The Catholic Side of Henry James
By Edwin Sill Fussell
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Review Author: Ronda Chervin
I’m sure I’m not alone in finding most contemporary novels distasteful for so lacking a Catholic, even a Christian, worldview. After five or so disappointments in trying to read something new which others assure me I will love, I often take refuge in the Victorian age. At least among the classics I can be reasonably sure that my sensibilities will not be violated at every turn.
I spent a year reading the works of Charles Dickens, and I wondered why this clearly non-Catholic writer delighted me so. I happened upon Chesterton’s work on Dickens and my question was answered. Even though Dickens was not “one of us,” Chesterton proved that Dickens looked at the world and people in a way so essentially Catholic as to render his novels just right for Catholic readers.
This year I am devouring the novels of Henry James. Since there are some anti-Catholic passages in James, I again wondered how I could feel so at home with his themes. Of course, one also finds in James’s novels a sensitivity to things Catholic that is attractive but elusive. So, I was intrigued with The Catholic Side of Henry James. Its author, Edwin Fussell, is a first-rate scholar — and also the author of The French Side of Henry James. Fussell has made an exhaustive study of the background, literary milieu, and writing of James, searching for clues that lead us into a greater understanding of his “Catholic side.”
I enjoyed Fussell’s fascinating analysis of James’s frequent use of the word “sacred.” Precious things are called sacred relics. A special place on a writer’s desk is called a consecrated corner. In a letter to a distant friend he wrote: “I count off the days like a good Catholic a rosary, praying for your return.”
Fussell’s own style is Jamesian in wit and perceptiveness. Take this characteristic comment concerning a line from James’s Notebooks. James: “Let me not, just Heaven — not, God knows, that I incline to! — slacken.” Fussell: “Surely this is more than a self-help memo. Such language ought not to be reduced to the purely secularistic flatlands. Complexity is always and vastly preferable to spurious simplification, as readers of James ought to be aware. In that potent sentence just quoted we have in fact, in intention, and in form, a prayer.”
Fussell does not try to show that James, the son of a non-churchgoing Swedenborgian mystic, was a borderline Catholic. And yet there is a Catholic flavor throughout the works, what Fussell calls an interruptive counterpoint in a minor key. Says Fussell: “Catholicity was to James aesthetically pleasing, interesting, novel, provocative, complex, deep, mysterious, romantic, picturesque….”
Fussell illustrates his view with countless references to James’s works. Especially intriguing is the way Fussell brings to bear his insights about James’s Catholic side so as to unravel mysteries many of us have sensed when reading a James story merely for amusement.
I offer a suggestion: Perhaps we might take up the novels of Henry James again (or for the first time) with the added relish of expecting to find Catholic things within, not in an explicit or didactic manner, but in the way almost of playful irony. And then, when we are well into our “James year,” we might pick up Fussell’s book for confirmation or elucidation of our own clues.
Journeybread for the Shadowlands: The Readings for the Rites of the Catechumenate
By Pamela Jackson
Publisher: The Liturgical Press
Review Author: Thomas Howard
For several hundred years, one of the bestselling books in the English-speaking world was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It was not much read by Catholics; but Protestants held it in an esteem next to Scripture itself, and the book has a fixed place in the annals of English literature. Any course in 17th-century prose that omits it has embarrassed itself.
We now have a book that might fill for Catholics something of the place Pilgrim’s Progress filled for Protestants. In Bunyan’s great allegory, we have a map of the Christian life, pictured as the journey of an individual soul, with his Bible, from the cross to Heaven. It is a great achievement, both literarily and spiritually. But just from that brief description it could be guessed why Bunyan’s allegory has never held a central place in Catholic piety. Catholics do not see themselves as isolated believers, but as members of the Church. To be sure, many of the saints and other writers on the spiritual life have spoken of the soul’s individual pilgrimage, but there is always the immense, undergirding consciousness of the Church in any Catholic vision. The solitary “I” with my Bible is not an entirely satisfactory image for Catholics.
Pamela Jackson has, in this book, pointed us to Scripture, as it exists for would-be Catholics, since she takes as her province the place Scripture has in the whole matter of the catechumenate. But it should be stressed that this book will prove greatly useful and edifying for all believers, mature and new convert, Catholic and Protestant.
Briefly, the reader will encounter here an introduction to the spiritual life via the proper readings for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. This is a narrative theology of conversion, so to speak, in that Jackson leads the reader, as though on an itinerary, into the biblical story as that story becomes, increasingly, the catechumen’s own story. There is a certain piquancy to this when we reflect that our own epoch seems to have recovered a keen awareness of the centrality of narrative.
Scripture both describes the process of conversion and brings about that conversion. If this is kept central in one’s spiritual vision, it becomes clear that not only the catechumen, but also mature Christians, will want this journey to be both plotted out by Scripture and also suffused by it. Scripture charts the course, so to speak, but also becomes that course. My story as a Christian becomes, increasingly, the story the Bible narrates. It is the story of the people of God: first Israel, then the disciples, then the Church from Pentecost to now — and hence me.
To say all this is to report the “what” that Jackson has accomplished. But you would be missing the richness of this achievement if I did not stress the rare beauty of the prose it self. This places the book in a very small class near the top of current reading. Indeed, to confine it to “current reading” is hardly just, since it may well turn out to be a truly epochal work. On page after page, the reader finds himself carried along by flawless and vivid prose.
George Lindbeck of Yale says of this book, “I shall use it for my Lenten reading.” If readers come upon the book after Lent has gone by, then it may be urged that the book will prove equally instructive, edifying, and invigorating for Pentecost season reading, Advent reading, Epiphany reading, or whatever. To read it is to be drawn deeply into the Church’s ancient use of Scripture, a usage happily being revived in our time.
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