Novelist Caroline Gordon once linked the writings and beliefs of like-minded Catholic writers Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy by dubbing them the "Holy Ghost school." Author Paul Elie further connects the four authors, who he says are joined by craft and faith, in his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.)
He calls Merton, Day, O'Connor, and Percy "Catholics of rare sophistication who overcame the narrowness of the church and the suspicions of the culture to achieve a distinctly American Catholic outlook."
How did you get personally connected to writers like Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy?
I was born in 1965 and raised in a Catholic family in upstate New York. It wasn't until I came to college, at Fordham in New York, that I self-consciously examined the Christian tradition to figure out my place in it. That was possibly because I already wanted to be a writer. In addition to all the books I was reading in college, I turned to the books by these four writers.
Flannery O'Connor came first. I bought the complete stories and found out that she had a connection with Thomas Merton through her editor, Robert Giroux. He said both of them were characterized by deep faith, great intelligence, and a highly developed sense of comedy. So having read that Giroux said that, I bounced over to Merton and read The Seven Storey Mountain.
At the time, I worshiped at the Corpus Christi Church up near Columbia University. It's a church best known for being the church where Thomas Merton was baptized in 1938. Anyway, they had a book sale in the basement one day after Mass, and I brought a selection of Dorothy Day's writings.
I now work as an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published the works of O'Connor, Merton, and Percy. I began to read Percy because he looked up to O'Connor and to Merton, even though he was a contemporary of theirs. So in a way he was an ideal interlocutor as I was making my way through the works of the other writers, because his admiration for them was akin to mine.
What does a young person serious about reading and their faith take away from a study of these four lives?
First of all, you see that it's not too much to say they were converted by books. Three of the four were not Catholics. Thomas Merton had been raised among the ruins of medieval France. Dorothy Day had been either baptized or confirmed in the Episcopal Church as a teenager. Walker Percy had been raised a Presbyterian.
It was their experience with literature that quickened the religious impulse in them.
Day read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Dickens. Merton read medieval philosophy. He took seriously the injunction in certain books of philosophy that we are all called to a personal experience of the divine.
Walker Percy read existentialist work including Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Camus. He recognized himself in their alienated protagonists—the representative figure whose malaise or despair is that of western society.
The first thing I would say to a young person is to look to books and learn from them—not only to see how books are written, but also to learn about how the human situation is to be understood. Don't feel obligated to like everything. Find certain works that one has strong affinities with, trust that, and follow it.
How can this process help build a good writer?
These four authors recognized that what a great writer does is make the work of others his or her own. Really serious books demand that we assimilate them to ourselves. You take them as a challenge to our whole lives. They're not merely entertainment. They're not merely information. There's a radical injunction at the bottom of them. Life is serious business. You have your life—how are you going to spend it?
Was the writing enterprise of these four more about their own pilgrimage than about publishing and selling?
All of them felt it vitally important to communicate. None of it was art for art's sake. They wrote for their community of admirers, confident that it would find its way into the general culture. Walker Percy saw writing, for example, as a message in a bottle put in by one person to be urgently sent forth and read by another.
How did firsthand experience become an important part of each of their writing? None of them were writing from an intellectual, theoretical standpoint.
Catholicism wasn't thought to prize individual experience at that time. Individual experience was something for Protestants. I don't think that's true, but that's the way the issue was framed then. So how is it that these four writers were so confident that their own experience was vital and representative?
In part, I think it comes from the fact that they were adults before they became active Christians. Part of it has to do with their knowledge that as writers they have to have a personal vision of things. The writers they admired had a personal view and so would they.
People expected at the time that a conversion story was just going to start at the top and go higher. What so many people connected with in a book like The Seven Storey Mountain, and still do, is a sense that here's a person whose struggles to make sense of his life in his early manhood are real, and that when he claims religious faith it's hard won.
Did you select the title, The Life You Save May Be Your Own?
I did. It comes from a story by Flannery O'Connor.The story falls at the exact center of the book. For me, it captures the experience of reading and writing. Certain books will reach us at our deepest level. At their best, they'll change us. And they may even help us to save our lives.
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Related articles in Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culture include:
The Holy Ghost School | Four Catholic writers and their shared vocation. (Books & Culture, May/June 2003)
The Last Catholic Writer in America? (Books & Culture, Nov./Dec. 2001)
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