The Last Catholic Novelist: The grace-filled fiction of Jon Hassler
When Jon Hassler died last spring at the age of 75, he was the last “Catholic novelist” in America. A long time ago a controversy raged in Catholic journals about whether a “Catholic novel” was possible. The “right” contended that a novel could be called “Catholic” if it presented orthodox Catholic teaching and edifying Catholic people (no “bad” priests) and was written by a “practicing” Catholic author. The “left” said that any quality novel was by definition “Catholic,” like James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Most of the French “Catholic” writers were not Catholic enough by these standards—Francois Mauriac and Léon Bloy. Neither were their English counterparts—Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. The rector of the major seminary I attended publicly denounced Greene. Sister Mariella Gable was banished from her monastery in Minnesota by the Bishop of St. Cloud for putting Catcher in the Rye on her reading list. The courses in “Catholic Fiction” disappeared from Catholic colleges and universities, even from Notre Dame, where some writers of allegedly Catholic fiction taught. I went through the catalogues of a few dozen such schools 20 years ago and found that even G. K. Chesterton’s fiction had disappeared from public sight, as had that of Cardinal Francis Spellman and Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Those who argued for whatever reason that there could be no such thing as a Catholic novel carried the day. Hassler’s books, in violation of the intellectual consensus in Catholic circles, managed to become both critical and popular successes. Handicapped in the later years of his life by a Parkinson’s-like disease, he could sustain only three hours of work a day. Yet he produced at least a half dozen novels that would belong in any course on Catholic fiction, should that relic of the past ever emerge again at Catholic campuses. In fact, they may define the genre. Thus the work of many Catholic writers may win acceptance as Catholic works of art—folks like Hassler’s good friends J. F. Powers and Betty Wahl, and John R. Powers, James Lee Burke, Alice McDermott, Edwin O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor, Louise Erdrich, William Kennedy, Thomas Flannigan and Cormac McCarthy among them.
The controversy of yesteryear might have taken a different turn if the Rev. David Tracy’s theory of the analogical imagination had been available a half century ago. It would have been difficult to deny the inevitability of Catholic novels, some of them patently and blatantly Catholic even though the authors might have been unaware that they were writing Catholic fiction, like your man from Dublin (though I think he knew what he was doing).
In the arguments of yesteryear no one suggested that there might be a distinctive, if often implicit, Catholic imagination shaped by an analogical (or sacramental) perspective, which saw grace as available in human communities and neighborhoods, though many of those defending the possibility of Catholic fiction pointed to the pervasive impact of community in the stories the Catholic novelists wrote. One might argue that the Catholic storyteller, even if he is not aware of it, cannot escape the grace that seems to permeate his work—Albany for Bill Kennedy (St. Joseph providing a happy death for the Meryl Streep character in “Ironweed”), the South Side of Chicago for John Powers, Pluto, N.D., and its adjoining Chippewa reservation for Louise Erdrich, Cajun country for James Lee Burke, the environs of St. John’s Abbey for J. F. Powers and Betty Wahl, the Long Island middle-class parish for Alice McDermott.
And Staggerford for Jon Hassler.
Hassler had the rare talent of seeing the absence of grace in human communities, from family on up, but also the capacity of forgiveness to flood a community with grace—even the grace of his heroine Agatha McGee to forgive her lifelong enemy Imogene Kite for stealing and then revealing her private and personal letters.
He could also see the presence of love in older people and the intensity of that love between elderly celibate lovers like Frank Healy and Libby Girard in his powerful North of Hope and Agatha McGee and James O’Hanlon in Dear James. Of all the novels that have flooded bookstores since it became legitimate for priests to fall in love, these two stories are the most sensitive and perceptive as well as the least bitter. Father Healy, who became a priest because of an apparent deathbed message from his mother, willingly forgives the woman who had brought the false message.
“Would it have made a difference? Would he have taken his life in a different direction? If so, it was much too late to imagine what that other direction might have been. We are what we are, he told himself. For better or worse I am a priest.”
In his brief memoir, Good People…From an Author’s Life, Hassler comments on the two priests of North of Hope:
One way to take the measure of goodness is to look at the way various people handle their vocations.... While the elderly Adrian Lawrence leads his life of loving kindness, impervious to doubts and difficulties, Frank Healy goes about his duties despite suffering
through a dark night of the soul. “I’ve sprung a very big leak and my spirit is draining away.” Working under this strain, Frank Healy’s service to others strikes me as the more heroic sort of goodness.
Very few men who have chosen to stay in the priesthood when severely tempted to leave would react in such a way. And few contemporary Catholic authors would approve of Father Healy’s decision. A course on the fiction of Jon Hassler at a Catholic university in, say, 2015 might raise for young people some of the old questions, about which they ought to rethink the answers.
Hassler admitted that Agatha McGee, who is based in substantial part on his mother, simply denied the Second Vatican Council’s changes and expressed his own sympathy for her position, though he eventually supported the council. From the perspective of the middle of the next decade, the impact of current attempts to undo the council might raise some questions about what happens when a church decides to change and then to change back.
He was a writer who liked his characters. He tells us that there are only four of his creatures that he dislikes and that he sometimes feels he has judged them too harshly because he had not worked hard enough to explain to himself why, like Imogene Kite, they have become so unattractive. Only a couple of his characters are thoroughly bad. A gentle man who suffered himself both physically and emotionally, Hassler defended his characters against his own rush to judgment.
He also was uneasy about the happy endings that appear in many of his stories, not perfectly happy, but at least happy enough to sustain his people into old age. He does not accept the postmodern notion that an ending, any ending, is a fallacy. He wondered, however, if a writer who is driven to seek happy endings for his people might be deceiving his readers. All lives end unhappily because everyone dies. We crave happy endings in the stories we read or the films we view because we want to believe that death is not the end. Jon Hassler believed that, but he did not want to present it as an easily achieved assurance. Will Father Healy at the end of his life regret that he did not marry Libby Girard? And will they meet again in the world to come? All an author can do is say that such may be the happy ending of our lives. The data so far are inconclusive. The ending is a subject for a leap of faith.
The Role of Imagery
The appropriate response to the question of whether a novel can be called “Catholic”—as ought to have been evident before Tracy described the Catholic imagination—is whether a story could have been written by someone whose imagination had not been permeated with the rain forest of Catholic imagery. Thus, Dave Robicheaux, the recovering alcoholic Cajun detective in James Lee Burke’s mysteries, is patently both a Catholic and a mirror of Catholic imagery. Similarly, the characters in Louise Erdrich’s stories may be folk Catholics (as she may also be) but they are still irrevocably Catholic. And the scribe of Lake Wobegon may be a Lutheran, but he is a Catholic Lutheran.
I wonder sometimes if Tracy’s work is known on Catholic university campuses. His theories about Catholic imagery and Catholic art are critically important to the definition of Catholic identity. I should like to think, however, a course on Catholic fiction would be an excellent opportunity to illuminate the pervasive impact of Catholic sacramentality on both theology and fiction. Even a review of four of Hassler’s most important books—Staggerford, North of Hope, A Green Journey and Dear James—might have a critical impact on the self-understanding of Catholics of the importance of religious symbols (sacramenta) on Catholic life. Sometimes I think that the issue is not whether theology and fiction can be taught at the same time but whether it is possible to teach them separately.
It may occur to the reader how many of the authors I have mentioned are products of the (German) Catholicism of Minnesota centered in St. John’s Abbey (which includes such Celts as Coleman Barry and Eugene McCarthy). The Jesuit sociologist Joseph Fichter once remarked that the centers of creativity in American Catholicism seemed to be concentrated in a triangle that reached from St. John’s to Chicago to Notre Dame. St. John’s pervasive and unique influence on the church in this country, in particular, demands more intense study. The environs and culture of Staggerford, Rookery College, the Abbey Press, Bad Battle River, Pluto, Ostrogothinburg (St. Cloud?) the Clementine Fathers, Godfrey Diekmann and Lake Wobegon seem to demand more coordinated and more intense investigation. Perhaps they are also a challenge to Minnesota Catholicism to understand itself while there is still time. I have suggested on occasion to the monks of St. John’s that they are far more important and indeed far better than they think they are.
It is this world that Jon Hassler knew so well, and in it he found not dogma about happy endings but merely hints of their possibility, many such hints. The Catholic imagination does not perceive certainty, but it does see grounds for hope, indeed solid grounds—after all is said and done there may be all manner of things that justify hope. Perhaps even a rain forest of hope in which love is as strong as death.
Hassler’s work, I suspect, is not well known among Catholics, even Catholics who teach literature, because it is not grim enough. The proper model, the teachers might say for Catholic fiction, is Flannery O’Connor or Léon Bloy. Or, as I say to my friend John Shea, it is a story that is entirely dark until the strike of one bolt of lightning, which briefly and suddenly illuminates the sky and then permits the darkness to return. A reconciliation between lovers, tentative and problematic and of the sort that abound in Hassler’s work, also is a sacrament of grace. As the country priest says at the end of George Bernanos’s Diary, grace is everywhere. It was Jon Hassler’s gift that he saw that presence of grace.
From the archives, Jon Hassler on J. F. Powers.