Among the Believers
Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a deft and ambitious four-part biography interweaving the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, the most significant American Catholic writers of the last century. The selection of these four might feel to some arbitrary or forced--would all the Catholic writers go to this side of the room, please?--but that would be a misimpression.
As individuals, they were admiring of each other, they corresponded and in some cases met, but they were not close friends or from the same backgrounds or milieus. Day was a social activist, a journalist and occasional fiction writer, little read now but still influential as a political and religious presence. O'Connor, author of two novels and two unforgettable story collections before she died at age 39 of lupus, had no social or political influence at all, but her fiction and her letters seem to grow in stature continually as time goes on. Merton was a poet, philosopher and monk, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was responsible in part for a burgeoning of conversion and monasticism in midcentury America, and whose later writings stirred the ecumenism that suffused the Vatican II period and that helped introduce Eastern thought into modern Christian theology. Percy started as a philosopher and became an influential novelist, particularly of the realistic novel featuring the existential suburban male.
These were very different careers, but binding the group and providing it with historical weight are two crucial facts: three of the four were converts to Catholicism, and none of them were writers who merely happened to be Catholic, or who merely were influenced by their Catholicism; all of them wrote specifically because they were Catholics. Take away their Catholicism, and as writers they would cease to exist, at least in any form recognizable to those who have known their work and been influenced by it.
Catholicism bound them in part because they discovered in each other's faith and each other's ultimate fame a set of partners in what had been for each a rather lonesome vocation: writing, which is always something of a lonesome vocation, and trying to explain to a growing public the radically different way of seeing the world, its events and our lives in it that faith suggests and finally requires. In none of their work will readers ever see the suggestion that they ought to be more pious, ought to pray, ought to go to church or light candles to the saints; each writer instead presents us with a dramatic challenge to find the permanent and never immediate meanings behind the mundane incidents of everyday life and behind the massive forces of societies and nations as well. Though their views differed, they shared one social and political conviction. For Day, for O'Connor, for Percy and for Merton, the momentary cruelty or defensiveness that prevents us from helping a person in need, and the sustained cruelty or defensiveness that leads us to make war, come from the same weakness inside us: our failure sufficiently to love, our fear of love's pain and love's obligations. It is an intensely difficult vision to make compelling to the modern, narcissistic consciousness, and it is difficult as well to make it unsentimental, thereby fulfilling the obligations of art and truth. Like four craftsmen they shared this project with each other.
For his part, Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and an essayist, has taken on and smoothly delivered a massive project for his first book: These are, after all, four biographies in one. The subtitle of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (the title is Flannery O'Connor's, from one of her very best stories) is "An American Pilgrimage," but these were four separate pilgrimages, definitely American, yes, but historically distinct and intellectually hyperactive: When Percy reads Kierkegaard and a host of other modern philosophers, Elie does too; when O'Connor is deep into the letters of Baron Friedrich von Hügel or the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Elie has to go along. Merton's knowledge of Buddhism must be approximated to be written about; so too Day's immersion in the local and international politics of the 1930s and later. Unlike them, Elie had to familiarize himself with their interests and their contexts in a limited time, and unlike all but Day, he had an actual job to attend to. Yet he is always reliable, often insightful and occasionally inspired. Here he is on Hazel Motes, the Oedipally self-blinded hero of O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood:
Hazel Motes is not a prophet or a saint or a wise man or even a religious believer--not yet. He is a person walking in darkness, a blind man stabbing the ground with his cane. Walking in darkness is his religious experience, not merely the context for it.... Faith (in the catechetical formulation of the period) is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, and Motes's blindness, at best, is a recognition that the proof of Jesus' divinity that he yearns for cannot be seen with the eyes only, and that nothing he might see, no miracle or act of blasphemy, can tell him whether or not to believe.
There is something Edmund Wilson-like about what Elie has accomplished: No one these days can really match Wilson's magnificent prose or his focused intellectual firepower, but Elie comes close, writes with superb and easygoing clarity, and brings to the book a sense of that extraordinary breadth and intellectual openness that made Wilson an invaluable figure in American letters.