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We are all skeptics now, he writes, believer and unbeliever alike.There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, and complicated by our lives. It is as if one suddenly awakened from a noble dream to find oneself in a lecture hall at the Harvard Divinity School.
As the historian John Ibson wittily expressed it, students of American life saw little reason to explore the possibility that for some nineteenth-century Americans the Virgin Mary was of more consequence than the Virgin Land. Even a brilliantly eccentric figure like Henry Adams, who seemed to defy that pattern, only confirmed it”for it was not the real Church in real time (or for that matter, the real Virgin) that he loved, but an idealized medieval Catholicism, chiefly designed to function as an opposite number to a modern world he had come to loathe and fear.
This state of affairs has begun to change, however, thanks to talented younger American historians such as James Terence Fisher, Patrick Allitt, and John Mc Greevy, whose works have filled in some of the blank spaces and made it much more difficult to ignore the vein of Catholic thought and expression running through American history.
Although no one would mistake for a work of Catholic apologetics, it is an unusually affirmative work, a splendid counter to the cynicism and obscurantism that have brought literary scholarship in present-day America to the point of ruin.
It is affirmative of its subjects, affirmative of their bookishness, affirmative of the possibilities of the written word, and affirmative of its subjects shared pilgrimage”the endless high-minded seeking that consumed their lives.
His book seeks to draw them together into a movement of sorts, a band of pilgrims, a loose coalition of inveterate seekers whose unflagging search for ultimate meaning is an example worthy of our study and our imitation. Although they did not quite form a proper intellectual circle in their actual lives, the similarities between them are complex but genuine.
Obviously, for one thing, there were the shared profound religious concerns which informed their lives work and caused them to be labeled the School of the Holy Ghost. But the similarity goes further.That brings me to a final concern, well expressed by one of the books blurbs, from the literary scholar Harold Bloom: As a work of the spirit, [ ] is universal and in no way sectarian. Bloom of course meant this as praise, but I am not so sure that it should be taken thus.It is entirely misleading to think of these four Catholics, all of them Catholic by fierce or passionate choice, as nonsectarian pilgrims.Elie doesnt ever really make a detailed argument for the linkage of Day, Merton, O Connor, and Percy.Indeed, the book does not really offer an argument at all.If it remains the case that this Catholic strain is best understood over the course of American history as a cultural foil, a counter to mainstream ideals of individualism and autonomy, then it has at least been a remarkably productive foil, one whose enriching acts deserve much more attention than the record has thus far accorded it.Paul Elies sprawling, spirited, and immensely appealing book, , is a significant contribution to that record, though perhaps all the more effective for not being self-consciously intended as one. He has instead merely taken as his subject the lives and works of four twentieth-century American Catholic writers: the activist Dorothy Day, the monk Thomas Merton, and the Southern writers Flannery O Connor and Walker Percy.Its prose is pleasingly lean and astonishingly jargon-free, and its analysis of texts is nearly always fresh and engaging. But this fine work also has some considerable faults, and given its many commendable points, one comments upon those faults only with the greatest reluctance.But comment one must, and to begin with, one must remark upon the books perplexing and confusing structure.Underneath it all, one senses, is his own passion for books.An editor by trade, Elie is clearly a man devoted to the possibilities of the written word, both his own and that of his subjects. One may actually come to know the truth through them, in the thought-haven of their world apart, and indeed one can hardly do so without them.