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James T. KeaneFebruary 20, 2024
Graham Greene in an undated photo (Wikimedia Commons)

Readers of our March print issue may have seen Franklin Freeman’s excellent review of Michael Mewshaw’s new memoir of a complicated friendship with Graham Greene, My Man in Antibes. Because we have a running joke at America that no word uttered by Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Graham Greene or Bruce Springsteen (or, these days, Jason Travis Kelce’s girlfriend) should ever go uncommented upon, I decided to look back into our archives to find the first mention of Greene.

1939. Later than I thought, considering Greene’s first novel had been published a decade earlier. It was a review of Greene’s Another Mexico (published outside the United States as The Lawless Roads). A year later, the magazine reviewed The Labyrinthine Ways (the original U.S. title of The Power and the Glory). Reviewer Joseph Maxwell called it “a novel that will provoke much thought and give rise to many arguments. It will offend some, and disgust others, and I doubt that it will be entirely accepted by many.”

"With Graham Greene’s death, we lose a supreme stylist and a master novelist. We also lose a self-styled ‘bit of grit’ in the Catholic machine."

Indeed, the book drew the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith), which in 1953 appointed two consultants, including a cardinal, to study The Power and the Glory. Both criticized the book’s depiction of sexual immorality, and Greene was summoned to Westminster Cathedral by Cardinal Bernard Griffin, who listed changes the Vatican thought should be made to the book. Greene declined. In a letter to Greene, his friend (and sometime frenemy) Evelyn Waugh suggested the following course of action: “They have taken 14 years to write their first letter. You should take 14 years to answer it.”

Regardless of the inquisitorial opinions of the Holy Office, The Power and the Glory (inspired both by The Lawless Roads and by the life of Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J., a Mexican martyr) survived to become a classic, despite an initial publishing run of 3,500 books. I first read this curious tale of an outlawed “whiskey priest” who stubbornly refuses to surrender to his political and religious enemies, even unto death, when I was a high school student (at first somewhat unwillingly; the title sounded suspiciously like a catechetical text), and have been hooked on Greene ever since. I even later read Monsignor Quixote, and let’s be honest, that book is an acquired taste.

The Power and the Glory was preceded by nine novels and travelogues, including Brighton Rock; in the six decades that followed, 22 more books—novels, short story collections and non-fiction works—established Greene as one of the premier English-language writers of the 20th century. Novels like The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case and The End of the Affair joined The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock as Greene’s “Catholic novels,” while works like The Quiet American, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana made him an exemplar of literarily-inclined authors of espionage novels.

In 1948, America published a lengthy profile, “Graham Greene: Saint or Cynic?” in which the author related an evening spent with Greene discussing literature. “I am firmly convinced that Graham Greene is no ordinary novelist,” Richard McLaughlin wrote. “Not only is he one of our finest craftsmen writing today, but he is so preoccupied with man’s inner struggle to save his soul that he is comparable only to our greatest literary masters. His moral fervor, his peculiar concern with man as beset by evil and yearning to reach God through a maze of despair and anguish pervades his writing; but what is even more awesome is to find it so evident in the man’s mien and conversation.”

After a review of child star Shirley Temple’s movie “Wee Willie Winkie,” Greene was sued for referring to Ms. Temple’s “dimpled depravity” and “dubious coquetry.”

Greene was born in 1904 in Hertfordshire, England, into a distinguished British family. He attended Oxford University, where he first encountered Evelyn Waugh (who later wrote that Greene “shared in none of our revelry”) and was briefly affiliated with the Communist Party. After graduation in 1925, he met Vivien Dayrell-Browning. Greene, an agnostic until then, converted to Catholicism in 1926, and the two were married a year later.

He wrote book and film reviews for many years as a side hustle. (Many of his works have been made into movies as well). A review of child star Shirley Temple’s movie “Wee Willie Winkie” didn’t end well for Greene, and resulted in him briefly leaving the country; he was sued (and lost) for referring to Ms. Temple’s “dimpled depravity” and “dubious coquetry.”

Greene always wrote by hand, and typically only 500 words a day, usually in the morning. He traveled far and often and was recognized as a cultural and political commentator as much as a novelist in his prime.

Greene’s life and marriage were both affected deeply by his manic depression. He also had a rather complicated relationship with his Catholic faith; describing himself at one point as a “Catholic agnostic,” he stopped practicing in the 1950s after he separated from his wife (though they remained legally married until his death), but returned to the sacraments in his old age. “I had to find a religion,” he once wrote, “to measure my evil against.” Like many of his characters, Greene seemed always to be holding up the church as a bulwark of grace and sanity in a world of vice and squalor—including in his personal life. (Look it up somewhere else; I’m not Walter Winchell.)

Like many of his characters, Greene seemed always to be holding up the church as a bulwark of grace and sanity in a world of vice and squalor—including in his personal life.

A strong critic of American foreign policy in the Caribbean, Latin America and Southeast Asia (click here to read Paul Farmer’s review of Greene’s novel about Haiti), he at one point championed Fidel Castro—rather a departure from the sharp criticism of Mexico’s secular leftist government to be found in The Power and the Glory.

Greene died in 1991 of leukemia and is buried in Courseaux, Switzerland. Former America editor in chief George Hunt, S.J., commented in 1989 that Greene’s novels, along with those of Waugh and George Bernanos, once “filled the personal literary shelves of every self-respecting Catholic intellectual.” It has been commonplace since his death (and even during his life) to crown authors “the next Graham Greene,” including Shusaku Endo and John Irving, though commentators should remember a classic moment in English literature: In 1949, a British magazine asked readers to submit parodies of Greene’s writing style. Greene entered the contest himself under a pseudonym—and won second place. Not even Graham Greene was the next Graham Greene.

Chroniclers of Greene’s life have not always been kind. In a 2013 review for America, Jon Sweeney noted that Greene had unfairly endured “more malevolent biographers than anyone is due.” Greene’s official and most comprehensive biographer, Norman Sherry, “exhibits on several occasions an only slightly veiled animosity toward his subject,” wrote Sweeney, who took a more nuanced view of Greene’s life and work.

So too did Joseph Feeney, S.J., in a 1991 tribute in America. Noting that Greene was one of the hardest novelists to explain to students because he “concealed his art,” he compared him to “the Harlem Globetrotters, Beverly Sills or Penn and Teller. I want to let Greene’s simplicity shine amid the self-flaunting style of Joyce, Woolf and Fowles. I enjoy the others’ words and wordplay, but I also prize Greene for being so minimal, so focused on story and person, that he refuses the distraction of beautiful words. He is an ascetic of art. His novels are people, his style a mere means.”

“With Graham Greene’s death,” Feeney continued, “we lose a supreme stylist and a master novelist. We also lose a self-styled ‘bit of grit’ in the Catholic machine. But as this great God-questioner passes to God, he leaves behind his questioning mind in his questioning works.”

"His moral fervor, his peculiar concern with man as beset by evil and yearning to reach God through a maze of despair and anguish pervades his writing."

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Trees,” by Greg Kennedy. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here 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 with 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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