There is something quaint about the little paperback on my desk, a 1964 printing from the Fawcett World Library—originally priced at 50 cents. In the bottom right corner is the announcement, “16 short stories by the most talked about young writer in America.” Open it up and you find a set of newspaper quotes with the heading, “A literary legend in his own time. . . . John Updike.”
On the back cover is more. “Keep your eye on Crest Books for these brilliant bestsellers by the most significant young writer of our generation,” it says, with pictures of The Centaur, The Poorhouse Fair, Pigeon Feathers, The Same Door, and Rabbit, Run.
This volume is one of them, The Same Door, a collection of stories dedicated to Updike’s parents. I just started them and can’t detail the contents, but the marketing itself is a time capsule of mid-century literary culture in the United States. It’s been a while since any writer was spoken of as the voice of a generation, and even longer as a voice that all America was talking about. Fiction isn’t understood so representatively any more. Literary figures belong mostly to literary culture, not the national culture.
Of course, the praise here is over the top, but the fact that hype could take this form back in 1964 indicates a literary environment healthier than today’s.
I have been contending with Robert Royal's A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century. This formidable volume seeks to be, as the title suggests, a comprehensive appraisal of the Catholic intellectual tradition of the last century. We get a sweeping account of the philosophy, art, theology, poetry, fiction, drama, history, and spiritual writing of those years. Royal's impetus for taking on this task was, as he says in his introduction, the strange fact that “hardly anyone knows about this today, even among Catholics.” Why? He thinks it owes something to the fact that, in the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), “notions of what was Catholic became confused and contested as they had not been earlier.” Before the Council, Royal says, talented Catholics who made creative use of their rich tradition were generally more universally recognized—even at secular academic institutions. It also has something to do with “the great disruption” of the year 1968, he says, which saw not only the emergence of the sexual revolution but also the strong emergence of liberation theology, and had to contend with ideologies like Communism, Nazism, and Fascism, so that “a dense jungle of diverse currents of thought came within Catholic academic circles, which more and more seemed to operate like their secular counterparts at non-Catholic institutions of higher learning. . . .which made it more difficult to see what was distinctively Catholic thinking in various fields.” So here Royal is seeking to join together the disjointed. The book starts with philosophy, goes to theology and Scripture study, then moves on to the “Catholic literary revival,” covering the expected British figures—Chesterton, Tolkein, and the like—but also moves on to such writers as Léon Bloy, Charles Péguy, and Czesław Miłosz.
I picked up T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral yesterday. The play dramatizes the last hours of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, martyred in 1170 by knights of Henry II. Eliot casts the story as a Greek tragedy in English verse, with the women of Canterbury acting as a melancholic medieval chorus. In the first act, Thomas returns to Canterbury, knowing that the king's wrath is upon him and grappling with the prospect of martyrdom. Three tempters come to him, luring him with earthly pleasure, power, and prestige—and then a fourth arrives, an unexpected tempter. This one tempts with something very different: martyrdom itself. Says the fourth tempter:
Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth to be high in heaven.
And see, far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation.
Thomas rejects this most insidious of temptations:
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
The saint, it seems, cannot seek martyrdom out of malice. Thomas would betray his service to God by fantasizing about the eternal sufferings of his murderous enemies. I'm excited to read the play's second act.