The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.
by Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 555 pp. $27.
If the influence of religion has been largely elided or submerged in mainstream accounts of American intellectual history, then the role of Roman Catholicism in that history would have to be counted as doubly excluded. During the heyday of the American Studies movement in the years after World War II, when the larger meaning of “America” was (as it is becoming once again today) a vital and hotly debated topic, it was still possible for serious thinkers to regard the American nation as the lengthened shadow of certain Protestant and Enlightened ideas, often occurring in amalgamated form. Nineteenth-century American history was, in this view, a “progressive” story of a New Zion set down in the virgin wilderness, a fresh beginning for the human race that would follow its manifest destiny westward toward the earthly realization of God’s kingdom.
As for the notion that Catholic ideas or thinkers might have contributed anything essential to the nation’s meaning—well, that seemed too far-fetched even to require refutation. As the historian John Ibson wittily expressed it, students of American life saw little reason to “explore the possibility that for some nineteenth-century Americans the Virgin Mary was of more consequence than the Virgin Land.” Even a brilliantly eccentric figure like Henry Adams, who seemed to defy that pattern, only confirmed it—for it was not the real Church in real time (or for that matter, the real Virgin) that he loved, but an idealized medieval Catholicism, chiefly designed to function as an opposite number to a modern world he had come to loathe and fear.
This state of affairs has begun to change, however, thanks to talented younger American historians such as James Terence Fisher, Patrick Allitt, and John McGreevy, whose works have filled in some of the blank spaces and made it much more difficult to ignore the vein of Catholic thought and expression running through American history. If it remains the case that this Catholic strain is best understood over the course of American history as a cultural foil, a counter to mainstream ideals of individualism and autonomy, then it has at least been a remarkably productive foil, one whose enriching acts deserve much more attention than the record has thus far accorded it.
Paul Elie’s sprawling, spirited, and immensely appealing book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, is a significant contribution to that record, though perhaps all the more effective for not being self-consciously intended as one. Elie has not set out to rewrite American history. He has instead merely taken as his subject the lives and works of four twentieth-century American Catholic writers: the activist Dorothy Day, the monk Thomas Merton, and the Southern writers Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. His book seeks to draw them together into a movement of sorts, a band of pilgrims, a loose coalition of inveterate seekers whose unflagging search for ultimate meaning is an example worthy of our study and our imitation.
Why these four? Although they did not quite form a proper intellectual circle in their actual lives, the similarities between them are complex but genuine. Obviously, for one thing, there were the shared profound religious concerns which informed their lives’ work and caused them to be labeled “the School of the Holy Ghost.” But the similarity goes further. All four were, in some sense, deeply marginal figures, being either adult converts to the Roman Catholic faith at a time when such conversion was costly, or, in the case of O’Connor, being constrained to live out her Catholic life surrounded by a sea of Southern Protestants. All four were deeply critical of the arrogant spirit of modernity and sought in Catholicism an escape from a “progressive” world which left no place of grace intact. And—a matter very important to Elie—all four placed an extraordinarily high valuation upon the written and printed word as an avenue of spiritual inquiry. They were people who lived in and through books, in a way that is increasingly rare today. Perhaps it is no coincidence that they also had in common the ability to produce works of extraordinarily high quality, whose influences echo down to the present day.
What is most attractive about Elie’s book is its earnest and unfeigned passion for such a worthy but unfashionable subject. Underneath it all, one senses, is his own passion for books. An editor by trade, Elie is clearly a man devoted to the possibilities of the written word, both his own and that of his subjects. Books, he almost seems to say, can save us. One may actually come to know the truth through them, in the thought-haven of their world apart, and indeed one can hardly do so without them. Although no one would mistake The Life You Save for a work of Catholic apologetics, it is an unusually affirmative work, a splendid counter to the cynicism and obscurantism that have brought literary scholarship in present-day America to the point of ruin. It is affirmative of its subjects, affirmative of their bookishness, affirmative of the possibilities of the written word, and affirmative of its subjects’ shared pilgrimage—the endless high-minded seeking that consumed their lives. Its prose is pleasingly lean and astonishingly jargon-free, and its analysis of texts is nearly always fresh and engaging. The author’s enthusiasm is infectious.
But this fine work also has some considerable faults, and given its many commendable points, one comments upon those faults only with the greatest reluctance. But comment one must, and to begin with, one must remark upon the book’s perplexing and confusing structure. Elie has chosen to tell all four of his subjects’ separate stories at once, rendering their lives in alternating bits and pieces, shifting from person to person, jumping from time period to time period, in a way that is difficult for even knowledgeable readers to follow. Elie’s lucid style somehow manages to carry the day, making the book eminently readable even in spite of this expository chaos. But the constant resort to a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” style of exposition can be distracting to the point of exasperation, and most emphatically does not add to the book’s appeal.
Such a stylistic choice, moreover, reflects a substantive problem, as stylistic choices so often do. Elie doesn’t ever really make a detailed argument for the linkage of Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy. Indeed, the book does not really offer an argument at all. Instead, it merely proposes to gather together these four figures, linked by the common theme of pilgrimage, and relying on the charm of an engaging narrative style to carry the intellectual burden of cohesiveness. But even the most winsome individual stories do not automatically weave themselves together into a larger whole; they require the loom of an argument to bring them into a more meaningful unity. Perhaps Elie avoided this approach in order to give priority to his subjects’ biographies and avoid any taint of academicism, both of which are commendable aims.
But the choice may have inadvertently had the opposite effect, blurring the subjects together, and sacrificing a searching examination of their psychological peculiarities by blending it all into a larger (if itself ill-defined) story of pilgrimage. I did not, for example, find in Elie’s book any account of the early influences that helped make Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor into such strange and formidable personalities; it all seems to emerge from nowhere, forming the “set” with which they make sense of subsequent experience. Ultimately, it is a book about pilgrimage, and as the subtitle suggests, the pilgrimage is somehow the same for all of them.
That brings me to a final concern, well expressed by one of the book’s blurbs, from the literary scholar Harold Bloom: “As a work of the spirit, [The Life You Save] is universal and in no way sectarian.” Bloom of course meant this as praise, but I am not so sure that it should be taken thus. It is entirely misleading to think of these four Catholics, all of them Catholic by fierce or passionate choice, as nonsectarian pilgrims. It presumes something that one has no right to presume, but that right-thinking and “spiritual” people in the Western world now presume every day: that ultimate truth is relative or pluriform, and the “journey” of pilgrimage is more important than the convictions of the pilgrims, or the destination toward which they journey. For all of Elie’s immense sympathetic regard for his subjects, he gently betrays them at the end of his book, with a conclusion that would, I feel sure, have earned him a rap on the knuckles from the blunt and unflappable Flannery O’Connor. “We are all skeptics now,” he writes, “believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, and complicated by our lives.” It is as if one suddenly awakened from a noble dream to find oneself in a lecture hall at the Harvard Divinity School.
Fortunately, this tired and conventional conclusion is undermined by the underlying strengths of Elie’s own account. For these four pilgrims, the Catholic faith was not just a plausible way station, an intellectual and moral tradition that floated their boats. And Elie knows it. Just two paragraphs before the above passage, Elie quotes from a letter O’Connor wrote to an apostate friend. “[My essay] is about the things that hold us fast in Christ when Christ is taken to be divine,” she wrote. “It is worthless if it is not true.” A pilgrimage is similarly worthless if it is not going to the right place.
One of the settled but largely unspoken pieties of our time is the notion that “seekers” have greater moral authority than “finders.” It is a silly piety when stated clearly. But whenever it is openly challenged, one sees how entrenched it is. I remember hearing a luminous convocation address at a small Catholic college, in which the speaker declared, roughly, the following: “The American academy esteems the search for truth, and we wholly concur in that at St. X’s. What is different about our college, though, is that we are willing to entertain the possibility that the truth has, in some instances, been found.” Judging from the horrified reaction from the faculty, one would have thought the speaker had just declared himself the emperor of a totalitarian theocracy. And much of their criticism boiled down to the notion that it is more blessed to seek than to find, to criticize than to affirm, a notion that any genuine pilgrim would find utterly unintelligible.
Still, there is so much to admire and cherish in Elie’s book that one is inclined to forgive him even this fault, and ignore his attempt to wrap up a story that is unwrappable. D. H. Lawrence was on to something when he urged us in reading literature to trust the tale and not the teller. In this case, the tale turns out to be much larger than the framework within which the author attempts to confine it. But Lawrence’s distinction breaks down in the end, for the telling of tales is also a way that the teller advances his own knowledge of the world. What makes Elie’s book so finally winning and valuable is his own search, the meaning that one senses moving behind and beyond his pages. He’s written an extraordinary book, and I hope he won’t stop here. And I mean that in more ways than one.
Wilfred M. McClay teaches history and humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His most recent book, co-edited with Hugh Heclo, is Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).