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.
Clearly, too, Elie is sympathetic to the religious beliefs of his four subjects; the question remains, by the time you get to the end of his book, whether he has accomplished what Day, Merton, Percy and O’Connor so remarkably accomplished, which is to make their faith somehow appealing and important to modern nonbelievers. The times are not as propitious as they were a half-century ago. As a culture, we have moved from an open despair at the spiritual emptiness of modern life to a Bruegel-like celebration of it. Tangible yearnings have become intangible, and so it is not clear that if you are not already captured and interested by these writers, this book will speak to you in the deep ways it speaks to those of us who are. Ultimately this is not Elie’s problem to solve: He neither apologizes for nor pauses to justify the religious faith of his subjects. He examines it, with deep sympathy, and assumes the reader will be open to doing the same.
Dorothy Day was born in 1897, Merton in 1915, Percy a year later, and O’Connor, finally, in 1925. O’Connor was the only hereditary Catholic in the group; the others were, by distinct pathways, swept along in the movement that made midcentury Catholicism so attractive to intellectuals, first in Europe and later, perhaps even more forcefully, in the United States. Converts in Europe included T.S. Eliot (not technically to the Roman Church but very close to it, in an Anglican-Roman movement called Anglo-Catholicism), Auden, Waugh and Graham Greene, among many others. In the United States, in addition to Day, Merton and Percy, there were the poets Allen Tate and Robert Lowell (for whom revelation became a form of madness), and their wives, the writers Caroline Gordon and Jean Stafford.
To everyone who looks upon formal Christianity with cultural suspicion, the Catholic form of orthodoxy appears particularly pedestrian, rule-bound, proletarian in the least attractive senses of that word, hostile to free inquiry, locked in a tradition it forever declares immutable (which traditions never are, in fact), and, most offensive to the modern consciousness, sexually hysterical and misogynistic. These recognitions and deep cultural assumptions about Christianity, for the intellectually active and sensitive Catholic, are troubling and difficult to argue with. Yet for the believer, beyond these worldly failures stands God: author of beauty.
To the artists and intellectuals of the early and middle twentieth century, the Church offered a specific framework for that beauty, a framework for seeing existence that is magnificent in its completeness; gorgeous in its visual, musical and written expressions; historical in its culture and identity; and tangibly human in its vision of politics (“repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”)–perhaps the only intellectually respectable philosophical escape then available from the spiritually vacant and personally grueling dynamics of state capitalism and state socialism. The problems of modernity are the psychological stresses arising from a new knowledge of history, an unwilling acceptance of industrialization and a forced recognition of meaninglessness. Faith, of the orthodox, Roman variety, “solves” all three.
Religious belief, separate from the specifically Catholic, also proves to be personally invigorating. In a culture in which the measure of life’s purpose is the acquisition of property and consumer goods (defined as desirable by mass taste), the artist is particularly vulnerable by force of his commercial uselessness. We see all around us today the cultural effects of artists having psychologically and aesthetically internalized that sense of uselessness, most uniformly expressed in a feebleness of ambition or endlessly disguised commercialism. At best, artists in this country at this time can make a childlike appeal to be allowed (c’mon, just once?) to sit with the grown-ups, having forgotten that not so long ago artists were the grown-ups. Religious belief at least allows the comfort of understanding one’s exclusion to be somewhat monastic in character, rather than possibly futile and definitely hard on the pocketbook and the rest of the family. These are a few practical reasons for faith of a specifically Roman Catholic kind: They are ground softeners, as it were. However, Elie’s book makes clear that for Day, Merton, Percy and O’Connor, faith was not utilitarian in these obvious ways; it was born, carried, nurtured and endured like an internal flame.
The least read but the most mythologically potent of the four is Day. She became a myth in her own time, long before her death, emerging into public life after being an unwed mother and bohemian aesthete (with a scandalous novel of abortion under her belt) who converted to Catholicism, gave up her wordly goods and opened a soup kitchen and flophouse for the poor on the Lower East Side of New York City. The flophouse grew into a significant movement–The Catholic Workers–with other kitchens and other flophouses in other places, communal farms and a newspaper (the Catholic Worker) where Day had a regular column that would become, despite her several books, her major and most influential writing, on issues of poverty, war and peace, nonviolence, the civil rights movement and much more. Day is the sole figure here who is being investigated for possible beatification, the first formal step toward canonization as a saint. She is the only one of them who ought to be so examined, for her work, serving the poor and preaching the gospel as she saw it, has about it the physical reality and presence in the world of facts that sainthood actually requires.
Merton, born in Europe, raised in France and New York (Douglaston, Queens, to be exact) and educated at Cambridge and Columbia, converted to Catholicism in his early 20s, was ultimately ordained a priest and entered the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani in Kentucky. His autobiography of his wild and youthful wanderings, his ultimate conversion and his journey into monasticism, The Seven Storey Mountain, was published in 1948 and became an international bestseller. He was only 33 years old; he would spend the next thirty years in monastic life, writing journals, poems, prayers, contemplations and studies of various religious themes. His writing and his political beliefs (antiwar when the Church hierarchy was adamantly and bizarrely not) drew him into greater and greater realms of controversy before he died during a trip to Asia in 1968. (He slipped getting out of the bath, apparently grabbed onto a fan and was electrocuted. Elie gives no credence to the rumors of this being a suicide, and rightly, I think, for there is no evidence whatsoever in his journals or correspondence at the time of his being in any significant despair, other than at the state of the world.)
Percy was born to Southern gentility and after his parents died, he was raised by an uncle, Will Percy, a wealthy man and also a writer of essays and memoirs. Percy went north in the late 1940s to study medicine at Columbia, got TB from the clinical work he did and converted during his recuperation. He wrote several failed novels and a number of philosophical essays through the 1950s before he published The Moviegoer (1961), a novel of a lost suburban man, as so many of his later novels would be, which won the National Book Award and established him in his mid-40s as a major American novelist.
O’Connor, for my taste, is the great artist of the group, with a purity and intensity of ambition that is utterly idiosyncratic and unaccountable. She was from a landed but not very lofty Georgia Catholic family, educated at a local “women’s college,” as they were then drearily called, recognized by the early director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as a talent, admitted there and, despite cultural inferiority and a rudimentary sense of aesthetics, grew ever more tenacious in pursuit of her own vision. She taught herself not only to write but how to be a great writer, step by painful step, as she would have to teach herself how to get about on crutches in her 30s, after the treatments for her lupus softened her bones. Her Catholicism was fierce and consuming, and it was the sole motivation for her work, for its look and sound and thematic expression, and she has been enormously influential on Catholic writers who have followed. It’s an influence that has not diminished the appeal she still holds for other, less religiously inclined readers, who recognize in her a startling drama and a Gothic, compelling vision.
Elie brings these writers together in history, as it were: places them in their locales as if on a map, and with almost invisible effort shows us the massive cultural and historical forces at work around them, the events and forces that affected them and that were affected by them. He is comfortable in ways many modern writers would not be with the specific language of their piety (he eloquently captures the appeal of the monastery, for instance, as “a place of retreat, where the world was left behind so that God might be glimpsed”) and, but for one case, comfortable too with the paradoxical evidence of their holiness and their human foibles.
The exception is a brief passage where he takes O’Connor to task for the evident racism of her everyday speech and some of her correspondence. It is an odd slip in the book, a slightly sanctimonious disapproval that asks her to put aside an essential part of her sensibility, her withering irony and comic vision (from which she never for a moment protected herself or anyone else in her purview, regardless of color), in order to protect a special class of people, African-Americans, based on a historical conception of their status that she didn’t live to see. (Not that, had she lived to see it, she would have changed her ways all that much–as tragic as her early death was, it is not at all clear how she would have managed to grow as an artist and even less clear that she would have been a tolerable elder stateswoman.) Elie admits that her racism is not present in her work. Hilton Als made that case even more convincingly in a brilliant essay about O’Connor’s putative racism published in The New Yorker two years ago. Her fiction demonstrated an understanding that was nuanced and realistic to late 1950s, early 1960s conditions in the South, and at the same time was suffused with a profound moral understanding of suffering, oppression and the elaborately ironic manners that Southern blacks developed as strategies for their social and sometimes even physical survival.
For the rest–Day’s early moral struggles, later bursts of temper and frequent and sometimes ill-placed fervor, for Percy’s disengagement and frequent depression, for Merton’s early sex life and later, odd affair with a young woman when he was a 51-year-old Trappist monk–Elie shows an informed sympathy and understanding, and the necessary, large sense that life is complicated and everyone makes mistakes. He is, blessedly, not subject to the biographer’s disease, a creeping hatred of and contempt for his subjects.
What has been for many readers, including me, so potent about these writers, has been the force, driven into a masterful language, of their conviction that our recognition of the truth of the universe, of its unimaginable creation and invisible purposes, really is a matter of the greatest possible importance, of life and death: an eternal concern tied to the notion of salvation. Two of them, Day and to a lesser degree Merton, were able to balance that spiritual view with ongoing interest and considerable involvement in worldly affairs, in movements and actions for justice and for peace. Percy and O’Connor shaped an art from their belief and, socially speaking, let it stand for itself. Elie, in his borrowed title and in his descriptions of various critical moments in these four lives, indicates his concurrence with that large and life-changing view, though he has not shown an arrogance akin to theirs and tried to make the case himself. Thus for the Catholic intellectual, he is a gentle, perhaps too-polite guide, but an essential one, back to the sources of an irreplaceable inspiration.