Why are Catholic writers so boring?
I’m not asking the above question, mind you. Myles Connolly asked and answered it in something of a jeremiad in the pages of America eight decades ago—and yet some of his criticisms remain relevant today.
Never heard of Myles Connolly? He achieved some minor literary success with his simple yet beguiling 1928 novel, Mr. Blue, but his bread and butter was Hollywood. His Boston friend Joseph Kennedy (yes, that Joe Kennedy) first hired him to work as a screenwriter at Kennedy’s fledgling movie studio, and Connolly wrote a number of screenplays before eventually moving into a producer’s role. His writing credits—“The Right to Romance” (1933), “Palm Springs” (1936), “Youth Takes a Fling” (1938), “Music for Millions” (1944) and “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952)—are less impressive than his uncredited contributions to Frank Capra’s classic films “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Frank Capra once described Myles Connolly as a “hulking, 230-pound, six-three, black-hair, blue-eyed gum-chewing Irishman with the mien of a dyspeptic water buffalo.”
Capra and Connolly were close friends and frequent collaborators, and Connolly served as godfather to three of Capra’s children. Capra once described Connolly as a “hulking, 230-pound, six-three, black-hair, blue-eyed gum-chewing Irishman with the mien of a dyspeptic water buffalo.” Connolly was also a devout Catholic who had once served as editor of Columbia, the official magazine of the Knights of Columbus.
He wrote for America frequently in the 1930s, including a long essay on American Catholic writers in 1935. The essay started politely enough, but once Connolly got warmed up, the “dyspeptic water buffalo” made its appearance. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Despite the abundance of these writers, he wrote, few were readable. “Together, they constitute a voice that is about as effectual as the crackling of a frosted telephone wire in the depth of night,” he wrote. “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.”
He didn’t mince words for the next few paragraphs. “A good-tempered argument sometimes—not often—achieves results. A bad-tempered argument, never,” Connolly continued, in a description that presciently describes “Catholic Twitter” to a T. “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.”
"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."
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,” Connolly wrote. “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.”
Why this state of affairs? Because the American Catholic writer “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,” Connolly continued. “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 ecstasy. He is afraid of tenderness. And he flees from laughter.”
Ouch! In the words of another generation, way harsh.
Myles Connolly on the American Catholic writer: “He shuns satire. He suspects passion. He shuts his eyes at ecstasy. 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,” Connolly wrote. “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.”
Connolly wasn’t always so grumpy. Mr. Blue, for example, is a gentle and simply told tale of a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi wandering the streets of New York—as well as an eerie prefiguring of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Its eponymous main character abandons his wealth and ambition to live a life of unhoused simplicity, an anti-Gatsby in every way (Fitzgerald’s famous novel had been published in 1925, three years before). Written at the very height of the Roaring ‘20s, Mr. Blue lamented the decline of religion, spiritual commitment and friendship in modern life and suggested a kind of moral bankruptcy was hidden behind the booming economy—an economy that would collapse almost entirely just a year later.
Why does Mr. Blue sound like he’s quoting Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti”? They might be more simpatico than you think: In her preface to the 2016 reissue of Mr. Blue (which had gone out of print), Connolly’s daughter Mary Connolly Breiner suggested that Pope Francis would love the character of Mr. Blue and described them as “true brothers in spirit.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York once called Mr. Blue one of his favorite novels, and John Sexton, the president emeritus of New York University, once said in an interview that “the goal for all of us is to be like Mr. Blue.”
Revisiting the novel in 2016, reviewer Paul Almonte wrote that “Mr. Blue’s relevance endures because of its call to look deeply inward and compassionately outward, to question oneself while embracing the plight, worries and needs of others. Blue’s life—his words, actions and his death—invite us to consider our own place and role among the ‘new masses.’ To read the novel seriously is to embrace the question the narrator asks at the end: ‘Why are all of us here and not Blue?’”
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
James T. Keane