Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint
Continuum International, 2010
288 pp., 24.95
David J. Michael
Newman's Unquiet Grave
James Joyce thought he was England's greatest prose writer. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus described his prose as "cloistral silverveined." His spiritual autobiography is widely considered the best in the genre since Augustine's Confessions, and George Eliot wrote that it "breathed much life into me." The Victorian critic Richard Holt Hutton called him "not only one of the greatest English writers, but perhaps the very greatest master … of sarcasm in the English Language." W. H. Auden marked the beginning of the modern age with his conversion to Catholicism. He wrote the treatise in support of liberal education. He is arguably the most important thinker of the last two hundred and fifty years in both the Anglican and Catholic churches. One would think that John Henry Newman's reputation as a man of letters would be more than well-established.
But perhaps because of Newman's particular blend of the literary and the theological, he may also be England's greatest unread prose writer, at least among current undergraduates and students of literature. This was not always the case. Fifty years ago, Martin Svaglic remarked in his introduction to The Idea of a University, "There must be few American collegians, surely, who do not, thanks to their freshman readers or their literature survey books," recognize some of Newman's ideas, however "hazily." Yet when I asked my peers in my graduate program in literature and cultural studies how many of them had read Newman, none of them answered in the affirmative. In fact, none of them had even heard of him.
It is Newman's reputation as a man of letters that John Cornwell seeks to cement in Newman's Unquiet Grave . Though Newman's beatification in September by Benedict XVI has spawned a small industry of accounts of Newman's holiness, Cornwell's subject is Newman's literary imagination. He writes that his "overarching purpose is to show that Newman's unrelenting literary obsession was the story of his own life: he was the ultimate, self-absorbed autobiographer."
One of the marks of an active literary imagination is a marked inwardness, bordering on solipsism. Cornwell suggests that Newman was characterized by such inwardness from a young age. He was raised in a comfortably religious, middle-class family in London in the early 1800s. By fourteen, he had read Paine's Tracts against the Old Testament, Hume, and Voltaire's denial of the immortality of the soul, after the latter of which he recollected "saying something to myself like 'How dreadful, but how plausible!' " In 1816, under the influence of his schoolmaster, Newman converted to a dogmatic evangelical Christianity. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he writes that at this time he rested in the "thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator."
In 1817, Newman set off to Trinity College, Oxford, where he would gradually drop Calvinist evangelicalism in favor of Anglicanism. It was also at Oxford that Newman was to develop his prodigious talents and astounding work ethic. (He recorded having once written for 22 hours straight while working on his Apologia.) Cornwell dubs Newman a "superabundant literary workaholic." While preparing to take his honors examination, he sometimes read fourteen hours a day. He may have studied too hard for his examinations, failing mathematics and taking a lower second-class honors in classics. But he rebounded in 1822, winning a fellowship at Oriel, at the time Oxford's most intellectually prestigious college.
Newman was constantly sorting his letters, organizing and reorganizing, essentially creating the story of his life. He once wrote, "It has ever been a hobby of mine (unless it be a truism, not a hobby) that a man's life lies in his letters." If this is the case, Newman lived a richer life than most; there are 20,000 extant letters. As Ian Kerr points out in his hefty biography of Newman, with so much of information the difficulty becomes what to include.
Newman's Unquiet Grave traces Newman's inwardness, developing literary style, and prolific output through the rest of his life. Readers gain an intimate portrait of his years as a tutor, his involvement in the Oxford Movement, his prolonged and tortured conversion to Catholicism in 1845, and his many years as an Oratorian priest, with Cornwell telling the story of Newman's life through his works. Cornwell nimbly shifts from critiquing Newman's poetry in his chapter on Newman's book-length poem The Dream of Gerontius to introducing the concepts of notional and real assent in a chapter on The Grammar of Assent. All the while, Cornwell mostly lives up to his goal of writing a "shorter, less academic account" of Newman's life—Ian Kerr's epic Oxford Lives biography runs to more than 700 pages—though it seems inevitable that any book on a theologian's literary imagination will smack of a certain specialization.
Cornwell's project is a worthy one, and as a prize-winning journalist and former Catholic seminarian he has the credentials for the undertaking. But at times, his vision may be too narrow; the biography focuses on Newman's imagination and writing to the neglect of properly framing the intellectual and religious milieu of the age, which would have proven helpful for emphasizing not only how controversial Newman was but also how influential.
Further, the book suffers from intermittent sensationalism.The unfortunate cover seems to have been designed with the customers of airport bookstores in mind. The back of the jacket asks forebodingly, "But was Newman a 'Saint'?" The subtitle of Cornwell's biography—"The Reluctant Saint"—promises a tell-all, nigh-on scandalous biography, and indeed the book opens with an account of the 2008 unearthing of Newman's grave in an attempted search for relics. No remains were found. Newman had instructed his grave to be filled with compost to expedite his decomposition. But it was brought to the media's attention that Newman was buried in the same grave as his closest friend and fellow friar, Ambrose St. John. Rumors of Newman's homosexuality abounded. Cornwell handily refutes those allegations, but the amount of time he spends on them and on the subject of Newman's femininity may be overkill. Cornwell's account of the exhumation ends forebodingly: "On the day of the exhumation the graveyard was guarded by members of the local constabulary lest Gay Rights demonstrators should intrude upon the scene to cause an affray. No such insult occurred." These touches of tabloid style seem rather odd juxtaposed with an explication of Newman's influence on Joyce, giving the book a slightly split personality.
Perhaps Newman was something of a reluctant saint, though. He once wrote, "I have no tendency to be a saint—it is a sad thing to say so. Saints are not literary men." Cornwell wonders if Newman was being modest, or if he feared the "ossifying travesty" his beatification and likely canonization "would make of his life and contribution." But Cornwell himself fears Newman's beatification, much more than readers would be led to believe by the last chapter on his legacy and the skeptical but charitable epilogue on the miracle that enabled Newman's beatification.
In early September, Cornwell published a vitriolic article in the Financial Times accusingBenedict of hijacking Newman's identity and remolding it to fit the pope's conservative agenda: "Addressing the bishops of England and Wales in Rome this February, he declared that Newman was an example to the world of opposition to 'dissent.' It was like saying that Churchill had been a Trotskyite all along." The concern, for Cornwell, is whether the Church will stifle the dialectical nature of Newman's work—his ability to always see both sides—which has always been "source of inspiration to Catholic liberals."
Debates about Newman's identity are nothing new. Indeed, he penned his Apologia to defend himself against charges of untruthfulness, to maintain that he was not a closeted Catholic while at the helm of the Oxford Movement. Only time will tell if Newman's beatification will have a stultifying effect on his life and legacy. It is unlikely; the power of Newman's intellect rendered through his beautiful prose style will continue to speak to readers for generations to come. If nothing else, it seems to this reader that the Catholic Church will ensure the legacy of John Henry Newman more ably than our English departments and literary journalists.
David J. Michael is the editor of Wunderkammer , a web-based journal of cultural criticism. He is currently pursuing a master's degree at Lund University, Sweden.
Copyright © 2011 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.