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James T. KeaneFebruary 14, 2023
Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

Happy Valentine’s Day! May the third-century martyr who gave his name to this Hallmark holiday bring love and affection into the lives of us all—but let us remember that we shouldn’t lose our heads over it. Truth be told, Valentine’s Day has not historically been the favorite holiday of America writers, and the past 114 years show it: There are quite a few stories in our archives with titles like “Poor Saint Valentine Has Been Captured by Cupid” or “Hate Valentine’s Day? This year, celebrate Ash Wednesday instead.”

Why? Our writers usually complained that Valentine’s Day was a shallow, largely manufactured holiday that offered a false vision of love; at the same time, probably more than a few over the years didn’t puzzle over the details of romance too much, wanting to direct their readers’ attention toward the “higher things.” Here is John J. Wynne, S.J., America’s first editor in chief, in 1896, 13 years before the magazine was founded:

How can [readers] set their minds on higher things when they allow themselves to be titillated by what is low and degrading? Keep the sensational paper with its menu of murders, divorces, scandal and moral depravity out of your homes.

Truth be told, Valentine’s Day has not historically been the favorite holiday of America writers, and the past 114 years show it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the affairs of Cupid went unremarked—just that they didn’t always seem to get a fair shake. Witness these lines from a review (no byline) from 1933 of two books, Psychology of Sex and Modern Woman and Sex. “So much is written about sex these days that one is never sure of the motive that causes the books to pour from the press or drives the public to buy,” stated the review. “Many are evidently pornographic.” The former book was praised for offering worthwhile information to psychologists and social workers, but criticized because it “renders common property many details and instances which had better be reserved for the professional office.” The latter was criticized as “just one more book to satisfy prurient curiosity.”

The next year brought a spicy exchange to the magazine on how and where to meet one’s true love. The week after Valentine’s Day in 1934, Eileen Leary lamented the lack of opportunities for women in the workforce to meet suitable spouses in “Husbands—Where?”

In the office there are usually more girls than men in the number of employees. For the girl over twenty-five, there is little prospect of meeting the husband. The curly headed runner is eighteen, the boy who is beginning at the bottom of the ladder to learn the business, graduated from college in June, and the two available bachelors are Ned, who goes what he calls “steady” with a girl, and Mr. Mullins, who is forty-six, and a definite bachelor.

Zing! Six months later came a riposte from Francis X. Polo (I know it sounds like a pseudonym, but I looked him up and he really did exist: He graduated from St. John’s University in Queens in 1929): “Husbands—Here!” Polo argued that Catholic men found it just as hard to find love in the modern world, because everyone was too caught up in popular culture and fashion. As for women, he wrote, “Every pagan custom and fashion she adopts is another bar for the cell that is shutting her out from the Elysium of love, another link in the chain that binds down her womanhood.” What the world needed was more “marriage-minded youth”:

If there be faith in the Catholic girl’s heart, strength in her principles, a correct scale of life’s values in her pocketbook besides her powder puff and no Calvinism in her make-up: then, husbands here, there, everywhere.

Well. We like to think we’ve gotten better on these matters over time, and in the past few years we’ve featured stories on “a theology of Tinder and digital dating,” “the passionate possibilities of Christian single life,” the difficulties of dating during Covid-19, why it’s O.K. to read romance novels and a Boston College professor who gave her students extra credit if they asked someone on a solo date. And, of course, the one story you always wanted to read, a priest on “What is Valentine’s Day like when you’re celibate?

John J. Wynne, S.J.: "Keep the sensational paper with its menu of murders, divorces, scandal and moral depravity out of your homes."

Our book reviews, too, are a bit more open to the subject of pitching woo these days, and two stellar examples come to mind. The first is a review by Mark Mossa, S.J., of Tim Muldoon’s 2010 memoir, Longing to Love. “In a time when spiritual memoirs are long on dysfunction, anger and tragedy, Tim Muldoon’s Longing to Love offers a refreshing contrast,” Mossa writes. Telling the story of a young couple’s meeting, courtship, and early marriage, Muldoon gives an honest and introspective look at the ups and downs of a romantic relationship that becomes a more practical, realistic partnership as well.

While the book is a love story, it is also an account of the unexpected struggles that a couple can face. “The Muldoons’ is a story of how longing and learning to love—and more than a little faith—can sustain two people devoted to each other, especially when, as often happens, things do not turn out quite as planned or imagined,” Mossa writes. “Indeed, Longing to Love serves as a poignant reminder to the young and old, single, married or otherwise committed, of the importance of love in everyone’s life.”

“I have learned to attend to the whisperings of desire,” Mossa quotes Muldoon on his relationship with his wife and two adopted daughters, “to find the places where God might be inviting me to grow, to change, and to stretch toward the freedom of the real me, the person who can share joy with the women he loves most.”

A more light-hearted take on romance is a review by Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., of Ron Hansen’s whimsical 2003 novel Isn’t It Romantic? Hansen, a longtime America contributor and one of the nation’s foremost writers of fiction, is perhaps best known for his novels Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus and Hitler’s Niece. He has acknowledged that Isn’t It Romantic? is a departure from his more serious fare, but Father Feeney found much to enjoy for that very reason, calling it “a dollop of sweet cream, an entertainment, a sip of champagne, a screwball comedy, a romp, a bauble, a love letter to Nebraska.”

Telling the story of two young couples (one French, one American) who end up impossibly intermixed in a romantic slapstick scenario in a small Nebraska town, Hansen mixes high culture (quotes from Roethke) and low (Nebraska Cornhuskers football scores on the back of winemaker’s labels) in a book that also takes some satirical swipes at both French and American culture. “Amid the romp, Ron Hansen, past master of image and style, remains no less an artist, even if an artist of whipped cream,” Feeney writes. “His comparisons and images—his special talent—are typically vivid and unusual.”

Happy holiday! Oh, and one reminder: next year? Valentine’s Day is on Ash Wednesday again.

"Longing to Love serves as a poignant reminder to the young and old, single, married or otherwise committed, of the importance of love in everyone’s life.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Crossing the Jordan,” by Brooke Stanish. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

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:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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