A spirited debate has been going on for nearly a decade now, much of it in these pages, about the apparent dearth of religious ideas in recent American fiction. Because many of the interlocutors—among the most prominent are Paul Elie, Randy Boyagoda, Dana Gioia, and Gregory Wolfe—are Catholic, particular concern has been devoted to the role of Catholicism in contemporary literature. Where has faith in fiction gone? Have institutional barriers in MFA programs and publishing houses played a role in its disappearance? Is the problem that we lack Catholic voices in American letters, or that we too often fail to notice the ones we have? But no one has yet asked the logically prior question: Where did Catholic literary fiction come from in the first place?
One answer is astonishingly straightforward. At least some portion of the mid-twentieth-century Catholic literary boom in the United States can be attributed to the determined efforts of a single Benedictine nun.
Sr. Mariella Gable seems to have been forgotten now, at least outside of the College of St. Benedict, the small liberal arts college in Minnesota where she taught (with one four-year gap) from 1928 to 1973. But in the 1940s and 1950s, she was well known in Catholic circles as a sometimes-controversial teacher, editor, and critic. In her reviews and anthologies, Sr. Mariella helped to establish the careers of two writers who would go on to become household names in Catholic fiction: J. F. Powers, winner of the National Book Award for his novel Morte D’Urban in 1963, and Flannery O’Connor, who needs no introduction. She also brought stories by several Irish writers—including Mary Lavin, Bryan MacMahon, Frank O’Connor, and Seán Ó Faoláin—to American audiences for the first time.
Beyond championing individual writers, Sr. Mariella sought to raise the standards of Catholic fiction generally (she cites T. S. Eliot approvingly on this subject: “The greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards”) and to broaden the definition of what could be considered “Catholic fiction” in the first place. Both efforts put her in the crosshairs of other Catholics, and the series of controversies that dogged her most productive years was likely a cause of the relative obscurity in which she dwells today.
But Sr. Mariella is worth remembering. Her often scathing indictment of early-twentieth-century Catholic fiction gives context and depth to the story of Catholic letters in this country. Her definitions of Catholic fiction, at once precise and capacious, could do much to clarify current debates. And her sharp-eyed criticism—which aimed at times to describe a form of fiction she felt was desperately needed but did not yet exist—opens up new vistas to those searching for faith in fiction today.
Mary Margaret Gable was born in 1898 in rural St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. In 1915, she entered the novitiate of St. Benedict’s Convent, taking the name Sr. Mariella, O.S.B. (Order of Saint Benedict). Her promise as a teacher must have been apparent early on, because in 1918 she was sent to Bismarck, North Dakota, to help open a new high school. There, she taught all subjects in the ninth and tenth grades, including Latin, English, algebra, geometry, history, typing, and shorthand.
Afterward Sr. Mariella spent several years teaching at her alma mater, St. Benedict’s Academy, while working toward her bachelor’s degree in English at the nearby College of St. Benedict. After receiving her BA in 1925, she joined the college’s faculty. Within a decade, Sr. Mariella had earned two further degrees in English: an MA from the University of Minnesota, completed through summer programs and correspondence courses squeezed in around her own teaching; and a PhD, which she began at Columbia University and finished at Cornell, after transferring to study with the famed Dante scholar Lane Cooper. Doctorate in hand, Sr. Mariella returned to the College of St. Benedict in 1934 to chair the English department.
In an autobiographical essay, Sr. Mariella recalled that her initial transition to religious life had a challenging start: “To one so young, so high-spirited, and so accustomed to the free run of woods, hills, and streams, the discipline of the novitiate was difficult.” Returning from three years of intellectual pursuits in New York seems to have put her under a similar strain—largely because she couldn’t bear to give up those pursuits, even as she took on her old responsibilities as a sister and teacher, and added new ones as department head. She was plagued by abdominal pain, eventually diagnosed as diverticulitis, and recurrent bouts of insomnia and what would now likely be called depression and anxiety. These symptoms were serious enough to land her in the hospital on several occasions, beginning the year after she returned to St. Benedict’s. In August 1944, she wrote to a friend: “If I never exhaust myself, I need never get these attacks. The doctor says to keep my sugar up and stay within my limitations.”
Her literary output between 1938 and 1950 shows her inability to heed this advice. Blind Man’s Stick, a book of poems, was published in 1938. After it came two anthologies: Great Modern Catholic Short Stories (1942, reprinted as They Are People in 1944) and Our Father’s House (1945). Next was a collection of her essays intended for schoolteachers, This Is Catholic Fiction (1948). A third anthology, Many-Colored Fleece, appeared in 1950. At the same time, she threw herself into teaching the craft of writing after another nun asked why the college never won any writing awards. “The question,” Sr. Mariella recalled, “filled me with rage.” She set her sights on the most prestigious prize she could find, an annual creative writing contest sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly, and within the next few years her students had won half a dozen honorable mentions and twice taken the top prize.
These years of her greatest productivity were also years of poor health and friction with local bishops. A dustup over her first anthology is illustrative of the resistance she sometimes encountered. Sr. Mariella had protested the publisher’s choice of title, writing to Frank Sheed, “You can’t possibly use Great Modern Catholic Short Stories because the book isn’t that. It is just one small section of the whole.” But Sheed and his partner overruled her and even advertised it as their Catholic Book of the Month. Soon enough, a censorious priest circulated a pamphlet decrying the book. Privately, Bishop Joseph Busch of the Diocese of St. Cloud told Sr. Mariella that the attack “called forth nothing but sympathy.” But he also told several local priests that he “had not seen the manuscript”—thereby giving a false impression that she had not sought his imprimatur—and did nothing to clear up the confusion that ensued.
This kerfuffle put Sr. Mariella under a cloud and likely paved the way for later misunderstandings of her work, including, most dramatically, a row over the inclusion of The Catcher in the Rye on a recommended reading list in 1958, which led to her exile from St. Benedict’s. Although Sr. Mariella was vindicated in the end—she taught elsewhere while away, and was able to return to St. Benedict’s four years later and retire as professor emerita in 1973—she was, like most prophets, occasionally without honor in her own country.
The alarm occasioned by Sheed and Ward’s misleading title, discouraging as it was, apparently prompted Sr. Mariella to think deeply about what it would mean to label a book Great Modern Catholic Fiction—and mean it. In the introduction to her first anthology, Sr. Mariella made no attempt to define Catholic fiction; subsequent essays and anthologies invariably begin with a definition of this term.
Instead, her earliest motivations had to do with quality. “God doesn’t like crap in art,” was J. F. Powers’s preferred formulation, and at times Sr. Mariella could be nearly as blunt. She disliked the magazines she called “Catholic pulps” and “Catholic slicks” for their “deplorably low” level of literary craftsmanship, their sensationalism, and their unrealistic depictions of an idealized—and often bowdlerized—faith. Just as women’s magazines “consistently print happy-ending stories that glorify romantic love,” she wrote in 1942,
the Catholic magazines patronize the same mentality, with a subtle philosophy of life conspicuously more harmful. They seem to say: “If you say your prayers (especially if they are repeated nine successive days), if you are good and do the right things, then you shall have a job, succeed in your ambitions, be crowned with the good things of this world”—a kind of back-stairs entrance to materialism, particularly enticing because its easy steps are padded and comfortable with a righteous piety.
To “pour out miracles, three for a cent, cheaper than dirt” made for bad art, in her view. And to “make prayer a means to material satisfactions, as if they were the end of all things to be desired”—in the process doing away with the Church’s “teaching on the mystery of suffering,” which is “the recipe for the only real happy ending there is”—made for bad theology.
Her first anthology was a rebuke to such presumably well-intentioned, but artistically deficient, stories. In it, Sr. Mariella gathered short fiction about priests, nuns, and monks that did away with the “artificial requirements of plot and the pyrotechnics of the O. Henry surprise ending” and instead embraced a quiet realism inspired by Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, she wrote in the introduction,
pointed out that people do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives, and eat cabbage soup. Similarly, nuns, monks, and priests are not seduced; they teach rapid addition to children in parochial schools, drink the proverbially bad coffee brewed in monastery kitchens, and are occasionally jealous of each other. Thus they are depicted in the contemporary short story.
Hence her preferred title for the collection, They Are People: “normal, intelligent persons doing normal, intelligent work.” By gathering these stories—some of which were written by Catholic writers but “scattered to the four winds” in better-paying secular publications, where her target audience might never find them, and others not written by Catholics at all—Sr. Mariella wanted to elevate the tastes of Catholic readers by showing them what fiction about Catholic life could and should look like. She also issued her first clarion call to Catholic writers, suggesting that “something of the delicate feeling for truth represented in the present volume” could be useful for illustrating “the life of the spirit,” whose workings are “for the most part revealed only obliquely.” In his review of the book, Francis X. Connolly, S.J., then chair of the English department at Fordham, called it “peppery,” “provocative,” and “explosive enough ‘to blow up many a peaceful parish circle.’”
Sr. Mariella’s earliest, inchoate definition of Catholic fiction was thus a negative one: It wasn’t what had passed for Catholic fiction in America in the early decades of the twentieth century. For a variety of reasons, she felt that Catholic literature had not yet come into its own, especially in the United States. By the time Sr. Mariella started her work as an editor and critic in the 1940s, the Catholic Revival—which had begun in France and England in the middle of the nineteenth century—had achieved “perfection” in poetry, apologetics, and philosophy. Behind them, she noted, “fiction lags conspicuously,” which was a shame, not least because “the number of persons who read fiction is a few thousand times greater than the number of persons who read nonfiction or poetry. Furthermore, the tale or novel has a power to move people” as even the most brilliant philosophy and poetry do not.
Other critics have confirmed Sr. Mariella’s judgment. In Testing the Faith: The New Catholic Fiction in America (1992), Anita Gandolpho refers to the period from 1900 to 1950 as an “Age of Innocence” in which Catholic writers were driven by “didacticism” rather than literary quality. Jean Kellogg’s The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence (1970) suggests that the pragmatic nature of clerical life in America may have slowed the development of Catholic fiction in the United States. The American priest “was from the beginning, typically, a man of action,” she writes, “a missionary in frontier territories, an educator of previously uneducated immigrant masses, and a builder of schools and churches, who battled for his parishioners against exploiters of the immigrant poor.” The realities of a demanding parish life “made higher studies almost impossible”—as evidenced by the low enrollments at Catholic University of America in its early years—and the American church made a virtue of necessity, prioritizing practical matters over the exploration of theological complexities. Kellogg’s study of American Catholic authors begins with Powers and O’Connor, and she suggests that the fact “that Catholic novels begin so late in America is probably due to the low regard in which American Catholics for so long held the life of the intellect.”
Looking at the matter from a different angle, we find that the trajectory of American literature more broadly tells a different—but related—story. A survey course on American literature will never be short on high-quality fiction, but if you take one you’ll be hard-pressed to find much overt faith after the Puritan sermons. Nathaniel Hawthorne was nearly alone in his attempts to make room for supernatural elements in American fiction, and he did so self-consciously. He knew that his readers would expect novels to “aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.” So he called his works of long fiction “romances” instead, to leave himself recourse to the extraordinary and the miraculous: mesmerism and curses, metamorphosis, celestial omens, and physical manifestations of sin and other spiritual realities. After Hawthorne’s death, Henry James dismissed the romance as an inferior genre, and nearly a century and a half later, it has yet to recover. Today, the novelistic descendants of James are as numberless as the stars, but Hawthorne has—apart from perhaps William Faulkner and Toni Morrison—almost no heirs.
Again, it’s worth asking not just whither Catholic fiction in this country, but whence. The 1950s and 1960s saw Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish writers feted by the literary world, but to take that period as a baseline for narratives of decline (or a lack of decline) is somewhat strange. That period may actually be the exception that proves the rule: namely, that high-quality fiction and fiction about faith have mostly run on parallel tracks in American literary history. Never before the middle of the twentieth century did we have such an openly religious moment in “serious” American fiction, and we may never have one again.
Closing the gap between fiction of quality and fiction of faith constituted the first part of Sr. Mariella’s program of reform. The second part involved articulating what would distinguish Catholic fiction of the highest quality from its secular counterparts.
Never an abstract thinker—her favorite word reportedly was “concrete”—Sr. Mariella used the image of a bullseye in the introduction to her second anthology, Our Father’s House, to suggest the kind of subjects Catholics should be trained on. The outer circle of the target depicts “the local color of Catholic life.” Although such fiction was the focus of her first anthology, by 1945 she had deemed it “peripheral.” Neither necessary nor sufficient for her definition of Catholic fiction, rich Catholic settings would mostly give Catholic writers the chance “to become adept in our own idiom.” The next circle of the bullseye depicts ethical issues—for instance, birth control or race relations—in a way that aligns with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The center of the target tackles something murkier: the inner workings of the person who desires earnestly to live, though not without struggles and failures, in accordance with Catholic teaching. It might touch on any number of ethical problems—even ones the Church hasn’t formally weighed in on—because “these problems become Catholic when treated from a God-centered point of view.”
The bullseye image illustrates what Sr. Mariella loved most about fiction: its special epistemology, its specific form of knowing through seeing. But it is unique among her explications in describing the particular subject matter that Catholic fiction ought to cover. The rest of the time she focused on what Catholic fiction ought to do.
In Our Father’s House, Sr. Mariella’s teleology of Catholic fiction builds on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Liturgy and Personality. Hildebrand argues that the formation of Christian personality involves developing an appropriate response to value. “What does it mean to make an appropriate response to value?” Sr. Mariella asks, and she answers:
It means that all the things we can know are ranged in a hierarchy of being, some deserving less love, some more. It means that we strive to give each thing the love it deserves, and that we are done once and for all with the feverish desire merely to be different. It does away with the romantic emphasis upon the ego. It does not ask: how do I feel about clam chowder and Gothic architecture? do I worship baby pandas and regard moral restraint as silly? It molds the classic personality, essentially noble, admirable, and balanced. A classic personality is never absolutely achieved, but the person striving to attain its perfection habitually endeavors to make an appropriate response to value. Appropriate—that which in the hierarchy of being this particular thing deserves.
Nature is clearly good, but it is not the ultimate good. Friendship, too. If we make idols of them, Sr. Mariella writes, “if we give more than an appropriate response” to any particular value, “the value itself betrays us”—there are tempests as well as idylls—and we are left frustrated, unfulfilled, and longing for more. The classic, Christian personality recognizes that God is the ultimate good and feels sympathy for those still searching. Following Étienne Gilson, it believes that “all human love is a love of God unaware of itself,” and thus “the question is not how to acquire the love of God, but rather how to make it fully aware of itself, of its object, and of the way it should bear itself toward this object. In this sense we might say that the only difficulty is the education, or if you prefer it, re-education of love.”
The end of Catholic fiction, then, is to bring about this re-education of love, through a slow and imperfect process meant to take place often in the characters, but perhaps always in the reader. When the center of the bullseye depicts saints—not heavy-hitters like Francis or Anthony, but everyday people striving for holiness—it shows persons who are continually making decisions about what to value.
Any story that truthfully represents value in this way qualifies as Catholic fiction according to Sr. Mariella, no matter the denomination of the characters or the author, who may even lack religious faith. And negative fiction—fiction that shows what not to do or not to value, and why—counts, too. In her third anthology, Many-Colored Fleece, Sr. Mariella included “Missis Flinders,” a story by screenwriter Tess Slesinger that is based on the author’s experience of having an abortion. “In it,” Sr. Mariella writes, “a husband and wife have freed themselves from the troubles, expense, and responsibility of parenthood by an abortion. Apparently unhampered by any religious scruples, they suffer frightfully in their subtle contempt of each other.” It is a hard story to read even today, disorienting and devastating as the woman’s mind turns in on itself—now angry, now remorseful, now bitterly, ironically nonchalant about what has happened; at once envying and despising the other mothers who share her room at the maternity hospital; silently seething with hatred for her husband. Her loves and wraths alike are disordered and intermixed. Such a “story of failure,” Sr. Mariella writes, “is often like the hole in the wall, without which we could not see the thickness, strength, and solidity of the masonry.” Not all stone walls a prison make; some are there to protect, to hold up.
In the introduction to Many-Colored Fleece, Sr. Mariella reframes her argument about the telos of Catholic fiction, in a way that remains consonant with her earlier discussion of value. For Christians, every choice leads the chooser in one direction or another, toward salvation or damnation. This ability to see sub specie aeternitatis—that is, to consider our present reality in relation to the eternal—gives the Catholic writer a broader palette to work from than a secular writer has. It gives him or her access to three dimensions, whereas the writer without faith has only one.
“Even Catholics have wrongly supposed that Catholic fiction is limited, narrow in its subject matter, curbed and curtailed in what it may do,” Sr. Mariella writes. “The fact is: Secular fiction is limited. Catholic fiction is unlimited; it embraces all reality.” She explains:
Fiction is about people. Take any drawing-room full of people. The first reality with which we are confronted is the individuality of all present. God never repeats himself. God manifests something of the mystery of His fecundity as a Creator in the infinite variety of human beings—no two on the face of the earth precisely alike. In our drawing-room are the witty, the depressed, the insecure, the amicable, the lonely, the garrulous, the silent. But one witty man differs from another witty man, one silent man from another inarticulate one as color differs from color. Yet they are all bound by the bond of coloredness—the mystery of the one and the many. Moreover a psychological and social chemistry takes place whereby color fades into color or clashes with it. Traditional fiction has been sociological. It has dealt with man in relation to man. It has interpreted the many-coloredness of man in society—whether transcending his environment or a victim to it. It has dealt with the reality of a material world, and in doing so has projected a fiction of one dimension.
Catholic fiction takes into account this psychological and sociological dimension, and adds another. “But there is another reality in that drawing-room,” Sr. Mariella writes. “Every person present is either in a state of grace or of damnation. In other words, heaven and hell are present in the room. A fiction which extends its boundaries to include this reality is eschatological.” It “embraces all planes of reality.” If this sounds like a précis for Flannery O’Connor’s account of the Christian novelist as a “realist of distances,” it may well be. O’Connor’s essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” was written a decade later, and her letters show that she admired Sr. Mariella’s criticism.
Sr. Mariella singles out Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter for having included just such an eschatological dimension. In it, the protagonist has an extramarital affair and afterward receives Communion in a state of mortal sin. Unable to renounce his mistress or his marriage, and stricken by his own further offense against God, Henry Scobie overdoses on sleeping pills; the novel ends with his wife Louise discussing his apparent suicide with her priest. “People cared tremendously whether Scobie was damned or saved,” Sr. Mariella writes, with evident delight. “His plight was argued by the literary elite and by callow youth—at cocktail parties, in bars, in monastery parlors, and over Cokes in drugstores.”
She observes that medieval allegory had taken just such an interest in eschatological reality—in the ultimate destination of our souls—but in it characters were “only symbols—often dehumanized.” What contemporary Catholic writers might do, she suggests, is to build on Greene’s work, by continuing to develop forms of fiction that take into account both “spiritual reality” and the concern for “human individuality” that is characteristic of novels.
By a terrible irony, she noted, goodness is harder to portray on the page than its lack. “Missis Flinders” and The Heart of the Matter are both examples of negative fiction; for positive fiction, Sr. Mariella points the reader to “The Devil in the Desert” by Paul Horgan, or “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” by J. F. Powers. But most of it has yet to be written. “The psychology of goodness is very rarely explored with anything like the artistic success that commonly distinguishes the analysis of evil or of spiritual failure,” Sr. Mariella writes. “St. Augustine remarked in the City of God, Book XI, Chapter 9: ‘Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name evil.’ In the art of literature it would seem to be the other way round.” Ahead of William Empson, though after Percy Bysshe Shelley, she takes aim at John Milton’s Paradise Lost as a textbook case of this phenomenon: “Milton meant to argue God’s cause, but his devils are magnificent, while God the Father and God the Son talk like two smug Presbyterian ministers sipping tea before a fireplace.” More recently, “bad Catholic fiction” makes virtue unpalatable in a different way, by assuming that “a certain amount of goodness transfers the character from the state of original sin to some Eden-like perfection never seen on land or sea. The presupposition is heretical.”
What is needed instead is “plain honesty” about the fact that, here below, good is always mixed with temptation and with failings, even in saints. “Such a fiction will certainly not be dull,” she envisions. “For the sharpest conflict in the world begins to take place the moment a soul sets out to seek God in earnest. Self immediately kicks and screams for the center of attention. And if somewhat flouted in the struggle, self-seeking can disguise itself in a million ways to look like God-seeking.” And yet some souls persist. In those cases, “What happens between the soul and God? Everyone wants to know. But the task of fiction is not only to give the information, but to impart on the level of pure art the vicarious experience.”
Sr. Mariella hoped to see laypeople lead the way in realizing her vision for a literature of spiritual values. “In 1942 there was every reason to rejoice at the kind of story which appeared in They Are People,” she wrote. But by 1950, quality stories about clerical life could “be had for a dime a dozen.” What lay authors needed to do was stop writing about priests and start chronicling their own experiences, and particularly the increasingly “heroic fortitude” needed to sustain a marriage and to raise a family in modern American culture. In an age that encourages materialism and instant gratification of the ego’s every whim, some people still choose to make room for contemplation, for charity, for sanctity—or at least they try to. In their efforts “lies the reality out of which a great and noble fiction might be made.”
And if you can’t write fiction, she advised, then raise your children steadfastly in the faith. Maybe they will have the gift.
Rereading Sr. Mariella’s collected essays recently, I felt like the woman at the well in John’s Gospel. Eight years ago, I defended a dissertation arguing, among other things, that three canonical postmodernists were “crypto-Catholic.” The committee was universally persuaded by my observations about the role of screen technology in recent American fiction, but they were split as to whether Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace should be seen as religiously minded. “Maybe don’t use that term, ‘crypto-Catholic,’” James Wood, one of the more sympathetic examiners, told me afterward. “But don’t give up that part of the argument either.” As it turned out, I gave up the whole thing for a time, mostly because there always seemed to be people in front of me, flesh-and-blood human beings, who required my attention—first, the students whom I was entrusted with teaching, and then a husband and a daughter—and I must be a slow learner because it has always taken nearly all my time and energy to do right by them. Sr. Mariella’s essays did much to explain what I saw, and still see, in novels by DeLillo, Pynchon, and Wallace.
It would take too long to explain why that is, but I’ll give just one example, a short story by David Foster Wallace. “Good People” was published in the New Yorker in 2007, and after Wallace died by suicide the following year, it was included in his posthumously published novel The Pale King in 2011. The story contains almost no external action, just a couple sitting at a picnic table in a park. They’re young and unmarried, college students, serious Christians; and she is expecting a child. They’ve decided on an abortion, but on the day of the appointment Sheri Fisher has realized she cannot go through with it. There isn’t a word of direct dialogue in the story. Everything that passes between them is mediated through the consciousness of Lane Dean, Sheri’s boyfriend, and I know of nothing else in contemporary fiction that makes such an explicit attempt to show a will and an intellect thrashing about in search of godliness:
He so fervently wished it never happened. He felt like he knew now why it was a true sin and not just a leftover rule from past society. He felt like he had been brought low by it and humbled and now did understand and believe that the rules were there for a reason. That the rules were concerned with him personally, as an individual. He’d promised God he had learned his lesson. But what if that, too, was a hollow promise, from a hypocrite who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve?He might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself. He kept thinking also of 1 Timothy 6 and the hypocrite therein who disputeth over words. He felt a terrible inner resistance but could not feel what it was it so resisted. This was the truth.
As he sits at the picnic table, Lane feels himself “frozen” and hovering at the edge of hell. The word he has not let himself say aloud or even think is “love.” A vision of damnation comes to him in the form of “two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent.” Whether they battle or stay motionless, he fears becoming “two hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.” The will he is searching for is outside of himself.
Looking around the park, at a lake, Lane experiences a quiet epiphany:
He was given then to know that through all this frozen silence he’d despised he had, in truth, been praying all the while, or some little part of his heart he could not know or hear had, for he was answered now with a type of vision, what he later would call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace.
In this vision, Lane is absolved. He is “not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men.” For a moment he sees himself and Sheri “as Jesus might see them—as blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature.” When Sheri releases all claim on him, wishes him the best and says that she will raise the baby alone, Lane sees through her steady voice and calm demeanor. He “has been given to read her heart” and to know that her words are a “terrible make-or-break gamble born out of the desperation in Sheri’s soul, the knowledge that she can neither do this thing today nor carry a child alone and shame her family.” In this moment of spiritual insight—which is “given” to him—something inside of Lane shifts its focus from self to other, from sureness to curiosity, from fear to love. The story ends with a series of questions, culminating with: “What if he is just afraid, if the truth is no more than this, and if what to pray for is not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?”
When I last taught this story, I saw firsthand Sr. Mariella’s claim that the “chaos, bitterness, and despair” of contemporary life has left people—or at least the young people who ended up in my classes at West Point—with a sizable need and appetite for “great fiction of spiritual affirmation.” I never once heard a conservative student protest the story’s reference to abortion, or a liberal student complain about the quotes from Scripture. They liked seeing a conscience wrestle with itself on the page; they knew the struggle well. One prior-service cadet, whose glower was authoritative enough to hinder class discussion for the first part of the semester and who only slowly took an interest in the course, proclaimed “Good People” the best thing he had ever read.
Later on in The Pale King, we see a framed photo of Sheri and the baby on Lane’s desk. His white-collar office job is soul-crushing, and the highlight of each workday is glancing over to see the smiling faces of his wife and son.
What does it mean that I can see Lane Dean’s desk in my mind’s eye? Only one corner is in focus, and a calendar, and a picture frame, and sometimes a half-filled coffee mug. The image flickers and then goes out. But it’s there, and it’s been there for ten years. In a different work, an essay on cruise ships, Wallace wrote that “even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art” because “an ad has no status as a gift.” An advertisement clearly seeks to get something from the reader, namely money. But what is it that art seeks to give? For Sr. Mariella, the answer is salvation. She looked forward to a heaven like Dante’s Paradiso: “the scattered leaves of all the universe—at last all together in a single volume, love the binding.” And in the best Catholic fiction she saw that heaven come down to earth, glimpses of what it means to see and know and love truly, a trail of breadcrumbs to point the soul home.
Cassandra Nelson is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.