What Evelyn Waugh saw in America (An Anglo-American romance)

Evelyn Waugh on his first voyage to the United States in 1947 (AP Photo).

When Evelyn Waugh first visited the United States in 1947, he anthropomorphized the country as Aimée Thanatogenos, the anti-heroine of his Hollywood novel The Loved One. She is a naïve young beauty who was “dressed and scented in obedience to the advertisements.” A year later, Waugh crossed the Atlantic from England again. Though he remained vexed by the country’s forbidding foreignness, on second glance his ironic distance was lessened. The birthmarks of the United States, he found, were not all blights that demanded excision. Discovering her Catholic side, the smitten Waugh took the country as his loved one.

Waugh was not always loving; he could be mean when he wanted to. The author of Vile Bodies—“Who shall change our vile body?” (Phil 3:21)—had a proclivity toward cruelty. His friend Nancy Mitford once asked him how he could reconcile “being so horrible with being a Christian. He replied rather sadly that were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible...and anyway would have committed suicide years ago.” Waugh bore a special antipathy for Americans (“the bloody Yanks”), whom he considered barbaric, vulgar and bereft of tradition.

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A friend once asked Waugh how he could reconcile “being so horrible with being a Christian. He replied rather sadly that were he not a Christian...he would have committed suicide years ago.”

And so it was with considerable trepidation that his agent, A. D. Peters, pondered Waugh’s travels to Hollywood, where in early 1947 Waugh was set to negotiate the film rights for Brideshead Revisited. In preparation for his client’s visit, Peters sent a warning to Waugh:

I must tell you that you have the reputation here—both at M.G.M. and everywhere else—of being a difficult, tetchy, irritating and rude customer. I hope you will surprise and confound them all.... They are children; and they should receive the tolerance and understanding that you show to children.

But, as Waugh’s biographer Selina Hastings retorts, “tolerance and understanding were rarely conspicuous in Evelyn’s attitude toward children.” The trip was a recipe for tragedy.

Intrinsic Inhumanity

Waugh’s first impressions of New York City included disdain for the “great booby boxes” (American skyscrapers), which he found “absolutely negligible in everything except bulk.... They bear the same sort of relation to architecture as distempering a ceiling does to painting.” Like a 20th-century Dante, Waugh described his taxicab travels as infernal—“sitting through all eternity in a traffic block.”

In Beverly Hills, the art of compromise was doubly doomed. American film executives did not understand the book’s Catholic undercurrent. Still further, in a Daily Telegraph piece Waugh complained about his trying circumstances without naming Brideshead: “A script was recently condemned as likely to undermine the Christian conception of marriage. The story was of an unhappy married man and woman who wished to divorce their respective partners and remarry one another.”

Waugh lamented the film industry’s capitulation to the “great fallacy of the Century of the Common Man...that a thing can have no value for anyone which is not valued by all.”

And so, with the trip’s original purpose failed, Waugh took to reporting on the country. In a 1947 article for The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, “Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement,” Waugh lamented the film industry’s capitulation to the “great fallacy of the Century of the Common Man...that a thing can have no value for anyone which is not valued by all.” Whereas, in the not too distant past a book that sold a mere 5,000 copies could shape a generation, “a film must please everyone.”

Waugh saw an intrinsic inhumanity in the film star’s life, which, he quipped, “is as brief as a prize fighter.” Then there were the farcical traditions that governed the industry. A screenwriter, wishing to hang a map on his wall, would request a hammer and nails. A union representative would arrive and indicate that the carpenters would strike if he hung the thing himself. These sorts of impositions, Waugh concluded, keep the cost of moviemaking exorbitant:

The capitalist at the head of the company is concerned solely with profits; the proletariat allow profits only to those who directly work for their pleasure; in this miniature class-war the artist vanishes. In the final lines of the article, he insists that the absurdities under which Hollywood works are insuperable and fears that artists will “be seduced there to their own extinction.”

Meanwhile, down the road at an absurd “necropolis of the age of pharaohs” called Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Waugh was gathering the stuff of his next novel: The Loved One: An Anglo-American Romance. Eighty miles of pipe kept the lawns golf-course grade, and the place’s solemn funerary purpose was nowhere betrayed—not until Waugh entered the “Slumber Rooms” and found there, sometimes on couches, embalmed bodies looking “dandified,” effusing an air of “happy childhood at play.” Countless concealed radios crooned the “Hindu Lovesong.” Caged birds accompanied these soothing melodies with their ample twittering.

Meanwhile, down the road at an absurd “necropolis of the age of pharaohs” called Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Waugh was gathering the stuff of his next novel: The Loved One: An Anglo-American Romance.

The ideal way to die, Waugh wrote in a 1947 article for The Tablet, “Half in Love with Easeful Death: An Examination of Californian Burial Customs,” was to “shade off, so finely that it becomes imperceptible, the moment of transition” traditionally called death. The creator of the avant-garde burial home, Dr. Eaton, encouraged all to “[b]e happy because they for whom you mourn are happy—far happier than ever before.” His optimistic necropolis had “consciously turned its back on the ‘old customs of death,’ the grim traditional alternatives of Heaven and Hell,” wrote Waugh. “Dr. Eaton is the first man to offer eternal salvation at an inclusive charge as part of his undertaking services.”

Waugh, having witnessed rearranged corpses “fresh from the final beauty parlor,” felt nostalgia for the traditional attire of a naked soul sitting at the judgment seat, bodies surrounded by “marble worms writhing in the marble adipocere,” threatening to eat what flesh remained. Eaton’s achievement was meant to mask the Christian belief that Hell awaits the wicked. Instead, all buried at Forest Lawn passed from the indestructible steel shelves that kept their remains to the “endless infancy” of an insured, purchased paradise.

‘Nothing They Say Is Designed to Be Heard’

These strange burial customs were reincarnated in The Loved One, Waugh’s grotesque sendup of the New World’s artificial mastery of death. “It is not possible to be funny about corpses for 25,000 words,” his agent cautioned. Waugh answered by prefacing the book with a conspicuous warning. The novel is only a “little nightmare” that bears no resemblance to the “vast variety of life in America.”

In the opening pages, however, we find English countrymen “exiled in the barbarous regions of the world.” Setting a scene similar to many in the novels of Graham Greene, Waugh eventually reveals that this barbarous region is Hollywood. Though put off by the primitive manners, the English are acclimating to the “generous” Americans, who “don’t expect you to listen.” The secret of their social ease is born of a simple fact: “Nothing they say is designed to be heard.”

The novel’s hero, Denis Barlow, is the shame of his fellow expats; having failed in the film industry, he has taken up work at the Happier Hunting Ground. His boss, Mr. Schultz, tries to capitalize on the fact that folks talk to their pets “like they was children.” The Brit promises doggy daddies an anniversary remembrance card “without further charge”: “Your little Arthur is thinking of you in heaven today and wagging his tail,” one reads. The “Grade A service” includes, at the moment of committal, “a white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, liberated over the crematorium” of the dead.

In the opening pages of The Loved One, we find English countrymen “exiled in the barbarous regions of the world.” Waugh eventually reveals that this barbarous region is Hollywood.

The entrepreneurial Happier Hunting Ground was forged “in emulation of its great neighbor,” Whispering Glades. The latter, developed by The Dreamer, promises all bereaved “a New Earth sacred to HAPPINESS.” Here the mortician Mr. Joyboy assures that “leave-taking” meets the purchaser’s preference. He has long been applying the product labeled “Radiant Childhood Smile” to all the dead without discrimination. Denis Barlow finds this smile “entirely horrible...a painted and smirking obscene travesty.” Here a deceased woman is not merely embalmed. She reclines on a chaise-longue holding a telephone, “as though dressed for an evening party.”

Barlow finds that he has to subject himself to Whispering Glades when his compatriot Sir Francis commits suicide and requires safe passage to a happier place. Barlow is greeted by the mortuary hostess, Aimée Thanatogenos, who plies her beautician’s trade on cadavers. Ms. Beloved Bringer of Death (to translate her name) bears that American lack of manners that made Waugh squeamish.

When Barlow solicits her mortuary services, she tries to triumph over him with the therapeutic: You must not shrink in anxious rejection of death but rather “discuss it openly and frankly,” thereby removing “morbid reflexions.” The answer, she insists, is to “bring your dark fears into the light of the common day of the common man.” Barlow concludes that he has seen her before. She is one with all of her sisters of the reception desk and airliners. She is “the standard product” who would “croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse. She was convenient.”

But Barlow requires mystery and manners: “He did not covet the spoils of this rich continent, the sprawling limbs of the swimming pool, the wide-open painted eyes and mouths under the arc-lamps.” Just when he consigns this “sole Eve in a bustling hygienic Eden” to cartoonish shallowness and tragic American innocence, he has an epiphany: She is everything he wanted during his solitary era of exile.

“He did not covet the spoils of this rich continent, the sprawling limbs of the swimming pool, the wide-open painted eyes and mouths under the arc-lamps.”

At Whispering Glades, one can buy tickets to W. B. Yeats’s ethereal Lake Isle of Innisfree. When Barlow goes out to the isle seeking his muse, he meets Aimée again instead. Soon thereafter he confesses his poet’s soul to her, and she, too, becomes besotted. Barlow stoops low to exploit her American naïveté concerning literature and history. She thinks he has composed the Keats he quotes (“I have been half in love with easeful death”).

Plagiarizing poetry becomes a boon for Barlow, though Ms. Thanatogenos nearly catches him when, stealing Shakespeare, he compares her to a summer’s day. Finding him unsettlingly “un-American,” the self-described “progressive” writes to a newspaper columnist named Guru Brahmin (who comprises exactly two men and a secretary) soliciting advice. How could she marry a man who shows irreverence toward Whispering Glades, which she considers “an epitome of all that is finest in the American Way of Life”?

Still more, the English poets he cites are too despondent or ceremonious for this Californian courtship. Citing their melancholic verse, he can’t compete with the movies and the crooners. Finally, Barlow is not gainfully employed. Doesn’t he realize that “an American man would despise himself for living on his wife?” No, he says, “the older civilizations” have no such prejudices. Desperate for cash, the man remakes himself in an all-American fashion, taking correspondence courses to become a “non-sectarian clergyman.” But when the lovesick Aimée discovers his “unethical” literary piracy, she heeds the Guru’s surefire advice and kills herself at Whispering Glades.

With borrowed vulgarity, Barlow starts a business of “non-sectarian services expeditiously conducted at competitive prices.” Before he can cinch his first client, though, a fellow Brit finagles him into sparing his ex-pats further embarrassment. And so it happens that the Englishman takes his leave, his ticket fully funded by the expatriate Cricket Club. The romantic lie of the Anglo-American match cannot withstand the novelistic truth: Waugh severs the macabre alliance, consigning The Dreamers to the columbarium of history.

Whether motivated by masochism, a whim of magnanimity or money to be made on a Life magazine article on Catholicism in the States, Waugh returned to America in 1948.

The Second Time Around

Whether motivated by masochism, a whim of magnanimity or money to be made on a Life magazine article on Catholicism in the States, Waugh returned to America in 1948. This time he met Dorothy Day, whom he described as “an autocratic ascetic saint who wants us all to be poor.” He offered lunch to Day and her Catholic Worker fellow travelers in an Italian restaurant. Although she did not approve of the cocktails he bought and shared at considerable expense, the group stayed and talked for hours.

Waugh would later visit the Catholic Worker contributor and National Book Award-winning writer J. F. Powers in St. Paul, Minn. Powers did his part to dispel the rumors that cast Waugh as more of a cartoon than the character he already was: “Saw Waugh...all a lie about liveried servants. Carried out his dishes himself.”

During the same travels, while delivering a series of lectures on “Three Vital Writers: Chesterton, Knox, and Greene,” Waugh stopped at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to see Thomas Merton. Merton was indebted to Waugh, who provided extensive edits to the “long winded” Seven Storey Mountain. The book came out in England one-third shorter and with Waugh’s recommended title, Elected Silences. The younger Merton repaid his debt, in part, through spiritual friendship, advising Waugh to “say the Rosary every day. If you don’t like it, so much the better.” The monk hoped the beads would assist with Waugh’s anxiety over imperfect contrition. To Merton’s mind, Waugh was a man “with intellectual gifts” arguing himself “into a quandary that doesn’t exist.”

In Waugh’s review of Merton, he was more charitable toward U.S. society: “Americans...are learning to draw away from what is distracting in their own civilization while remaining in their own borders.”

In Waugh’s review of the book he helped rewrite, he was more charitable toward U.S. society: “Americans...are learning to draw away from what is distracting in their own civilization while remaining in their own borders.” Elected Silences, with its “fresh, simple, colloquial” ethos, came as a revelatory shock for “non-Catholic Americans,” who were altogether unaware of “warmth silently generated in these furnaces of devotion.” Waugh went further, anticipating that the United States would soon witness a flourishing monastic revival. Championing the Benedictine option long before the Benedict option became chic, Waugh proclaimed the modern world increasingly uninhabitable, calling us back to the age of Boniface, Gregory and Augustine: “As in the Dark Ages the cloister offers the sanest and most civilized way of life.”

Dislike of Dogmas

Once home, Waugh complained that he had “seen enough of USA to last me fifty years,” even as Life published his article “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church” (1949), which betrays a conditional surrender to the prospect that providence may be “schooling and strengthening” the people of the New World “for the historic destiny long borne by Europe.”

Waugh started out the article with a host of objections to the United States. It would seem that the hallmarks of the American character, he wrote, are “unsympathetic to the habits of the Church”: compulsive revolt against traditional authority, obsession with mere activity, the blind embrace of novelties, the strangeness of Latin on democratic lips, “their dislike of dogmas that divide good citizens and their love of the generalities which unite them.”

The objections continued. America was marked by “late-eighteenth century ‘enlightenment’ and the liberalism of her founders has persisted through all the changes of her history and penetrated into every part of her life.” Thus many American preachers cast representative majority government as “of divine institution.” Waugh seized upon a ship metaphor to name the essential dogma of the country, separation of church and state. Government, he wrote, was “a ship liner captain” who has received the capacity to command from his passengers. Though the public rooms may be rented out for motley religious assemblies, “blasphemy is permitted only in the privacy of the bars.”

Waugh on American civic culture: Though the public rooms may be rented out for motley religious assemblies, “blasphemy is permitted only in the privacy of the bars.”

Waugh saw America’s founders as “doctrinaire liberals” (in the classical sense), men who tolerated very little government, who wished to give the private sphere a vast and inviolable circumference. In many Enlightenment experiments, the state (“whether conceived of as the will of the majority or the power of a clique”) had commandeered more of that supposedly sacrosanct privacy, and so the “discrepancies between the secular and the religious philosophies” had become more prominent, “for many things are convenient to the ruler which are not healthy for the soul.” In America, in spite of her idiosyncrasies, that damnable decay had been delayed.

Waugh also felt that America’s anti-Catholic temperament would stunt the genuine growth of Catholicity, as Catholic movements would be denigrated as suspicious evidence of “Popery.” Waugh noted the strength of these prejudices: “It was the Quebec Act tolerating Popery in Canada, quite as much as the Stamp Act and the Tea Duties, which rendered George III intolerable to the colonists.” And yet he argued we must not mistake the strength of a stabilized minority religion like the Catholic faith in the United States nor cling to the rosy lie that “from the age of Constantine to that of Luther there was a single, consistently triumphant, universally respected authority.”

Rather, the Catholic Church, even when she faced fewer or weaker enemies outside her walls, “has always been at grips with enemies inside.” In spite of its depth of tradition and a profound and prolonged influence in Europe, there “conversions barely keep pace with apostasies,” whereas in the United States the Catholic Church is “subject to both the advantages and disadvantages of an underprivileged position.”

We must not cling to the rosy lie that “from the age of Constantine to that of Luther there was a single, consistently triumphant, universally respected authority.”

Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler

It may be true that, generally speaking, American Catholics are inclined to show great tolerance when it comes to differences across creeds. Debates over the finer points of church teaching are seen as splitting hairs, inconsequential. It may also be true that, generally speaking, American Catholics are incapable of ascetic life. But Waugh distanced himself from generalities of this sort, framing them as limited caricatures of the sort he employed himself to damn the New World from a distance. After all, Catholicism is not entirely alien to the American spirit. Take New Orleans.

Yes, witchcraft is to be found in the Crescent City, syncretized with the Nicene Creed and the rosary. But on an Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, Waugh witnessed “one of the most moving sights of my tour.” Filthy streets showed the excesses of carnival. Still, across the street a Jesuit church was “teeming with life all day long; a continuous, dense crowd of all colours and conditions moving up the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash” and admonished with a “Dust thou art.”

In the “desert of modern euphemisms,” where the use of niceties such as “under-privileged” and “emotionally disturbed” threatens to conceal what Flannery O’Connor called our “essential disfigurement,” here, in Catholic New Orleans, all day long souls were told of their poverty in the plain and lovingly painful style of the church.

On an Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, Waugh witnessed “one of the most moving sights of my tour.” Filthy streets showed the excesses of carnival. Still, across the street a Jesuit church was “teeming with life all day long."

Waugh cautioned against celebrating the city too much, reminding the reader that New Orleans had never known persecution, which is never healthy; he argued that too much toleration, carried over a long time, can enervate and weaken a religious tradition. In Maryland, on the contrary, though Catholics practiced in temporary peace, they were treated poorly. The old Catholic families of Baltimore “have much in common with the old Catholic families of Lancashire,” Waugh remarked. The countryside around Leonardtown, Md., too, was haunted by the tradition of Jesuit missionaries, slipping in disguise from family to family, celebrating Mass in the hidden parts of plantations.

Persecution came to black Catholics, Waugh noted, not from Protestants but from “fellow-members in the Household of the Faith.” Although Waugh was attuned to the efforts of white Catholics to make amends for these scandals of the distant past, he lauded the “thousands of coloured Catholics who so accurately traced their Master’s roads amidst insults and injury.”

Waugh remarked that Catholic colleges have also emerged in the United States at least in part from uneasy relations between church and state. Though poor, American Catholics had “covered their land with schools,” convinced that in a non-Catholic land only a whole education can incubate the faith. In addition, Waugh wrote that it was a “very great thing that young men who are going out to be dentists or salesmen should have grounding in formal logic and Christian ethics.”

“Prove syllogistically that the natural rights exist.” “Give the fundamental reason why usury is wrong.” “What is the difference between soul and mind?” “Give and explain a definition of Sacrifice.”

Waugh chose these questions at random from a Jesuit college exam and cited them as the reason why Catholics could keep pace when the discussion turned to deeper questions of broad concerns, whereas their secular peers were skilled at “particular subjects” but anything general “was shapeless and meaningless.” Not to mention, the University of Notre Dame’s “holy places are crowded before a football match.”

But Holy Mother Church, Waugh concluded, does not exist to produce philosophers, nor writers. “The Church and the world need monks and nuns [in those days flourishing in Trappist Abbeys and Carmelite cloisters] more than they need writers.” The church exists to produce saints, and “what is plain to the observer is that throughout the nation the altar rails are everywhere crowded.”

In “Americanism,” that amalgamation of all that Americans call “the good life,” wrote Waugh, it is Christianity and “preeminently Catholicism” that plays the redeeming part. He assures his readers that the “Americanism” produced and parodied by the fears of Europeans is a fiction. “There is a purely American ‘way of life’ led by every good American Christian that is point-for-point opposed to the publicized” hyperboles pumped out by Hollywood and popularized the world over. More so than their fellow Protestant citizens, Catholics feel pressured to prove themselves faithful to the “way,” to fit in. J. F. Powers, Waugh noted, was keenly aware of this tension: His Irish priests are “faithful and chaste and, in youth at any rate, industrious, but many live out their lives in a painful state of transition; they have lost their ancestral simplicity.”

Holy Mother Church, Waugh concluded, does not exist to produce philosophers, nor writers. The church exists to produce saints, and “what is plain to the observer is that throughout the nation the altar rails are everywhere crowded."

Waugh’s great expectations regarding the burgeoning “American Epoch in the Catholic Church” were tempered most by the threatening “neutrality” of the state: “neutral—a euphemism for ‘unchristian.’” Mercantile forces seek to replace the Christ Child with Santa Claus and his reindeer. Waugh witnessed, in early Lent, the Easter Bunny’s arrival at a train station, police posse and brass band in tow: “[P]agan commerce is seeking to adopt and desecrate the feasts of the Church”; and if the matter lands in the hands of public authority, he mused, we know which side the neutral state will likely favor.

Given the liberal regime’s incompetence in religious matters and given the huge differences that divide the different religions practiced by U.S. citizens, “the neutral, secular State can only function justly by keeping itself within strict limits.” It was not for Waugh, a foreigner, to predict how long the U.S. government would hold back from encroaching on religious freedoms. Nonetheless, Waugh seemed to see that encroachment hovering in the distance, however far. He seemed to see the barbarians descending from the hills of Hollywood, howling the end of the “American Epoch in the Catholic Church.” But Waugh the foreigner has fallen for his forbidden loved one. Even if her birthmarks mar her singular attractions, he won’t speak of them in public.

When Waugh made his final trip to the United States in 1950, he rode the coattails of his diagnoses in Life. Waugh was welcomed, in the words of Pamela Berry, “in a quaint Catholic light” that showed him to be “a noble gentle person who is capable, oh, yes, from time to time of naughty spitefulness, but who is on the whole a saintly, good person, healed and beatified by the Church.”

But Waugh was no saint much of the time. The tormented artist was aware of his hot temper and knew how uncharitable he could be. “How to reconcile this indifference to human beings with the obligation of Charity,” he confided in a friend, “That is my problem.” As George Weigel has noted, in his later years the novelist undertook a purgative “spiritual quest for compassion and contrition. As for many of us, the contrition likely came easier than the compassion.” Selena Hastings says that as a corrective to his misanthropy the Catholic writer “channeled a substantial portion of his income to Catholic charities.”

In the case of The Loved One, all royalties from its various translations were given to U.S. bishops. His agent wrote to relate gratitude and directives from various prelates, indicating the various orphanages and other ministries that would receive Waugh’s alms.

Almsgiving covers a multitude of sins, but this kind of charity can be easily caricatured: The cantankerous man continues to crank but holds out his liberality as a kind of red herring. The Loved One did not need to be translated into “American” English, and so no charities in the United States received royalties from this book. But Waugh, infatuated by the good things he had experienced during his stateside fling, gave American Catholics something perhaps greater: He showed his dilated heart by bestowing upon them the recognition of the impermanence of an epoch.

[Are you a smart, funny, spiritual person who wants to chat with other smart, funny, spiritual people about movies? Join America’s Catholic Movie Club on Facebook!]

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