The Season for ‘Mr. Blue’
The story's protagonist is a modern St. Francis who gives away his fortune - Part 1
In 1928 Myles Connolly published his 120-page debut novel, Mr. Blue. This book and author come to mind at this time of year because the protagonist, J. Blue, was in awe of the Incarnation, and also because Connolly was an adviser to film director Frank Capra for the Christmas-time favorite It’s a Wonderful Life.
It is said that many high schools and colleges, presumably Catholic, made Mr. Blue required reading at one time. While it was not required in my Catholic high school in the late 1960’s, I read it in my high school years (and again recently).
The sole scene in Mr. Blue that I remembered all the years between my two readings was that of the consecration of bread by “the last Christian” in a dystopian, apocalyptic future. I was reminded of this scene when I read a book by Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1928-2002). In 1975, six days after he had been appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon, that city fell to the Communists and he was imprisoned in a re-education camp for the next 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement. He described how he secretly obtained minute amounts of bread and wine, secretly consecrated them (as the character in Mr. Blue had done), and secretly distributed them to a few loyal Catholics.
One reader who really caught the Mr. Blue bug is Stephen Mirarchi, a college professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. A student read Mr. Blue and told Mirarchi he had questions about it. Mirarchi read it and decided to include it in his “Christianity and Literature” class in the fall of 2014. Mirarchi said he taught G. K. Chesterton’s 1923 biography of St. Francis of Assisi side-by-side with Mr. Blue. Mr. Blue was a modern St. Francis story, in which the protagonist receives an inheritance of $2 million but gives it all away to embrace Lady Poverty and live in a crate on a Manhattan rooftop. Mr. Blue was Connolly’s response to Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, three years earlier.
Mirachi went deeper yet into Mr. Blue, writing a 9,000-word introduction to a 2016 edition. Since then, he has written introductions to the other four fictional works by Connolly: The Bump on Brannigan’s Head (1950, introduction May 2018); Dan England and the Noonday Devil, a story of a man suffering from acedia (1951, introduction Nov. 2017); The Reason for Ann (1953, introduction May 2019); and Three Who Ventured (1958, introduction May 2020). These editions by Mirachi include annotations, literary context (such as Irish literature), and literary structure. Here’s one example: Mirarchi’s favorite use of Scripture in Mr. Blue was the comparison of J. Blue’s rooftop crate to the fog-covered tent that Moses would enter to meet the Lord (Ex 33:7-9).
The narrator of Mr. Blue is a friend, a man of business, older than Blue. He visits him, more than a few times. He has seen the changes in J. Blue’s life. He knows Blue flies kites, releases balloons, loves brass bands, loves movies. He knows of Blue’s joy, of his exuberance. He listens closely to Blue, who says things like: “Others can be sensible, but not one who knows in his heart how few things really matter. Others can be sober and restrained, but not one who is mad with the loveliness of life and almost blind with its beauty.”
In my next post I will discuss Connolly’s life.
[For Part 2, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/have-a-mr-blue-christmas/]
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