When we were first putting together this roundup of our Spring Books issue, I thought it would be a good space to write about an intriguing 2019 book, Because Internet, by the linguist Gretchen McCulloch. She tracks the way our communication patterns have changed with the explosive growth of the internet; many of our traditional rules around grammar, spelling and syntax, she notes, have gone the way of the dinosaurs. My sympathies are usually with the dinosaurs, particularly when someone emails me, “Hey can u call me rn,” so I had some harrumphs ready for print.
No more. A month into the Covid-19 pandemic, as we shelter in place across much of the nation, we are all suddenly finding online communication to be a godsend. From messaging apps to Zoom and Google Hangouts, from virtual Mass to ad hoc online classrooms, we are getting by in many cases with help from a huge digital hand. So yes, internet, I apologize 2 u rn.
Both our features in this issue focus offer close observations of U.S. culture, present and past. First, a former America editor, Olga Segura, profiles Thomas Chatterton Williams, who despite being a self-identified liberal has also “become one of the fiercest and most prolific critics of identity politics in the United States.” Segura found it difficult to engage Williams’s call to “unlearn race” but then “realized that it was easier for me to understand Williams’s argument if I read it through a theological lens.”
Many of our traditional rules around grammar, spelling and syntax have gone the way of the dinosaurs. My sympathies are usually with the dinosaurs, particularly when someone emails me, “Hey can u call me rn,” so I had some harrumphs ready for print.
Our second feature is an in-depth look at the British Catholic Evelyn Waugh’s acid take on U.S. culture during several mid-century visits, including a careful reading of his 1948 satire, The Loved One. Joshua Hren takes us through Waugh’s initial contempt for U.S. culture all the way to his grudging admission that places like New Orleans offered new opportunities for understanding the modern state.
Speaking of New Orleans, it is one of three great U.S. cities (along with New York City and San Francisco) featured in Infinite Cities, a trilogy of atlases presented by Rebecca Solnit and other contributors. Our reviewer, Renée Darline Roden, notes that these eclectic atlases are no ordinary collections of grids and gradations but “more like portraiture than the utilitarian GPS systems that populate our phones.”
Louisiana might also conjure up in the reader’s mind the novelist Ernest J. Gaines, who is remembered here by Jason Berry. Gaines wrote nine books over the course of a distinguished career, many employing “a voice grounded by the spoken rhythms Gaines absorbed, a well-controlled prose charged with a musicality in repetitive wording.”
Our second feature is an in-depth look at the British Catholic Evelyn Waugh’s acid take on U.S. culture during several mid-century visits, including a careful reading of his 1948 satire, The Loved One.
Another look back is Michial Farmer’s appreciation of the 1931 short story “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” by the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno, which takes on the troubling theme of a priest hailed as a saint—even while he has secretly lost his faith. He remains a saint, Unamuno insists, and Farmer is inclined to agree.
We have our requisite Flannery O’Connor take, but Maura Shea offers a new angle, using Christine Flanagan’s The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon as a jumping-off point to explore the relationship between these two Southern Catholic writers. The relationship, Shea notes, “stands out as a kind of student-teacher relationship in which O’Connor, at least in the beginning, is the gifted student and Gordon the seasoned, exacting teacher.”
Olga Segura profiles Thomas Chatterton Williams, who despite being a self-identified liberal has also “become one of the fiercest and most prolific critics of identity politics in the United States.”
We also have four long book reviews for your perusal, on a wide variety of subjects. Franklin Freeman tackles Edison, a hefty biography of our most famous inventor and the last book by the famed biographer Edmund Morris; Jill Brennan O’Brien reviews Horizon, by Barry Lopez, finding it a mix between philosophy, anthropology and travel writing; Mike St. Thomas finds that mystery lies at the heart of Nick Ripatrazone’s Longing for an Absent God, a study of Catholic fiction writers in the years since the Second Vatican Council; and one of America’s Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., fellows, Ryan Di Corpo, reviews the memoir of the longtime peace activist Jim Forest, Writing Straight With Crooked Lines.
We offer two poetry selections as well, “The Sand and the Stars,” by Jane Zwart, and “The Manatee,” by Michael Cadnum. We also have an update on the Catholic Book Club, our fast-growing online community of readers.
Finally, America producer Colleen Dulle tells us how Madeleine Delbrêl helped her return to a life of prayer and reading. (Dulle is writing a book on her now.) Delbrêl promoted a lay spirituality and loved the hustle and bustle of the city street, and Dulle found peace reading Delbrêl on the crowded subways of New York City.
Perhaps we’ll pass on that subway for a while. Keep reading!