and reviews Coles has published in the past 25 years in such magazines as The New Republic, New Oxford Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review. They cover a conglomeration of writers — artists as diverse as Dickens, Knut Hamsun, Kafka, William Carlos Williams, and Flannery O’Connor, to name only a few — but Coles laces them together with his conviction that the most momentous truths come not from the journalists, social scientists, and puffed-up experts we rely upon so slavishly, but from poets and novelists limning their idiosyncratic visions. Although the novelist often conveys a wealth of social observation and unveils intricacies of character and personality, his most exalted task lies elsewhere. “The novel…has been an instrument of grace,” Coles maintains, “a book of wisdom…about this uncertain journey we all take.” The writer imparts this wisdom not by striving to be wise, nor by pontificating on grandiose themes, nor by arrogating to himself a schoolmasterish didacticism. Rather, “good novelists,” as Coles observes, “approach this life through particulars and try to avoid generalization.” Or, as William Carlos Williams, who inspired a young Harvard English major to plunge into medical studies, used to note (and Coles, that onetime medical student, likes to repeat): “No ideas but in things.”
In an essay on Williams included in this volume (the book’s title, incidentally, comes from a poem by Williams), Coles concludes: “And so, once again, as many in New Jersey [where Williams practiced medicine] had occasion to say during the first half of this century, say and say again: thank you, Doctor Williams.” In like fashion, one finishes That Red Wheelbarrow and declares: “Thank you, Doctor Coles.”
As I Have Loved You
By Omer Tanghe
Consider: The beautiful daughter of an aristocratic Russian family finds her way to America, begins a sharply controversial experiment in race relations (in the 1930s), helps propel Thomas Merton from Harlem to Gethsemane, and — having married — finally founds the Madonna House lay apostolate in Canada and well beyond. Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s long and rich life offers an extraordinary story. One only wishes that Fr. Omer Tanghe’s sketch of this amazing woman didn’t have so many gaps and wasn’t so woodenly reverential.
It is clear that Doherty’s amazing energy grew out of a deep practice of prayer. For her the liturgy was joy. She found too a special vocation for making the solemn liturgy of the Eastern Church better appreciated in the West. Prayer, in her mind, must lead to evangelization, especially in the form of living among and working with the poor and those consigned to the margins of society.
Clear enough too in Tanghe’s book is Catherine Doherty’s love for the Catholic Church during these difficult years of renewal. Again and again we read of her poignant affirmation of priests in their central role, never to be compromised, as ministers of the Eucharist.
There is a sign posted at Madonna House which says simply: “Pass it on!” Catherine de Hueck Doherty has done just that with the Gospel.
The American Revolution and the Politics of Liberty
By Robert H. Webking
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
After a searching examination of the writings of six leaders — James Otis, Patrick Henry, John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, and the Adamses, Samuel and John — Robert Webking concludes that the Revolution was, as the revolutionaries insisted all along, about liberty. The men of 1776 evinced a “strongly held and carefully thought out conviction that liberty is essential to humanity, In that conviction lies the source of the American Revolution.”
In taking the revolutionaries at their word, Webking rejects the old Progressive school’s argument that those wards were mere disguises for true motives: a quest to seize power and a determination to protect vested economic interests. Webking also dismisses the notion that the revolutionaries were chained to an ideology that warped their perception of reality. They were, he maintains, rational, prudent, and principled statesmen. Nor does the author waste much patience on either the idea that the revolutionaries conceived of a public good that transcended individual interests, or on the theory that they sought to promote classical and Christian virtue as the foundation of a sound republic. Of the first contention, Webking argues that “when they spoke of the public good, the Americans had in mind not something that was distinct from individual interests but rather something that was designed to make the pursuit of those interests easier.” Similarly, “their notion of virtue could be tied directly to the need to create a government that would secure individual rights effectively.”
Webking’s book, filled with penetrating insight and a discerning reading of sources, prompts one to several observations. Although the author would no doubt deny it vociferously, he paints an unflattering portrait of the founders (yet the revolutionaries’ descendants of 200 years later probably admire what they see). The book also induces one to suggest that perhaps the American experiment started out on the wrong foot and never succeeded in righting itself. Finally, one thinks of Samuel Johnson’s acerbic quip about the drivers of slaves yelping the loudest about liberty.
Inside My Father's House
By George A. Kelly
B.C. and A.C. — Before the Council and After the Council: For Fr. Kelly, born in 1916 and ordained to the priesthood 26 years later, the deliberations that transpired in the Vatican from 1960 to 1965 split his world asunder. He recalls with special fondness the 1940s and 1950s, an era that “came as close to ‘gold’ status as any other segment of our two-hundred-year Catholic patrimony. And priests sure of their role, and the faithful who believed in one Lord, one Church, one priesthood, were happy about that.” In that vanished age “it was fun to be a Catholic.” A quarter century after Vatican II, Kelly claims, much of the fun, as well as the security and exuberance, has disappeared from Catholic life.
But the atrocities committed by renegade theologians, rebellious priests, and malcontent nuns have not warped Kelly into a Catholic version of Bunyan’s Muckraker. An unquenchable optimism informs the pages of his musings about his half-century as a priest in the Archdiocese of New York. He has, he admits at the outset of these recollections, “enjoyed every minute of these fifty years” — even (especially?), one suspects, the time consumed in ruckuses with the traducers of orthodoxy.
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