The American Catholic Writer is dull.
Editor’s note: The following essay appeared in the Dec. 7, 1935 issue of America.
I had the good fortune the other night to dine (in the best Catholic tradition) with two outstanding Catholic writers. We had some rich and entertaining hours together. The restaurant, a somewhat shiny spot, was practically empty, and our waiter practically asleep. But we talked as if to band music (not always in key) and afterwards on my way home I was satisfied, feeling we had peopled the empty place with the souls of celebrities, and filled it with the fires of great causes, and, even, stirred the sleepy waiter to his emotional bottom. I do know that when I complained, in my humble fashion, of the size of one of my drinks, the waiter brought another larger one. No New York waiter has ever been known to do that before.
It was, for me, a good evening. It is possible I enjoyed it more than my two friends. For one thing, I make a little more of friendship than they do (at least, I’m noisier about it) and, for another, I had just returned from some years in a young and vivid but indifferent land where there are arguments but no real issues, where there are skirmishes but no battles (save the individual’s everlasting private battle) and here I found the Nineteen-Hundred-Years War still going on vigorously as ever, and was probably a little excited about it. I had been so long behind the lines it seemed almost as if this were my first visit to the front.
The American Catholic Writer sets out bravely to be persuasive, to be provocative, to be useful—to be everything, indeed, except entertaining.
Now, this night, our talk fell in its catch-breath moments to that dullest and most constant of subjects, the Catholic Writer. Once, years back, when I was stumbling about with my sputtery old blunderbuss (which I hardly knew how to use) I used to like, in my conceit, to describe Catholic writers as the shock troops of the Great Advance. After some years of killing sparrows and nearly blowing my own head ofï, I hung up the blunderbuss. I came to the conclusion that the Catholic Writer was a shock trooper primarily in my and his own ardent fancy, while, actually, he was little more than a stenographer at General Headquarters far, and unimportantly, behind the front. I began to cry out with Mr. Brisbane: Airplanes are what we need, gentlemen, airplanes!
This night, I cried out pretty much the same cry to my two friends. I felt, in my cry, I had said something arresting and important. I felt, even, I had solved a problem.
It was not until the next morning, when I was quietly reading a very good newspaper and watching, between sips of coffee, several Park Avenue chauffeurs stamping around in their hundred-and-fifty-dollar overcoats, that I felt a little disturbed over the discussion of Catholic writers the night before. I felt I, at least, had been futile. I felt the discussion had been in the usual heroic vein (witness the rhetorical cry for airplanes) and I said to myself: Why don't you try to be honest and lucid and fair? Here you are reading a reasonably factual newspaper and looking out, in odd moments, at reasonably factual evidences of worldly success. Why don’t you approach the problem of the Catholic Writer in some sort of factual, morning state of mind? Put away the night fever and enthusiasm. Face the problem, state it frankly, if you can, and then, if you have some solution, give it. For once in your life, give up the shouting and waving of the hands.
I know the plea for Loyalty. I know the plea for Sincerity. But I also know the literary crimes that have been committed and extolled in these names.
Well, it was hard for me (especially the waving of the hands) but I took a bad pen and made these notes.
My notes have no reference to Catholic Writing engaged in what I may call American Catholic Scholarship. It has been my observation that this Scholarship has commanded our greatest concern, and yet the truth is it is in need of no concern. It is a natural growth of the long old-world tradition of high Catholic scholarship and is an achievement which spreads magnificently with time. I view it from a distance with dumb and humble admiration. My notes refer, rather, to that American Catholic writing which presumes to be vital, readable, and contemporary, and which aims to reach the immediate American Catholic public and the greater non-Catholic public beyond. In some cases it pretends to journalism; in some cases to literature; in both cases it pretends to make its readers see life and feel it as its writers see life and feel it.
First of all, I would like to say there is no paucity of American Catholic writers appearing in contemporary print. The amount of lead, ink, typewriter ribbon, paper, and print, mutilated by them in the course of a year would fill—and should—a pit slightly larger, I imagine, than the Grand Canyon. The beautifully pitiful complaint that there are too few of them is immediately false to any honest man who has sat behind a Catholic editor’s desk and tried to read the exchanges.
There are plenty of these writers, but few of them, I agree, are readable. Together, they constitute a voice that is about as effectual as the crackling of a frosted telephone wire in the depth of night.
Why? Because they are dull. I can’t read them, and few others can, for the simple reason that I and the others do not care to be bored. I know the plea for Loyalty. I know the plea for Sincerity. But I also know the literary crimes that have been committed and extolled in these names. (O sweet Sincerity! O simple Loyalty!)
There are some who read the American Catholic Writer, I know, and these kindly appreciative few—who read sometimes, I suspect, because misery likes company—these few are exactly the people who have no need for the present American Catholic Writer. The great body of Catholic readers is unreached. And the great body outside of that is untouched. And primarily because the American Catholic Writer is dull.
The weepers are always with us, always in our way. The laughing men haven’t had much encouragement.
Why is he dull?
Primarily, because most people are dull.
Those that remain are dull mainly for two reasons: first, general captiousness and cantankerousness; secondly, a complete lack of a desire to entertain.
A good-tempered argument sometimes—not often—achieves results. A bad-tempered argument, never. But so great is the American Catholic love of argument, and belief in the efficacy of argument—the more vicious the better—that the American Catholic Writer flings off his coat at the first cry and lays about him. The ghosts are triumphantly laid, and the straw men destroyed, with a vigor, and often a viciousness, that gives the writer huge satisfaction—and few else except, perhaps, the members of his immediate family.
Why this cantankerousness?
Ordinarily, it springs from that extraordinary sense of inferiority which prompts bragging that someone like Babe Ruth is a Catholic and, at practically the same moment, resenting any criticism as unjust and malevolent. It comes from a weakness that knows no calm, no subtlety, no ingenuity, a weakness that defends itself with an obvious everlasting chip on the shoulder.
Less ordinarily, it comes from ignorance, or, I might say, guilelessness. It has never occurred to the writer that there is craft—even craftiness—in effective writing. Writing, to such a writer, is a physical exercise resembling cheering or, rather, booing, at a football game.
The second main fault—lack of a desire to entertain—is due in some measure to a lack of a talent for entertainment, and, in greater measure, to complete unawareness of the obligation on a writer to be entertaining.
The great body of Catholic readers is unreached. And the great body outside of that is untouched. And primarily because the American Catholic Writer is dull.
The American Catholic Writer sets out bravely to be persuasive, to be provocative, to be useful—to be everything, indeed, except entertaining. This is not altogether his fault. He has all his life been clouded with the traditional—and occasionally wise—suspicion of anything interesting. He has similarly been deeply impressed with the noble belief that truth, however stupidly stated, eventually triumphs. He takes to platitudes like pigeons to peanuts. He hesitates to try to be interesting. He shies from being amusing. He shuns satire. He suspects passion. He shuts his eyes at ecstacy. He is afraid of tenderness. And he flees from laughter.
I have not the space here to suggest the necessity of a thoughtful, considered, even artistic, approach to popular Catholic writing. I may, however, suggest that a writer achieves power only by rigid individual discipline and preparation, that he must discover and hew to a standard of taste, that he must beware of movements and committees, that, ultimately, in his own temperament lies the key to his method and distinction, that, in a word, in the silence of his own soul he must work out his style, which is his salvation.
But I would like to say a word on laughter.
This other night, as I sat with my two good friends, I made an observation. They are, in person, witty, somewhat imaginative, and generally entertaining. But when they take their militant pens in hand they are apt, quite often, to be solemn and even dull. It seems sometimes that they just can’t be themselves on paper. Perhaps, they have not yet found the proper medium for what they have to say.
I can suggest a medium. It is a popular weekly Catholic magazine devoted largely to humor and satire and burlesque, with a genuinely epigrammatic paragraph for filler here and there. It is a bright, entertaining magazine, in good taste. It makes pertinent use of cartoon and caricature and, possibly, satiric comic strips. It abounds in jingles and crazy rhymes, and boasts, now and then, of a thumping ballad. It has its serious moments but they come almost as lapses—one or two short arresting poems as contemporary as the New York subway, a story with a sudden, terse heartbreak to it like a good newspaper feature, and a vivid, informative, three-hundred-word editorial.
The magazine is peculiarly entertaining. And how it makes its points! Lucidly and gaily, with flash and sparkle, calling out the guffaw that breaks to a choke in the throat, needling a hurt that ends in a grin.
I know thousands to whom the very idea of this publication is distasteful. But I know hundreds of thousands, including myself, to whom it is diverting, provocative, and useful. In any event, it is the magazine for these two gentlemen. And it is, begging everybody’s pardon, the sort of magazine I see as necessary for the vitalization of American Catholic Writing. The weepers are always with us, always in our way. The laughing men haven’t had much encouragement.
I am reminded of a story. This is an old one. But I must bore you with it again because it has a point.
Two old actors, Grimm and Somber, met shortly after Somber’s wife’s death. Somber was bowed in sorrow. Said Grimm: “You look bad, Somber, very bad. And I don’t wonder. I never did see anyone weep over a body the way you did.” Somber looked up quickly from his sorrow. “Where did you see me, my friend?” he asked. “I saw you at the church,” Grimm replied. “And never did I see anyone weep as you did.” Somber shook his head in disappointment. “Ah, that was nothing, my friend, nothing,” he said. “You should have caught me at the grave.”
The story applies to my two friends. It seems they, for all their excellence, resemble their writing brothers. They wish to be caught at the grave.
It is really airplanes we need, gentlemen, airplanes. (If I may return to an early metaphor.) And there are no better wings than laughter and good humor. Humor is a flight, anyway. Lugubriousness is a crash. When you cry, your head falls to your hands. When you laugh, your head—like a singer’s, reaching for a high note—goes up. Mr. Chesterton once said that Satan fell from force of gravity. It is a lamentable comparison, but, just for the sake of being entertaining, I might say the Catholic Writer generally falls for the same reason.
The laughter that is in our hearts is a secret. What we reveal to the world is usually our captiousness and that small, misleading part of us, our solemnity. It isn’t necessary. It isn’t required by faith.
Some of us, perhaps because of a natural lack of vitality, perhaps because of the sickness that is known as self-pity, perhaps because our pen is inept and heavy-laden, perhaps because, merely, we have a weakness for bad theater, some of us for whatever reason like to be caught at the grave. But we might try to be entertaining even there. We have good examples for it in St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas More—and in many others that any Catholic Writer can, I’m sure, list for you.