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James T. KeaneJune 30, 2023
typing on a keyboard(Photo from iStock)

In the fall of 1932, a new monthly literary magazine, The American Spectator, debuted in the United States with an impressive roster of editors, including George Jean Nathan, Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell and Eugene O’Neill. The prominent syndicated newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre wrote that “New York’s literati are in a furious flutter over the last word in literary high-hatting,” reporting that contributors to the new journal would include William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Sinclair Lewis, among other literary giants.

A few weeks after the journal’s debut, Francis X. Talbot, S.J., the literary editor of America, reviewed it. In perhaps the first example of America clickbait, the headline was a spicy one: “The World’s Worst Magazine.” What followed was a florid, funny, fierce jeremiad against the new enterprise.

Francis Talbot on the editors of another journal: "These are humorless men, overwhelmed by the futility of all about them, blinded to the light which makes life livable."

“Now I would not be the one to say that our esteemed contemporary, the Commonweal, is any worse than America; hence, that weekly is ruled out. Not even our deluded contemporaries, the New Republic and the Nation, are now the worst,” Talbot declared. As for The American Spectator’s editors and contributors, “almost all of them are dull and wordy propagandists for animal sexuality, social promiscuity, and godlessness.”

He could go on. He did go on:

These are humorless men, overwhelmed by the futility of all about them, blinded to the light which makes life livable. They are sad men who have exhausted the material pleasures of the world and in whose souls the instinct of hope is dead. They are the rebels against all that the generations of normal men have found to be wisdom, and they writhe and twist in the trammels of their own pride and folly.

(I hasten to note that The American Spectator of which he wrote, which failed in 1936, has no connection to the politically conservative journal The American Spectator that exists today, and which my editors refuse to allow me to call The World’s Worst Magazine.)

In 1934, Talbot commented in America on James Joyce’s Ulysses and a recent court case in the United States that had declared the book was not obscene. Talbot didn’t agree with the judge on the novel’s merits:

The book was written in a new technique, in a pseudo-English, of words that were sometimes normal, sometimes foreign, sometimes archaic, sometimes merely a succession of letters, meaningless and inane. Many of the words were scummy, scrofulous, putrid, like excrement of the mind. The words are listed in the dictionary, but never in the writings or on the tongue of anyone except the insane, or the lowest human dregs.

Describing the protagonists of Ulysses, Talbot had more to say. “What they and the other characters thought and imagined, what trivialities, what nonsense, what drunken dreams, hallucinations, eroticisms, vulgarities, blasphemies, silliness, malice, and the like streamed through their consciousness and unconsciousness is what James Joyce labored for seven years to transmit to 768 closely printed pages,” he wrote. “Because of the filthiness that whirled in the stream, those seeking to be pornographicized exclaimed what excitement. And the man with a sound brain and a sound heart exclaimed what twaddle and what rot.”

Who was this wordsmith, and what gave him such an extraordinarily cheeky literary style? Born in 1889, Francis X. Talbot entered the Society of Jesus in 1906 and was ordained a priest in 1921. He became literary editor of America in 1923, a position he held until his appointment as editor in chief in 1936. Talbot also founded or assisted with the creation of an extraordinary number of journals and literary societies, including Theological Studies, Thought, the Catholic Book Club, the Catholic Poetry Society of America and the Catholic Library Association.

His tenure as editor in chief was not without its troubles—Talbot’s strong antipathy for communism led the magazine to offer support to Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco. “He tried to communicate to the contents of the Review itself and its discussion of current issues the dramatic, crusading spirit which its exterior form then symbolized,” wrote John LaFarge, S.J., in a 1953 obituary of Talbot. “This tactic worked effectively where the topic lent itself to black-and-white treatment, but did not succeed equally well where more careful analysis was required.” Talbot stepped down after eight years at the helm of America and was succeeded by LaFarge.

Francis Talbot on Ulysses: ‘The words are listed in the dictionary, but never in the writings or on the tongue of anyone except the insane, or the lowest human dregs.’

Talbot’s other writings for America are extraordinary both for their eloquence and their frank truculence: He suffered no fools and, it seems, little self-doubt. His ten-part series on writing in 1933 and 1934 began with “The Agony of Writing,” in which he wrote that “sometimes it is a rather miserable life, this profession of letters, and sometimes it intoxicates one so that he could sing for the joy of being an author.” Like many of his writings, his advice in that column displayed some of the sheer pleasure he took in being a wordsmith:

One who is actively engaged in the painful pursuit of literature, is always engaged in it, every moment, and is never entirely free of it. He need not necessarily be on the lookout for material; he cannot avoid or escape the material, for it forces itself on him….He is never immune from a good idea, or a good scene, or a good phrase, or a good plot.

Such craft, he wrote in a later column, is nothing less than “the expression of a man’s soul.” Every writer must have “a feeling for words, a sensitiveness toward them, a kind of tender respect for them,” he wrote, adding:

He should be aware of their connotations and associations, he should see images and pictures in each of them, he should be able to taste their flavor, to savor of them, he should know their strength and their pungency and their potency and their quietude, he should be able to measure instinctively their appropriateness to what he writes and for whom he writes….Each word is a test by which the writer is judged.

After stepping down as editor in chief of America in 1944, Talbot served as president of Loyola College in Baltimore (now Loyola University Maryland) from 1947 to 1950; he then worked in various capacities as an archivist, retreat director and parish priest until his death in 1953, continuing his own writing all the while. His books included Saint Among Savages: The Life of St. Isaac Jogues (1935) and Saint Among the Hurons: The Life of Jean de Brébeuf (1949). His last article for the magazine was a 1949 tribute to the editors and writers of the magazine over its first four decades.

In his 1953 obituary of Talbot, John LaFarge, S.J., wrote less about Talbot’s literary output or fiery temperament than of another quality seen by his peers:

There was always much to say about “F. X. T.,” whether you took him as a fine scholar, a natural leader of men, or as a truly saintly, apostolic priest. If you try to describe a great and colorful personality to those for whom he is but a name, there is little you can do save select some master epithet that in crude fashion may help to sum him up. In this instance the word does seem to come to hand: it is magnanimity.

Not a bad sendoff—but I bet if “F.X.T.” had been allowed to write his own obituary, it would have been slightly more colorful.

Francis Talbot on writing: "Each word is a test by which the writer is judged."


Our poetry selection for this week is “Apology for Belief,” by Alex Mouw. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In other exciting news, we also have a new selection for the Catholic Book Club! This summer, we will be reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

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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