School of the Holy Ghost

Book cover
The Life You Save May Be Your Ownby By Paul ElieFarrar, Straus & Giroux. 555p $27

In the winter of 1951-52, Caroline Gordon had a vision of the triumph of Catholic writing in the United States. Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, which Gordon had recently read in proof, was about to be published. A manuscript novel sent to her by a Louisiana convert seemed even more promising. Gordon thought she saw in Walker Percy’s The Charterhouse a sample of what the next development in the novel will be. Fiction rooted in an orthodox Catholic understanding of the creation and the moral order was the antidote to what Gordon saw as the desiccated literary scene of mid-century America, in which the agnostic or atheistic writer labored to set the universe up fresh for every performance. In a letter to Brainard Cheney written at this time, Gordon bubbled with enthusiasm: Walker’s novel and Flannery’s novel are IT. They are so damned good!

The preceding summer, Gordon had made a retreat at Maryfarm, the Catholic Worker farm near Newburgh, N.Y. Gordon had become reacquainted with Dorothy Day in 1947, and the Maryfarm retreat seems to have revived dreams from the 1920’s, when the set of bohemian writers and intellectuals that congregated in Day’s Staten Island cottage or in the neighboring cottage of Malcolm and Peggy Cowley struggled endlessly with the predicament of the modern writer as an exile in search of a community.

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Calling the retreat the finest experience I ever had, Gordon shared with Percy a new dream: a retreat center and writers’ colony for Catholic writers. The school could be held at Maryfarm or another place like it; participants would attend daily Mass and pray the Liturgy of the Hours; experienced writers would mentor novices in workshops, but the real teaching will be done by the Holy Ghost.

The account of Gordon’s hopes for a School of the Holy Ghost is a good example of the kind of thickly textured and evocative storytelling that runs throughout Paul Elie’s splendid study of four great American Catholic writers and of a vibrant movement in the history of American literature and American Catholic culture. It is also something of a basic theme of the book. Elie’s overarching thesis is that his four writersDay, O’Connor, Percy and Thomas Mertondid in fact form a school and represented something of a triumphant moment in Catholic literature, though in a much more complex and mysterious way than Gordon’s fancy theories could encompass or her impulses toward the writers’ colony model would allow.

These four never met as a group, never published a manifesto and had no headquarters, no neighborhood, no university fiefdom or corner bar. Nevertheless, the remarkable series of their books that appeared between 1948, when The Seven Storey Mountain became a surprise best-seller, and 1961, when Percy’s The Moviegoer captured the National Book Award, and which included Wise Blood and The Long Loneliness (both published in 1952), led each writer to recognize the group as skeletally joined, as members of a body. From the time of this remarkable flowering until today, they form a unified if loose association of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination. They make a set, Elie argues, precisely because each went his or her own way.

Elie’s book is not intended as a work of original biographical scholarship. With the exception of a quotation or two from previously unpublished letters and two or three uses of manuscript revisions in O’Connor, nothing here will be news to readers familiar with the major work and main outline of these writers’ lives. Elie’s masterful interweaving of these well-known stories, however, allows them to come alive in fascinating and memorable ways.

The texture of the book is evocative of good documentary filmmaking of the Ken Burns school (and not just because of the many appearances throughout of Walker Percy’s lifelong friend Shelby Foote). Each of the book’s 11 chapters divides attention more or less equally among the four writers, weaving the lives together through repeated themespilgrimage, politics, race and civil rights, poverty, books, the search for the real, friendships, Vatican II, illness, death. Throughout, Elie (an editor at Farror, Straus) combines straight storytelling with copious quotation, deft summaries and criticism of major writings, telling references to broader historical contexts and cultural movements, commentaries by contemporaries and sharp vignettes, often focused on photographs of the authors. (One of the delights of the book is its generous gallery of 38 photos and other illustrations.)

The documentary technique often allows Elie simply to fade in and out of scenes in the lives of his four authors, allowing him to suggest a great deal more about their relationships and affinities than could be done in more conventionally argumentative or academic writing. As O’Connor returns to Georgia in 1951 under the death sentence of lupus, Elie need not remind his reader of the role that illness has played in the journeys of his other subjectsof Merton at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital or Percy’s tuberculosis. The parallelism of the narrative method itself makes the point. O’Connor’s homecoming is a crucifixion through which she is converted to the religion she already believed in. The cradle Catholic falls in step with her fellow pilgrims, converts all.

Another strength of the book is its length, which allows for extensive quotation from major works by each of the four writers. Elie’s main theme is the power of the written word in the lives of these men and women, how reading and writing itself was constitutive of their spiritual journeys and how their progress as pilgrims coincided with the gradual emergence of each writer’s distinctive literary voice.

Elie shows rare tact (and modesty) in the way he stands aside at regular intervals to let the individual voices of the School of the Holy Ghost speak for themselves. Those who know those voices well will be delighted by the new resonances that Elie creates through brilliant juxtaposition and contextualization; those less familiar stand a fair chance of getting hooked.

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