Review: What can the writers of the Christian left tell us about the future?
In 1912, Ralph Adams Cram helped publish Henry Adams’s book Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. Cram, an Anglo-Catholic socialist, did not see the book as a mere academic monograph. He hoped that readers of the book would have an “encounter with the religious past” that would move them to “criticize the industrialist capitalist order and to imagine a better future.” The contemplation of the radicality of the Middle Ages, he thought, would catalyze a Christian socialism opposed to both modernity and capitalism; a book about a Christian past was supposed to be the ground of a new Christian future.
This story opens Jonathan McGregor’s Communion of Radicals: The Literary Christian Left in Twentieth-Century America. The anecdote situates McGregor’s hopes for his book. If contemplation and criticism can lead to imitation, then writing about the literary Christian left of the last century might help establish a literary Christian left for this century. Whether encountering obscure writers—Vida Scudder, James Dabbs or Cram himself—or well-known figures like Dorothy Day, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, we are meant to see in them possibilities for the future. This is an academic book with a mission.
McGregor creates quite the challenge for himself: Develop a theory of radical Christian literature, fit writers into it and ground a revival of such literature.
McGregor offers something more interesting than another paean to Catholic literature’s past. It is more interesting because it recovers Christian literature’s radical social critiques. To develop an understanding of Christian literature as an agent of revolutionary love requires arguments that run in differing directions. For instance, his chapter on T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden argues that these two literary figures were writers on the left. When writing about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, he argues that these two leftists were literary figures. At other times, he maintains the general relevance of forgotten figures like John Wheelwright or Scudder. The complex argumentation makes sense in an academic text. However, it is part of the challenging tension of a book that sometimes cannot choose between being an academic book and a source of political and literary renewal.
McGregor creates quite the challenge for himself: Develop a theory of radical Christian literature, fit writers into it and ground a revival of such literature. He mostly pulls it off (although I am not so sure about John Crowe Ransom’s place in the book). His writing on Southern Christian radicals develops an anti-racist tradition of Southern thought. This is particularly compelling in his writing on Walker Percy. He shows how integral anti-racism was to Percy’s Christian humanism. For me, Percy provides hope for the union of anti-racist and pro-life advocacy. McGregor’s interpretation of Percy’s The Last Gentleman moved me to pull the novel off my bookshelf.
Reading about Day and Maurin, I was reminded of the beauty of their writing and the moral force that beauty conveyed. They showed that writing can sometimes move mountains. These chapters are literary scholarship at its best; McGregor makes you want to read Day and Maurin again or read them for the first time.
McGregor’s section on Claude McKay is another highlight and an important interpretative key to the text. The poet, novelist and convert to Catholicism developed a commitment to the medieval that exemplifies the radical potential of an authentic Christian traditionalism. McGregor writes that McKay developed “an orientation to the past—a traditioned radicalism” that set him apart from his literary peers and other leftists. His Catholic Worker poems “drafted medievalism into service for Black liberation.”
The drafting of the medieval for radical social causes is a unifying theme in this book. The medieval becomes a position from which to reject the rapaciousness of capitalism and the flattening secularism of liberalism and Marxism. The writers within deploy the medieval as a counter-possibility to modernity, one marked by egalitarian economics, anti-racist principles and deep religious convictions. Radical medievalism is the kind of political motivation that could help, to quote Maurin, “create a new society within the shell of the old” with “a philosophy so old that it looks new.”
If the Christian left is to be revived, it will need poets, novelists and artists. It will also need scholarship like Jonathan McGregor’s.
It was not just medievalism that united these thinkers; there was also their religious orthodoxy. Their motivation was the conviction that “human equality and human community are achievements won by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the one who unites all humanity to God in his Incarnation,” McGregor writes. As the Christian left seems to be withering away and the Christian right grows in its commitment to uniformity, inequality and exclusion, encountering the radical potential of the Gospel and the church in poets, essayists and novelists is encouraging. It is not that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley would have it. Rather, for McGregor, literature is “one parcel of the field of cultural conflict.” If the Christian left is to be revived, it will need poets, novelists and artists. It will also need scholarship like McGregor’s.
At the end of McGregor’s book, I felt a tension: Was this well-written scholarship a source of optimism or pessimism? McGregor is right that if a Christian literary left is to be part of a revival of a truly Christian politics, it will need to hold onto an orthodoxy that grounds social change while working with other movements on the left. But the prospects for both orthodoxy and Christian social change seem grim as we face a Democratic party increasingly detached from religion and attached to abortion rights, and a Republican party whose rightward drift shows little sign of abating.
McGregor’s conclusions about “Weird Christians” and “Tradinistas” made me think there is a future for the Christian left nowhere else but in such categories. But McGregor does not promise a political program or claim an optimistic outlook. He promises a well-researched vision of the past—and of tradition and orthodoxy—to help enliven a Christian literary left. More importantly, his book promises a little hope, a virtue quite different from optimism or pessimism.
Hope does not disappoint; hope commits itself to the work of God and the works of mercy. We may need to follow the path of Auden in developing suburbs of dissent that foment a “monastic revolt against Empire.” Or perhaps a broader movement can come about through a commitment to justice and Jesus that grounds society in actual Gospel values. The future is unknown, but books that remind us of past writers like Day, Eliot, Percy and McKay offer the challenge to imagine and build a new and doubtless very different future.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Notes on a Revolution,” in the April 2022, issue.