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Lauren F. Winner
The Holy Ghost School
It would seem to be a long way from Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker house to Walker Percy's genteel New Orleans digs, but that distance—which turns out not to be so far after all—is the territory Paul Elie traverses in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Elie borrows the title from a story by Flannery O'Connor, who is his third protagonist. The fourth is Father Louis, a Trappist monk better known as Thomas Merton. Four Catholic writers at mid-century. In a book that is as stylish as it is long, Elie tells their story.
I use the singular—story, not stories—advisedly, for The Life You Save May Be Your Own is not a quartet of individual biographies. The point here is not to thickly re-create four single lives, with a biography's detail and intimacy and (too frequently) myopia. If what one wants is the comprehensiveness, or the arm-chair psychoanalysis, or the interiority that many biographies provide, this is not the place to look. Yes, there are gestures toward Walker Percy's lifelong friendship with Shelby Foote, but only gestures. Yes, Regina O'Connor darts on and off the stage, but Elie spares us hand-wringing about the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. This is not a book about four writers, but a book about their work, their vocation; a vocation they shared.
Not that Elie invents a movement or program where none existed. Day, Merton, O'Connor, and Percy barely knew each other—their relationships consisted of the written word, books purchased and manuscripts passed around, the occasional meeting. O'Connor sent Percy a congratulatory note when he won the National Book Award. Merton mourned O'Connor's death in 1964, reflecting in his journal that she was like the little sister he had never paid enough attention to. And so forth.
The novelist Caroline Gordon called them "the Holy Ghost school," and Elie adopts that felicitous moniker. "Four like-minded writers had become aware of one another," Elie explains:
Once in touch, they are skeletally joined, as members ...