You may recall the conversation, the debate, the brouhaha over Catholic fiction that took place several years ago, presented in the pages of First Things, among other venues. Paul Elie, Dana Gioia, Greg Wolfe, and Randy Boyagoda were among the prominent participants; many others chimed in. What follows is a historical footnote to that episode, intended for anyone who is interested—but especially for younger readers, if indeed any such happen upon this column.
In 1970, Loyola University Press published The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, by Gene Kellogg (“Dr. Gene Kellogg is a professor in the English Department and in the Graduate School of Religious Studies at Mundelein College”). In the same year, Fordham University Press published The Vision Obscured: Perceptions of Some Twentieth-Century Catholic Novelists, a collection of essays edited by Melvin J. Friedman (“Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee”). Both books had red dust-jackets of a similar hue, with white lettering.
When these books appeared, “literary criticism” was flourishing, in part as a result of the massive expansion of higher education in the postwar decades. University presses could count on academic libraries to stock their wares; even many city libraries had shelves full of literary monographs. The copies of the two books I’m consulting come from the Wheaton Public Library, having survived a recent radical culling in the lit-crit section. Reading them now is a bit like time-travel: I’m transported back to the Voskuyl Library at Westmont College, where I spent many happy hours. (I graduated in 1970 and stayed on for another year to teach.)
Kellogg’s book is earnest, workmanlike, thesis-driven. The Catholic novel, he argues, was inferior in its early stages, a period characterized by Catholics’ “cultural separatism.” Kellogg suggests that in the next phase, which was marked by increasing “convergence,” “contact between the secular environment and the Catholic communities, while close and frequent, found each resolutely maintaining its own identity.” This creative “abrasiveness” was healthy for the Catholic novel (Kellogg discusses Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, J. F. Powers, and Flannery O’Connor, among others). When, however, “the secular environment and the Catholic communities entered into confluence” (a phase succeeding “convergence” in Kellogg’s schema), “abrasiveness lessened. … So much assimilation had taken place that there was a crisis of identity.” Hence, “Catholic novels of the highest quality virtually ceased to appear after the mid-1960s.”
There’s much to learn from, and much to take issue with, in Kellogg’s survey. He greatly underrates Muriel Spark (who was writing superb novels for decades after 1970). He seems unaware of the existence of Walker Percy. And so on. But perhaps most striking is this judgment: “In the 1960s convergence between thinking Catholics and thinking people in the secular world became, for many practical purposes, an overwhelming confluence.” Ah, those “thinking people” (people like us, you know). Yes, this book is a time machine.
The Vision Obscured is a time machine, too, in its own way. Friedman’s witty introduction sets the tone (he also contributes an essay on O’Connor): “We have tried for variety and versatility rather than a singleness of point of view.” A young literary reader today would find himself in unfamiliar territory, recognizing some of the main players but viewing them from the perspective of fifty years ago, and encountering language quite different from today’s critical lexicon. And that would be all to the good. Not that these essays are by any means uniformly excellent—but we can benefit from gaining a certain distance from the habits of our own time.
One of the best essays in the Friedman-edited volume is “The Deceptions of Muriel Spark,” by Irving Malin, though I disagree with Malin’s high rating of The Mandelbaum Gate (Spark’s only failed novel, I think). There are pieces on other usual suspects—Waugh, Greene, Powers, Bernanos, Mauriac, Julien Green—as well as several on writers I don’t know (the Spanish novelist Carmen Laforet, for instance). And the volume concludes with “The Modern Catholic Novel: A Selected Checklist of Criticism,” compiled by Jackson R. Bryer. (I love such checklists!)
From another time, indeed. I do hope at least a couple of my Catholic friends will make the trip back there and tell me what they think when they’ve returned.
John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).