Catholic Writers of Today (1948)

St. Francis de Sales - Patron Saint of Writers

St. Francis de Sales – Patron Saint of Writers

The following paper was read by M.J. MacManus at the Catholic Book Week in Dublin on 15th October, 1948:

To attempt any survey of the Catholic writers of today is to enter a field so wide that nobody, unless he were possessed of encyclopaedic knowledge, could hope to walk through it surefootedly. The world is a large place and in it there are many lands; and in nearly all those lands there are Catholic writers. In some of them, of course, owing to the tyranny of evil circumstances, the Catholic voice is silent. In countries like Poland, Austria and Hungary, it may be taken for granted that Catholic writers have little or no access to the printing press. But there are other Catholic countries where work is undoubtedly being done which I must also pass over, because I am not in the least competent to speak of that work. In Italy and Spain and Portugal there are, we may be sure, poets and dramatists and novelists at work, but one hears little or nothing about them. One does not meet them even in translation. It is unlikely, to be sure, that at this moment Italy is producing a writer of the stature of Dante or Spain another Cervantes; but it is quite likely, in the present state of European chaos, with international contacts and communications extraordinarily difficult, that genius may, for some time to come, be hemmed in behind its native frontiers.

The field is therefore narrowed down very considerably and I have to content myself here with a glance at the work that is being done by Catholic writers in four countries — France, the United States, Britain and Ireland. If I put France first, it is because there, in my opinion, the Catholic spirit is being given its keenest interpretation and the Catholic tradition being upheld more strongly than elsewhere, and this by creative writers of the very first rank. France, in spite of an attitude of scepticism which seems to be a part of the national temperament, has been, and still remains, one of the pillars of Christendom. From its poets and novelists and philosophers, as well as from its great Gothic cathedrals, the Catholic atmosphere emanates so powerfully that it can be felt throughout Europe. If, every now and then, a writer of genius appears, like Zola, whose ideals are founded on something like scientific materialism, a reaction is always just round the corner. Zola himself, when he attempted themes which had no materialist basis, failed disastrously. In a novel like La Terre, for example, in which he attempted to depict the mind of the French peasant, there is no authenticity, for he left out the spiritual element, without an understanding of which — and without a certain sympathy with which — he could not hope to succeed. Writers like Daudet, Huysmans, René Bazin and Paul Bourget led the revolt against Zola-ism, and it has been extended in our time by others who, judged strictly from the literary standpoint, are greater than any of these — Mauriac, Claudel, Maritain, Bernanos and others.

Only last week I read a notice in a well-known English literary weekly of a novel by one of these, Georges Bernanos, who died the other day. It is entitled La Joie and has just appeared in an English translation under the title of Joy. This is what the English critic had to say about it:

The religious novel is now so entirely Roman Catholic that, for readers of modern fiction, the words ‘religious’ and ‘Roman’ have become almost synonymous. It is not, I trust, merely a survival of my early anti-Catholic conditioning which makes me regret this. It would be exciting to read, for a change, a novel describing religious experience in Protestant terms, for, with Catholic fiction, I am conscious all the time of a barrier never wholly surmountable, the barrier of a tradition I do not share. I find this particularly so with the novels of M. Bernanos. A novel such as Joy is utterly inconceivable in terms of English Protestanism.

Now this is saying little more than that there exists a wide spiritual gulf between the English and French genius — an almost unbridgeable gulf — a gulf of much the same kind as that which exists between the English and the Irish way of looking at life and its ultimate values. The English tradition has, since the Elizabethan age, been rationalist, pugnacious and materialist; it has accepted and thrived on the creed of progress through material welfare which has left little room for the mystical side of religion. It cannot understand, for instance, a Gandhi or a Terence MacSwiney. When Gandhi entered upon a three weeks’ fast in order to induce a sense of sin in those whom he regarded as oppressors of his country, they regarded what he did as odd, freakish and impracticable. When MacSwiney died in Brixton Goal after a seventy-four days’ fast with the purpose of focussing the eyes of the world upon his country’s wrongs, they greeted his sacrifice with a puzzled uneasy silence. I am not sure that they understood W. B. Yeats when he said of the Irish Catholics of the countryside that “they believe so much in the soul and so little in anything else that they are never entirely certain that the earth is solid under the footsole”. How, then, can an English critic be expected to show an understanding or sympathetic reaction to a novel like Joy, which is chiefly a study of sainthood? He approaches it, as it were, from the outside, and finding its subtleties beyond him, dismisses it as a curiosity.

This is a digression, but perhaps a necessary one. We in this country have so much of our reading provided for us by England, that, whether we admit it or not, we cannot hope to remain entirely uninfluenced by the Anglicising forces, and it may be that the French writer presents us with some of the same difficulties that the English critic whom I have quoted encountered. Yet with us the difficulties are not insurmountable, for the difference between our Catholic tradition and that of France is not basic, but rather one of forms and externals.

An Irish reader, therefore, approaches the work of a writer like François Mauriac with not only greater sympathy, but with a deeper understanding, than is possible for the average reader in Britain or America, where, although some of his novels are widely circulated, their reception has been hedged around with reservations. Britons and Americans utterly fail to see that his books are much more a mirror of life than the most realistic of Zola’s, and that is precisely because Mauriac probes much deeper than Zola. His theme is nothing less than the spiritual conflict in the mind of man and the distresses of fallen humanity; and his variations on this theme are expressed in works of fiction which a non-Catholic may admire for the exquisite sensitivity of their style and their extraordinary insight into the working of the human mind, but from which a Catholic can extract more because he is in the tradition out of which the author writes. Mauriac, then, is comparatively easy: some of his great Catholic contemporaries are not. Take the case of Paul Claudel, who celebrated his eightieth birthday recently. Claudel, who has helped to mould two generations of French thought and whose career bridges the period from Zola to our own time, is a poet and a poetic dramatist. In spite of the fact that he has a European reputation, he is virtually unknown to the masses in English-speaking countries, for the very good reason that his poetry — like all French poetry — defies satisfactory translation. His stature cannot be gauged by anybody who has not read him in the original. Yet French is such a universal language that his influence has been very great.

Forty years ago he defined his position in religion and in the world of culture in a letter which he wrote to a friend:

“There are people,” he said, “who believe that absinthe and the café-concert are indispensable elements of existence and are surprised at anyone who gets on without them. An illuminated mind, a heart delightfully cleansed, and a rightly-ordered will — these are the effects of Christian discipline. The Christian is one who knows what he is doing, and where he is going, in the midst of beings who are far worse than brutes, and who no longer know the difference between good and evil. Amid a generation of cripples and alcoholics, he stands out like a god, not through any merit of his own, but simply because he has put himself in harmony with the natural order by submitting where submission is due. He is a free man among slaves.”

A passage like that, for all its arrogance and over-simplification, synopsizes the challenge thrown out by Claudel and Mauriac and Maritain to the whole heritage of 19th-century materialism. The poet, the novelist and the philosopher each carries the banner of revolt in his own particular way, sure of the ground that he walks upon in the midst of a world of shifting sands. France today can take pride in her most eminent Catholic writers, not merely because they are great artists, but because their integrity is never in doubt.

To turn from France to the United States is like turning from a rich landscape, mellowed in beauty and graced with buildings that are ancient and comely, to a dust-bowl where the greenery has disappeared and where the architecture is as hard and forbidding as the country in which it is set. In America, where the sky-scraper has conquered the prairie, the literary trumpets blare shrilly; sensation follows sensation; and it is nearly impossible to find a writer whose work opens up a new field of aesthetic or spiritual experience. The United States may eventually produce a Catholic writer of the first rank — for the wind of genius bloweth where it listeth — but that time has not yet arrived. What has to be remembered in this connection is that the literary tradition in the United States is Puritan and Protestant and that for a very long period the New England school — which derived from Old England — stood almost alone. The Catholic tradition had its small beginnings less than a century and a half ago and even today is very far from being established. It would, therefore, be as idle to expect America to have produced a masterpiece of Catholic literature as to expect it to have produced a Gothic cathedral. Besides, there is another difficulty. American Catholics are of all kinds — Irish, Italians, Poles, Bavarians and the rest. These have not fused — and cannot fuse for generations to come — to produce the typical American Catholic. The typical American Catholic simply does not exist. Naturally, then, American Catholic literature is not of the first, nor even the second, rank. Much of it is what might be called propagandist, and propaganda, in religion as in everything else, is the foe of art. But even where there is no propaganda, I do not find anything that is profound or exciting in American literature written by Catholics.

Let me instance a novel I read recently, one which has just appeared on this side of the Atlantic, but which has been a best-seller in the States for the last few years. It is called Seventeenth Summer and the author is Maureen Daly, who was born in the County Tyrone some thirty years ago, but who went to America as a child. It is a very charming story of the life led by young people of the middle class in a comparatively small middle-west town. But when one has said that one has said everything. One can read it from cover to cover without ever getting a hint that the author is Irish or Catholic. She writes of American life as an American, who has accepted the civilisation that she sees around her unquestioningly and who never concerns herself with its spiritual aspects. One reads other novels by writers with names like Farrell and O’Hara with much the same result. There is an occasional exploitation of the lives and fortunes of what the Americans call the “shanty Irish” and of their devotional life, but it is all very crude and sensational and shallow. The sense of reverence — by which, of course, I do not mean pietism — is singularly lacking in American literature today. What we get is, primarily, a response to the chaos and the violence that exist in the world of our time. The “toughness” that has invaded literature, that glorifies bullying and that idealises the criminal who is in revolt against society, is sprung — in part at least — from the atrocity propaganda of two world-wars. And nowhere, today, is it more marked than in America. Sooner or later, no doubt, there is bound to be a sharp reaction, and it would be very pleasant if America produced a Catholic writer of genius, who would depict the American social scene with a vision undistorted by the crude philosophies and the rootless, shifting life of cities like New York or Chicago.

In passing, it is of some interest to note what happens to our own writers when they settle in America. In almost every case they seem to suffer a sea-change which is fatal to their creative powers. Take the cases of Padraic Colum and Joseph Campbell, two of the best poets of our time. Forty years ago, Colum produced a single book of Irish verse called Wild Earth, which contained a number of lyrics so perfect that they have been eagerly seized upon by scores of anthologists and that are likely to become as permanent a part of the body of Anglo-Irish poetry as anything that Yeats wrote. It was an extraordinary achievement in a first book and everybody looked forward to still greater things from the same hand. But Colum went to America and settled there; and that was the end. He was, and still remains, an excellent critic, but there are no more poems like The Drover, the Cradle Song or The Old Woman of the Roads, and others which have delighted two generations of poetry-lovers. It was the same with Joseph Campbell, whose Gilly of Christ and Mountainy Singer were amongst the treasurable books that the Celtic Renaissance produced. During the twenty years that he lived in the United States he did not produce a single book — nor, so far as I am aware, a single lyric — though when he came home again for a few short years before he died, the creative impulse became stirred immediately and he was writing as well as ever. America, then, for the purposes of this survey, seems a singularly barren field. Almost the only work of American origin by a Catholic writer that has given me any pleasure in recent years is Mary Column’s Life and the Dream, an autobiography of which the most interesting portion deals with her early life in Ireland.

In Britain the case is very different. There, too, the Catholic population forms a small minority, but its contribution to letters is a remarkably important one. The influence of Newman — himself a great stylist — has been tremendous, and one notices its effects as far back as the ‘nineties, when poets like Francis Thompson, Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson were at work. Then came the school headed by Chesterton and Belloc, who led a healthy reaction against the decadence of the Wilde-Beardsley era and who were outstanding both as poets and prose-writers in their period. It is the fashion nowadays in certain highbrow circles to dismiss both of these great writers as “hearties” — as men whose interests were narrowed down to beer and pubs and drinking songs. Actually, however, they were in revolt against both the artificialities and the posturings of the ‘nineties and against the grim Victorian Puritanism which had laid such a dead hand on English letters. The joyousness of their writings was part of the Catholic tradition and they made the horn of Roland sound again, spanning the centuries from their own day to the time of Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales and the troubadours and the Christmas carols. In any study of the modern Catholic revival it is impossible to leave those two writers out of consideration — though Chesterton is dead and Belloc has been silenced by old age and sickness — for they, more than any writer since Newman, provided the background for that revival. In a volume of literary criticism which he published some ten years ago, Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, who is not a Catholic, said this of Belloc’s work in general:

First, it is a commonplace to marvel at his versatility and his output. Second, it is a commonplace to say that he some times makes mistakes in his facts. Third, it is a commonplace to ignore the vision and breadth of his historical writings. Fourth, the younger generation is so stupid that it hardly reads him at all; fifth, I myself regard him as the greatest living master of English prose-writing.

At the end of the essay in which that passage occurs — an essay which dealt, not with Belloc’s prose, but with his verse — Mr. MacCarthy said: “In my opinion, Mr. Belloc is the greatest living poet in the English language.” There could be no higher tribute than that — to be called the greatest living poet and the greatest living prose-writer by one of the foremost literary critics of our time. Now what has to be borne in mind about these two great writers and allies — Chesterton and Belloc, one born a Catholic and the other a convert — is, not only that they were Catholics who were writers, but that their writings were informed throughout by the Catholic tradition and the Catholic atmosphere. Chesterton wrote many brilliant literary studies, including studies of Browning, Tennyson, Blake and Bernard Shaw, but he never, I think, reached greater heights or found himself more in sympathy with his subject than when he wrote of England’s greatest Catholic poet, Geoffrey Chaucer — a book, by the way, which I am glad to see has just been republished. The ultimate philosophy of Chesterton and Belloc springs from the Latin civilization, a civilization with which we associate sunshine, gaiety, the loveliness of the Gothic cathedrals, of anti-Puritanism, the sense of discipline and the belief in order.

Now I think it quite remarkable that, even though England has produced no great Catholic poet to follow Belloc or Chesterton, three of the most significant of her present-day novelists are Catholics. A good deal of controversy has centered around the names of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Bruce Marshall, and in this country, though they have many admirers, they are occasionally misunderstood. What has chiefly to be stressed is that they write primarily for their own people — a people who are in the Protestant tradition, a people who are a highly industrialized and over-sophisticated community. If Evelyn Waugh’s books are informed with a shattering power of irony, if Graham Greene takes as one of his themes the case of a good Christian man encompassed in a net of evil circumstances, if Bruce Marshall writes at times with Rabelaisian gusto — the reader who lives in a simpler, less complex community, where literary conventions are more rigid, may get an initial jolt. But none of these three ever holds up the distorting mirror to nature; each of them writes out of a deep sincerity and each is in strong revolt against the philosophy of materialism, which he regards as the greatest menace of the age. I was one of those who found in Graham Greene’s
much-discussed Heart of the Matter, when it appeared, not only a novel of great artistry, but one that could only come from a writer who had not only a clear vision of the world of our time, but who was also a good and unflagging moralist. There are other Catholic writers in England, of course — Miss Maisie Ward, for instance, whose life of Chesterton is one of the outstanding biographies of our time; Mr. Alfred Noyes, who is both poet and critic; Father Ronald Knox, a versatile man of letters, and others who write on sociological and philosophical subjects, but the three I have mentioned are especially significant; both because, through their picturesque imaginations, they reach a very wide audience, and because they have thrown out a challenge to all that is so deadly, from a cultural and spiritual point of view, in contemporary thought.

I am afraid I have left myself very little space to deal with our own writers at home, and I will have to be content with a few cursory remarks. Ireland is the most Catholic country on earth, and it is natural that the majority of her writers should be Catholics. Yet, through causes that have their roots deep in history, this is a comparatively recent phenomenon. For centuries Irish Catholics were barred from the printing-press and, for quite a time even after the English language had spread over the greater part of the country, they had established no literary tradition. Even in the 19th century a majority of the names in our literary history are those of non-Catholics — as witness Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, Lover, Lever, Davis, Mitchel, Ferguson, Allingham, and many more. Even with the turn of the century and the coming of the Celtic Renaissance there is the same preponderance. The big names — Yeats, Synge, Æ, Standish O’Grady, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde — were all non-Catholics. Yet, in this instance, the use of religious labels can be misleading — at least, to a stranger. We who are familiar with their work know that the raw material of most of the writers of the Celtic Renaissance was Gaelic — and therefore Catholic — in its origins and essence. Poems like Yeats’s Fiddler of Dooney or T. W. Rolleston’s The Dead at Clonmacnoise, Douglas Hyde’s Songs of Connacht, and most of the plays of Lady Gregory sprang directly from the common legends and traditions of the people. Today, largely as a result of the political and social changes of the past quarter of a century, there is this chief difference. Literature in Ireland is no longer in the hands of the Ascendancy class to the same extent that it was. We have Protestant writers — and very good writers — amongst us, but the percentage is more in keeping with their numbers. Looking around today, and using the word Catholic in its broad sense, we have only to regard such names as Daniel Corkery, Robert O Farachain, Francis MacManus, Sean O Faolain, Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty, Brinsley MacNamara, Maurice Walsh, Patrick Kavanagh, Peadar O’Donnell, Philip Rooney, Maura Laverty, Donagh MacDonagh, and many others, to realise how great the change is — for all these are Catholic names.

To survey the work that is being done by writers like these would need a separate article — or several — and I can do little more than stress the fact that the literary output in Ireland today is probably greater than at any time in our history. Quality, of course, matters more than quantity, and it is quite obvious that we have no poet as great as Yeats, no dramatist as great as Synge, no novelist as great as James Stephens. But the general level is remarkably high and books of distinction are appearing at frequent intervals. Robert O Farachain’s long poem, The First Exile, which has Columcille for its subject, contains some of the loveliest verse of our time; Francis MacManus’s recent novel, The Greatest of These, treated a difficult religious theme with complete success. We have had brilliant biographies of Hugh O’Neill and O’Connell from Sean O Faolain and short stories of the very first rank from Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty, Bryan MacMahon. Occasionally, it is true, one uses the label “Catholic” with reservations, for amongst the writers I have mentioned you will find one here and there who is hostile to the common tradition and who would seem to prefer that, in literature, there was no distinction between Irish and English. But no writer can tear up his roots like that or shake himself free from the influences that moulded him. So it sometimes happens that you find a book, of which the tone is utterly unsympathetic towards Catholic sentiment, but which is at the same time steeped in the Catholic atmosphere. In other words, it is virtually impossible to denationalize a literature. The fact that most of our people speak English is not enough to make our literature English; language is not the only thing that counts and the writer who would immerse himself in a foreign stream would have first to shake himself free of all the associations, influences, traditions, manners and customs into which he was born, and I do not think he is at all likely to succeed.

What will happen as a result of Irish literature passing out of the hands of the Ascendancy, it is too early to predict. But one can safely say that the aristocratic note which was so evident in the work of the later Yeats will disappear and that literature will be brought nearer to the everyday life of the people.

I have, it is obvious, only touched on the fringe of a vast subject, and that in a rather disjointed way. But perhaps I have helped to make this much clear: that in a world where the very foundations of civilization are menaced the work of the creative Catholics writers who uphold spiritual values which are as old as Christendom is of vital importance. As Mr. Christopher Dawson has written: “Religion is the key of history. We cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion. We cannot understand cultural achievements unless we understand the religious beliefs that lie behind them. Religion stands at the threshold of all the great literatures of the world.” That, I hold, is an undeniable truth.

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Posted on April 26, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. A quick read has sent me searching for authors and books. I shall come back to this.

    Thank you, and God bless!

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