Once upon a time there was a lion . . . and the lion had a voice like a lamb. The day Michael Novak died, that unbidden couplet mysteriously wrote itself into my head. Now it’s stuck there like a song that won’t go away. Maybe it lingers because I always thought of Michael as a lion, a metaphor fitting in so many ways.
There is, first, the sheer scope of his kingdom as an intellectual. Theology, philosophy, politics; diplomacy, government, economics; poetry, fiction, journalism: Michael roamed with authority through all these territories and more, leaving lasting tracks in each.
Then there were the institutional dens that he built, or helped to build, all over the world: from seminars such as Tertio Millennio in Poland, still changing lives and honing minds after twenty-five years, to the magazines whose need for existence Michael anticipated before anyone else—including First Things. He could not stop building shelters that would house the thoughts of others.
Even during his last years at the American Enterprise Institute, he presided over one of the few truly charming venues in town—a regular small-c catholic wine and cheese hour, at which speakers were invited to leave the world of Washington wonkery and think about art, literature, and history instead. One high point was an evening during which Michael held a packed house rapt as he delivered a tour-d’horizon about the meaning of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
On another evening, in 2010, Michael gave the floor to a discussion of my first work of fiction, The Loser Letters, an unlikely tale about a young woman in rehab. Upon hearing our daughter Catherine, an actress, read lines aloud, Michael announced: “This story should be a stage-play.” Six years later, his prediction became reality: The play premiered at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre in fall 2016 for two weeks. How Michael relished his role as impresario in this shared adventure—and how he shone at one of his last gala nights out in 2016, our celebration with family and friends of the play’s appearance.
He was also leonine in mind. In person, Michael often fell quiet, seemingly in repose—only to spring faster into intellectual action than anyone else, pouncing upon phrases or ideas. Such was true even of the smallest points. I remember one summer lunch where we batted around possible titles for his last work of nonfiction, about Catholic social teaching. I suggested calling it “What Social Justice Is—and Isn’t.” The lion nodded and replied, “That’s good. But better would be ‘What Social Justice Isn’t—and Is.’” Of course he was right.
For reasons unknown, the book ended up with a different title (Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is). But the memory is archetypal in my mind, one of so many in which Michael pawed a notion, turned it just so, and improved it.
Third—by the way, Michael would have enjoyed the Trinitarian fillip here—he was regal among thinking beasts in another sense: He deserves all the lionization he’s received. And more! As he would have been the first to jest.
It’s hard to think of any other writer lately whose passing has become the occasion for as many eulogies, memories, recollections, and reflections. It’s harder to think of any who would have enjoyed the communal accolades more. George Weigel, Catherine Pakaluk, Sam Gregg, and I were among those present at Michael’s eightieth birthday celebration at Ave Maria University some years back—an all-day-into-night affair of speech after speech, commemorating just a few facets of his oeuvre. By evening, just about everyone was exhausted . . . except for Michael. When I saw him at breakfast the next morning, he asked why I’d left so early (circa 11 p.m.)—when he’d gone on to meet some more friends at the next pub.
I’d like to add a few words about his lion-sized heart. We were friends for a quarter century. My husband, Nick, and I often saw Michael and Karen and others in the Novak family at home in Washington, D.C. But the memories cherished most aren’t set in this sometimes cold and steely capital town of ours. They repose instead in dreamy Delaware, where Michael and I and others visited often during the summers, in a happy little kingdom by the sea.
Many days, over the years, we whiled away hours by the bay, spinning long conversations about families and friends, books and ideas, art and music, and whatever else makes the game of life worth the birthday candle. By now I know most of Michael’s favorite meals in just about every establishment in town. He was especially fond of a drink in one restaurant known as a Templeton martini—which wasn’t a martini, in fact, but a Manhattan-style confection perfect for cooling down after the warm hours of work that preceded it. The “Templeton” in the title amused him, he said, because he had won the Templeton Prize—though just as delightful, no doubt, was that this Templeton (unlike the other one) came with a sidecar.
We built castles of our own into the summer air during these visits, sharing visions of articles, books, and associations that seemed just waiting to be born. Some of our imaginings remain suspended in the mid-Atlantic summer sky. Others did come down to earth here and there—as footnotes or rephrasings to written work, where we incorporated one another’s suggestions; or in ideas for articles, columns, and connections, including for other writers and ventures, that did eventually see the light of day.
One of our most prolonged mutual preoccupations concerned the need for an association of artists and writers to serve as a counterforce against the secularist progressivism so dominant in the arts today. Two summers ago, we were studying the examples of the Inklings at Cambridge, reading Carol and Philip Zaleski’s history The Fellowship for insights. This time around, years of talk led to a fledgling reality especially vital to Michael: The American Academy for Catholic Thinkers and Artists, which entered life during his very last year—meeting in miniature, fittingly enough, for three days by the beach in 2016.
Another creation benefiting from our ruminations was the Kirkpatrick Society, a literary group I founded several years ago that’s grown from a handful of isolated bloggers and editors and authors into a community of several hundred (lately turned over to the American Enterprise Institute). Michael grasped instantly the idea behind this new network as I struggled to explain it, understanding why a literary society for women could be an especially positive and sane counterweight to these politicized times. His appearance before the group to discuss his memoir, Writing from Left to Right, was another star turn, one of the more memorable in the history of interesting talks delivered monthly to this organic association.
The salon that was the Novak home in Delaware rang with energy and music, literature and philosophy, affection and intellectual purpose. Often, other family members would filter through—Michael’s daughter Jana, son Richard, brother Ben, sister Mary Ann, and the Novak grandchildren, all sublimely tolerant of non-family who had become itinerant social and intellectual squatters in the place.
Thanks to visiting students from Ave Maria University who were present there in force during the last years, especially, the house was part artistic/religious retreat, part library in progress, and part hootenanny. These rotating crews from Naples, Florida, sang often, played guitar and keyboard and otherwise devised impromptu musicales, and outdid one another at making dinners—all the while helping the ambassador with everything from research to getting to Mass. After sundown, it was routine for the gang to watch musicals on DVD, ride bikes out for ice cream, and enjoy nights more wholesome and convivial than many teens and young adults today will ever know.
On one particular evening after dinner, Michael’s students watched with glee—and re-watched—a clip of Harvard salutatorian Mary Ann Marks delivering her 2010 address. In Latin. (She later became a Dominican nun.) Their delight seemed an apt synecdoche for the sweetly improbable, quirky world that was Michael Novak and Co. at the beach.
Those days taught us salonistes in the sand at least two lessons that will outlive our own days. One is to recognize the individuals before us as individuals—as minds and souls with needs and requirements, and gifts to give the world, that are all their own. Michael cultivated everyone, including and especially those “subordinate” to him. He took the time to learn the interests of every one of his figurative and literal students, altering the course of lives and enhancing careers with such generosity that even the outpouring of posthumous acclaim for him is a mere footnote to his deeds. In a world where many so-called leaders are more accurately described as sycophants to all above them on life’s ladder, and tyrants to all below, his moral example is a gift to Novakian protégés at least as essential as his written work.
The second lesson lived out in Delaware and elsewhere is that nothing worthwhile of an intellectual or artistic nature can be made without risk and dark nights—and that risk and dark nights are worth it.
Recall that Michael Novak’s very first book, The Tiber Was Silver, was a novel. So was his last, which he reworked lovingly during those last couple of summers especially. (He once mentioned that every one of his books went through fifteen drafts, minimum.) An ambitious tale of a family from Slovakia that settles in the U.S., its story pivots around the historic 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania. All that is off-message enough, in any conventional sense, but even more audacious, this novel goes where Michael’s other creative work never did: It’s narrated from a female point of view.
Every written creation feels perilous, fiction perhaps most of all. But the risks inherent in entering intellectual or literary terra incognita never stopped one of the world’s most established minds from trying.
And that, in the end, may be the legacy recognized even among people who will never read The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and other works for which his name became known around the world. In an age when branding and messaging are all the popular rage, Michael taught the opposite: that it’s artistic and intellectual risk, not comfortable pacing in accustomed grounds, that counts most to the human patrimony.
That’s why, despite the cornucopia of labels for this theologian, philosopher, novelist, institution builder, poet, ambassador, mentor, father, and more, the word that comes first to my own mind in saying hasta luego to Michael Novak is this one: courage. It’s a legacy only fitting for a lion, after all. A lion who had the voice of a lamb.
Mary Eberstadt is Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of several books, including It’s Dangerous to Believe. This piece is adapted from remarks delivered at a Heritage Foundation event, “Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Michael Novak,” on March 13, 2017.
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