- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003


By Paul C. Elie

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 555 pages


Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy are the most influential Catholic writers in America of the last century. They each found in Catholicism the intellectual resources to face the challenges of the modern world. They have also become modern examples of religious pilgrims. Cottage industries, complete with scholars, literary societies, dissertations and conferences, have sprung up around each. Writing a biography of only one of them would be a daunting task: Tackling all four of them in the same volume would appear foolhardy.

Yet that is what Paul Elie has attempted in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage,” his important new book, and he does so admirably well.

Mr. Elie, a senior editor at publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, expertly traces the lives of these four figures and charts their literary and religious journeys across the backdrop of the turbulent “American century.” In doing so, Mr. Elie helps to explain why these four authors continue to speak to us. His literary criticism is deft and understanding, but it does not dominate his narrative. Instead, he is properly focused on the worlds in which these four lived and wrote, and their contemporary importance.

Their stories, in outline, have become part of American literary history. Day (1897-1980), older than the others, was the Greenwich Village radical who became a lay apostle of Catholic charity and poverty through her founding of The Catholic Worker on New York’s Lower East Side. Merton (1915-68) was the bright young man who retreated to a Carthusian monastery in Kentucky and revealed the holiness of monastic life to a nation in his classic book, “The Seven Storey Mountain” (1948).

Percy (1916-90) was the scion of an old Southern family who abandoned his medical training while recovering from tuberculosis to write diagnostics of the modern soul, including “The Moviegoer,” which won the National Book Award in 1961.

And finally there was O’Connor (1925-64), the only one of the four born Catholic, a prodigy whose penetrating fiction and fierce intellect contrasted sharply with a young body wasted by lupus.

Together, they make up what Mr. Elie calls the “School of the Holy Ghost.”

The world they inhabited is hard for contemporary Catholics, let alone anyone else, to imagine. Catholics lived in an intellectual and social ghetto, with their own schools, social services and publications. Their lives were circumscribed in numerous directions, yet embedded in a rich web of relationships that our individualist times are hardly able to appreciate.

Intellectually, Catholics in America were treated as second-class citizens. The hierarchical organization and discipline of Catholicism was thought to preclude the drama required of a novelist, which was (as George Orwell wrote) considered a “Protestant art form.”

These four authors struggled with their relationship to that world as converts or authors, even as they were welcomed within it.

Each was able to find in Catholicism both the truth they were seeking and the resources to express that search in fiction. Now that they are gone, Mr. Elie allows us to see that their literary influence reaches beyond members of their own faith to anyone searching for transcendent meaning.

They are “representative figures, whose struggles with belief and unbelief are vivid and recognizable. At the same time, as they venture forth together, their story suggests a series of different ways of pilgrimage,” both for their time and in our own day. Their work speaks to us still, but sometimes not for the same reasons it spoke to the original audiences.

The book proceeds in a generally chronological manner, rotating from one author’s life to the next within each chapter. At first, this seems disorienting, like reading four books at once. But before long, however, we see Mr. Elie’s plan. The four stories gradually become one story, and slowly we become aware of the larger community sustaining all of these authors. For those not fully familiar with their lives, Mr. Elie’s structure permits some dramatic tension.

When will Percy and O’Connor meet, two Southerners trying to make sense of their region and their faith? When will Merton and Day finally express to one another their shared sensitivity toward the eternal search for salvation? When will Percy and O’Connor see that their common experience of illness shaped their writing? The accounts of their interactions provides the mortar that holds the pieces of the narrative together.

In retrospect, Day emerges as perhaps the most powerful figure, though not the most accomplished author with the exception of her bestselling memoir, “The Long Loneliness” (1952).

She combined the real radicalism of Catholic social thought with an uncompromising religious orthodoxy. Day endured a long journey of hardship as she worked out her vision, which included an abortion, failed relationships, her conversion and many years of poverty. Like Mr. Elie’s other subjects, books became the catalyst for changing her life. In Day’s case, it was the great European novelists who convinced her to seek a more stable existence devoted to living out the Christian gospel.

For O’Connor, who described herself as a “hillbilly Thomist,” books were an even more central part of her world, because her life was relatively constricted in comparison with the others. She attended the graduate program in creative writing at Iowa, then spent time at the writer’s colony at Yaddo and New York City, where she became friendly with Robert Lowell and Caroline Gordon, among others. Once she was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had killed her father, she returned home to a small town in Georgia and lived with her mother until her death at age 39.

O’Connor once wrote that her fiction was meant to dramatize “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil;” her short stories and novels like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1960) and “Wise Blood” (1952) feature violence and largely lack happy endings. But as Mr. Elie notes, her books — which have influenced figures as diverse as the author Alice Walker and U2 lead singer Bono— are even more suitable to our own time. Where the violence and imagery in her stories shocked her audience, in our own day her sometimes brutal stories about the ugliness of sin do not seem so out of place.

Day and O’Connor seem more sure of themselves, if not of their ultimate direction, earlier than Merton and Percy, whom Mr. Elie dubbed, respectively, the “rebel” and the “searcher.”

In that, perhaps, they are more contemporary models. Percy was consumed by the emptiness of the self in the modern age and our search to fill it with meaning. His novels and philosophical essays explored the psychological disjunction between the scientific worldview and a spiritual one. Merton, the world-famous monk, constantly transformed himself in a search for a more authentic monasticism that would be at ease with his equally compelling need for communication with others.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is about how books can change lives, for “in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forward to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort.” In recounting his own profound encounters with these authors, Mr. Elie provides one of his own for us.

Gerald J. Russello lives in Brooklyn.

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