By Gregory Wolfe
As I wrap up this series on the state of Catholic letters, I’d like to make a few final distinctions and then name some of the writers I think should be more widely known and discussed within the Church in North America.
I’ve thrown down what I think is a friendly, if frisky, challenge to traditionalist Catholics, urging them to reject the myth of decline that says our time is somehow more inhospitable to imaginative writing informed by faith when compared to some former era. I’ve suggested that literary styles and visions change as culture changes, and that good readers need to remain sensitive to the way the faith can continue to inhabit those changing circumstances. To illustrate, I contrasted an earlier generation who tended to “shout” with contemporary writers, who prefer to “whisper.” This model itself will change in time.
You’ll notice that I haven’t paused to define “Catholic fiction” or “Catholic literature”—in part, because it is such a thankless task—and I’m not sure I want to succeed in arriving at some sort of definition, which would inevitably be inadequate. Certainly I’m not suggesting that writing about priests or nuns or any of the paraphernalia of the Church makes for Catholic writing.
Indeed, one might say that the most Catholic vision is the most thoroughly incarnational, the most firmly anchored in common human experience: grace through nature.
I forget who said this, but I tend to agree with the person who said some of the best Catholic writing today isn’t being done by Catholics. My lead candidate for this category would be Wendell Berry, who in both his creative writing and his cultural criticism has an unerring instinct for the sort of organic wisdom that the Church used to call “natural theology.” I’d also place Cormac McCarthy in this realm, especially his magnum opus, the Border Trilogy.
It is precisely because a Catholic sensibility should range over the whole of a culture that I hope a younger generation of traditionalists will refuse to hang back in a subculture. There is a persistent tendency among people of faith to take a Gnostic attitude toward the world around them—to assume that the culture is inhospitable to faith and must somehow be made pure before great art can emerge.
It’s a nice thought, but it’s dead wrong. Great literary artists write out of a direct engagement with their own time, and the times are always bad and getting worse. In an interview conducted by my fellow Good Letters blogger, Santiago Ramos, the writer Paul Elie, author of The Life You May Save May Be Your Own, a braided narrative about four great Catholic authors—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy—had this to say:
“It’s a Catholic temptation to try to devise a program for everything.... [We] are often preoccupied with how we can transform the culture, how we can make the culture hospitable to artists and writers who are believing Catholics. It seems to me that the lives and work of these writers tell us to go in the opposite direction. Percy didn’t wait for the culture to be ready for his art, nor did Merton, O’Connor, or Day. They did what they were capable of, taking account of their surroundings but not surrendering to them. They framed their art in recognition of a culture that wasn’t Catholic or necessarily ready for their work, but they figured out how to get it to the public anyway.”
The failure to take account of their surroundings has led traditionalists to lose track of the writers whose vision has been getting to the public anyway. Of course, in offering the following list of writers, a likely comment from some quarters will be: “But these are minor figures; this just proves what a sad condition we’re in.”
The debate over major vs. minor is another intellectual dead end. That’s for later ages to decide. Who knew that supposedly minor talents like Johann Sebastian Bach and Johannes Vermeer would later emerge as giants?
Before I get to the living, I’d like to pay tribute to some of the tremendously gifted Catholic writers who succeeded the Greene, Waugh, Mauriac generation: the wicked sisters of British satire, Muriel Spark and Alice Thomas Ellis; the tragic genius of the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo; the dark post-war vision of Heinrich Böll; and the exquisite American short story writer Andre Dubus. (Anyone want to suggest others from the late twentieth century in the Comments section?)
And now, some writers we are privileged to be living with now.
Ron Hansen. Easily the most identifiable Catholic writer in America today, Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy is a modern classic.
Alice McDermott, whose Charming Billy I discussed in my last post, has several other novels worth reading, including At Weddings and Wakes.
Annie Dillard. One of the most versatile authors we have, Dillard is much, much more than a nature writer. There is philosophical depth in her writing as well as exquisite lyricism. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a sacramentalist book about nature, while For the Time Being is one of the best works of theodicy in recent memory.
Richard Rodriguez. Though he is likely to be dismissed by conservatives because of his homosexuality, Rodriguez is our most subtle cultural observer, and his Catholicism is pervasive and illuminating. His trilogy—Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation, and Brown—combines poignant memoir with incisive cultural criticism.
Patricia Hampl. An outstanding memoirist, the author of A Romantic Education, Virgin Time, Blue Arabesque, and The Florist’s Daughter.
Robert Clark, a novelist and memoirist who explores the tragic sense of life in such works as In the Deep Midwinter, My Grandfather’s House, Love Among the Ruins, and the soon to be released Dark Water.
Oscar Hijuelos. Though he insists he has more doubts than faith, Hijuelos has written a moving account of faith and grief in Mr. Ives’ Christmas. And I’m not so sure he’s right about the doubt and faith thing....
Tobias Wolff. Another novelist/memoirist, Wolff’s recent short essay in the New Yorker reveals a little about how his faith informs his work.
Paul Mariani. I should add more poets to the list, but Paul Mariani must be named. He's also a terrific biographer.
I’ve run out of space, alas, but I cannot help but ask you to go to Amazon.com and put some of the following names in: fiction writers Erin McGraw, Charles D’Ambrosio, and A.G. Harmon (another Good Letters blogger), along with the Nigerian Jesuit priest, Uwem Akpan, whose debut collection of short stories, Say You’re One of Them, has just been published.
For those of you who’ve stuck with me through this series: thanks for reading. Don’t hesitate to add your own favorite Catholic writers in the comment section.