The Story Preceded Us

Last November, I read a review of Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage in the December issue of The Atlantic. That magazine’s book editor, Benjamin Schwarz, wrote: "Interweaving the lives, work, and spiritual struggles of four twentieth-century American Catholic writers - Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy - Elie probes...the struggle to reconcile religious faith with the demands of art.... This difficult to characterize, because it’s almost impossibly rich."

The Life You Save was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named the Beliefnet Book of the Year. But I’d already read biographies of all four of Elie’s Catholic writers. What could I possibly learn that would justify the time required to read another?

Then I got the 560-page book as a Christmas gift, and by New Year’s Day, I’d read it. Turns out there were some things I didn’t know about these four. Like the fact that they all knew each other, at least a little. But I also found that, as with any work of literature, the time spent with Elie’s book was its own reward. The Life You Save, which is now available in paperback, creates an experience of living up close with four rather solitary and contrary individuals, while simultaneously watching them - as if from above - as through their reading and writing, they slowly make their way toward the City of God, and each other. It is a work of biography and criticism with the drama and sweep of a historical novel. And, for anyone who is serious about the three R’s of reading, writing, and religion, it is also a sort of devotional book.

So it was with some anticipation that I called Paul Elie for an interview. Elie, who was born in 1965, was raised in a Catholic family in upstate New York. He graduated from Fordham University and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Columbia University. He has published articles in Commonweal, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic, and he edited the anthology A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints (Harcourt, 1994). He lives in Manhattan with his wife and twin sons, and is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Publishers. He spoke to me from his office there. -DDC

Sojourners: Were you at all surprised by the positive response to your book?

Paul Elie: Well, these four writers have ardent followers, so I had that good will working for me. But it’s always a surprise when any book reaches an audience. I am surprised at the number of letters I’ve received, more than 200. It’s a long book for a reader to get to the end and want to write the author. Unlike other art forms, books are written alone and read alone. There’s a structure involved in bringing books to readers - publishers, book reviews, etc. - but the writer and reader form this intimate one-to-one connection that makes people feel they want to write to the author. Of course, part of that is because of my work as a publisher. People want me to read their novels.

Sojourners: There’s a sub-theme in your book about the parallels, or similarities, between the experience of serious reading and spiritual experience.

Elie: Yes. It’s there in the pattern of pilgrimage in the book. The story precedes us - we are raised with it or we find it - then we go out and test it with our lives, in the way that reading The Long Loneliness has made so many people want to be with the poor as Dorothy Day was. Our lives are changed by what we read, and the effect on us is to want to test the story with our life.

In addition, three of the writers in my book - all but O’Connor - were converted to Catholicism by books.

Sojourners: You’ve probably read the argument by literary critic Sven Birkerts in his book The Gutenberg Elegies that, as a result of electronic screen culture (TV and computers), the capacity for deep reading, for complete immersion in the life of a novel, is disappearing and in future generations will be completely absent. I wonder if that has implications for the capacity for spiritual experience, too?

Elie: That experience is not going away. Birkerts’ book is provocative. But he’s an essayist, and in his book he connected his point only with fiction. I have that same experience of immersion in a nonfiction story like Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain or in Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters. The experience of reading is always in jeopardy. Great books are always in jeopardy. They are never the norm. If people aren’t finding that deep reading experience in literary fiction, they are finding it in memoirs.

The experience of absorption is elusive in every generation. Dorothy Day read all the time, but she was truly absorbed in about 15 books, mostly 19th century novels - Dickens, Tolstoi, and others.

Sojourners: As you and your book have made the rounds in the past year, have you felt at all marginalized in the literary culture because your central concerns are spiritual ones?

Elie: My book received positive reviews in the secular media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly. But my book wasn’t reviewed in The New Republic or The New York Review of Books, in part because it took a respectful approach to Catholicism. But these four writers were marginal figures in their lifetimes, and they found integrity in that. They may have complained about the secular tenor of the culture - O’Connor certainly did that in her essays - but more important, they tried to figure out how to reach those secular readers.

People are brought in by story. Originally I thought I’d start the book when the four people met, in the 1940s. But I realized that how they came to be religious is the whole story, so I started at the beginning of their lives. That made the material more interesting because then the conversion stories of the three converts were part of my book. The encounter with these people as nonbelievers made their belief more credible for the secular reader. If those readers first met Thomas Merton as a monk in the 1940s who was convinced that life in a Trappist monastery was the only true way to live, they might not be as interested.

Some Catholics have complained that there isn’t enough dogma in my book. There is a lot of Catholic thought there, but it is embedded in narrative.

Sojourners: These four Catholic writers emerged on the national stage in the 1950s, just when the Catholic Church was on the verge of enormous changes from the election of President Kennedy and Vatican II. One world was ending and another was waiting to be born.

Elie: Yes, and at the time they were writing, the stories of the three converts had double power for cradle Catholics. The church was validated by them. "This guy who went to Cambridge [Merton] wants to be a Catholic?" To the Irish Catholic in Chicago, that was validating. Or Walker Percy, a doctor with this illustrious family past. Then, since these converts were not part of that thick, traditional Catholic culture, they may have been examples of how Catholics were going to make their way in the new world.

That appeal continues today. I think most religiously intense people today are converts in some sense. William James wrote about the once-born and the twice-born. Most people I meet, even if they are in the tradition they grew up in, are twice-born. They can tell you the time that they began to take their faith seriously. "When I got married, when I went to college, when I saw a homeless person, when I read a certain book...."

Sojourners: Are there writers today who might be candidates for a new "School of the Holy Ghost," as the tradition of these four has been called?

Elie: People today tend to think that there aren’t Christian writers and there aren’t literary careers identified with Christian concerns like these four in my book. But a lot of writers have written one book that gets to the bottom of things spiritually. For instance, there’s Ironweed by William Kennedy, Dakota by Kathleen Norris, or the novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson. There’s Richard Rodriguez, the essayist. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who just died, called himself a crypto-Catholic, and I think there are a lot of crypto-Catholic writers today. I don’t think these four writers [in my book] have successors as writers necessarily, but they have successors in action. I think that the Vatican II generation of Catholics seized the initiative implied in the work of these four and acted it out in their individual lives.

I’ve also been to the evangelical Christian writing conference at Calvin College, and that is a dialogue I would like to continue. I think the experience of evangelicals today has a precedent in the experience of American Catholics in the middle of the last century. Evangelicalism is a large movement with a lot of vitality, trying to work out how its distinct point of view is going to engage with the larger American scene. Is it going to be standing apart? Or transforming? Those are the kinds of questions Catholics faced in the mid-20th century.

O’Connor anticipated this in writing her Catholic fiction about Protestant characters, and now evangelical readers really respond to her work. O’Connor once said that she wished novels could be written and put on deposit for the next century. And here it is a new century, and her work makes more sense than ever. O’Connor reached the point of saying there was a need for Catholic writers, but that she wasn’t the one. But now she looks like exactly the Catholic writer we need.

Evangelical culture may be asking the same question. Who is the evangelical writer we need? I’d warn them to beware of programmatic responses. The evangelical writer you need might not look like what you expected.

Sojourners columnist Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Rust College and is authoring a book based on oral histories from the first African-American Catholic parish in Mississippi.

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