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 of a body. They will have no headquarters, no neighborhood, no university fiefdom or corner bar. They will write no manifesto, pose for no group portrait. Their unity … will be that of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination, conversing at long distance from time to time. Its roots are artistic and religious, grounded in their belief that their writing and their religious faith, each informing the other, presents them with a predicament shared in common.
Who are these four members of the Holy Ghost school? Of the four, Flannery O'Connor lived the shortest, and most tragic, life. She was born in Georgia in 1925 and died there 39 years later, killed by the same lupus that felled her father. In those 39 years, she wrote the two novels and dozens of short stories that have come to typify, in crude lit-crit shorthand, the Southern grotesque. She also wrote hundreds of letters. (Indeed, perhaps the most important contribution Elie makes to O'Connor criticism is his insistence that early on, O'Connor understood her letters as literary legacy, that they constitute a sustained interpretation both of the world and of her work.)
If O'Connor, with her crutches and her pet peacocks and her brook-no-fools stare, seems the most eccentric and formidable of the four, Walker Percy feels the most modern. His novels happen to be set in the South—and they often comment on the transformations of 20th-century Southern history—but their chief task is to investigate what it means to be a person. Binx Bolling, the hero of The Moviegoer, is very much the Louisiana gentleman, but his task is more Pauline (working out his salvation with fear and trembling) than regional.
Dorothy Day told her life story in her 1938 autobiography, From Union Square to Rome, and then again, and most notably, in 1952 with The Long Loneliness. History has proven Day, who cofounded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, to be the most articulate advocate in American history for Catholic radicalism.
Like Day, Merton's most widely read book is autobiographical. The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, sold over 600,000 copies its first year and made Merton the most famous Catholic writer in the country. His writings are animated by the discernment of monastic vocation, broadly construed—the working out of the tensions between the hermitage and the world.
Elie's four figures are "Catholics of rare sophistication who overcame the narrowness of the church and the suspicions of the culture to achieve a distinctly American Catholic outlook." There are distinctively Catholic subplots in this story— Merton and Day's involvement with Daniel Berrigan and other Catholic anti-war activists, O'Connor's reading Teilhard de Chardin, for example—but insofar as these four writers represent American Catholicism of the 20th century, it is worth noting that three of them—all but O'Connor—were converts. As it happens, O'Connor's explanation of conversion is as pithy a summary of her own life, as well as the lives of her three compatriots, as one is likely to find. "I don't think of conversion as being once and for all and that's that," she wrote. "I think once the process has begun and continues that you are continually turning inward toward God and away from your own egocentricity and that you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it."
Their lives, to be sure, lend themselves to caricature. Elie avoids that impulse. Instead of caricatures, he has made icons—not icons in the hagiographic or devotional sense, but rather in the sense of transparency. In this book's finest moments, Day, Merton, O'Connor, and Percy are rendered transparent, windows through which we see both America and Christianity.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own sustains two distinct accomplishments. First, it succeeds as intellectual history. Elie's treatment of O'Connor is particularly welcome in this respect; perhaps no other 20th-century writer has inspired more life-draining criticism. Finding both affinities and contrasts among his subjects, never squeezing them into a formulaic narrative, Elie has escaped the clichés that hover around all four of these writers, and, recalling nothing so much as Caroline Ware's portrait of Greenwich Village in its heyday, has given us American politics and American letters at mid-century.
But Elie, one suspects, was setting out to write more than respectful and incisive criticism. Pilgrimage, as his subtitle suggests, is Elie's governing metaphor. And pilgrimage, he tells us, is not necessarily a physical leave-taking, but rather "a journey undertaken in the light of a story." The members of the Holy Ghost school were pilgrims because they undertook their journeys in light of the church's story, the gospel story; and the stories they wrote, from The Long Loneliness to The Moviegoer, offered their readers ways to enter into that first, most basic story.
In recounting their pilgrimage, The Life You Save May Be Your Own does for its four subjects what they have done for the church. And so in Paul Elie, Day, Merton, O'Connor, and Percy have not only found a worthy chronicler. They have also found a worthy heir.
Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life (Algonquin).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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