Half a century has passed since the end of the literary era generally recognized by scholars and readers alike as the golden age of Catholic authors in the English-speaking world. The decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council produced so many prodigious talents recognized as “Catholic authors” that it is not uncommon to wax nostalgic for the writers of that time; their names and works are often what come to mind when one thinks of the roughly-defined genre of Catholic literature. In the United States alone, the two-year period preceding Vatican II saw J. F. Powers win the 1962 National Book Award for Morte D’Urban, Edwin O’Connor the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Edge of Sadness, and Walker Percy the 1963 National Book Award for The Moviegoer. The decades since have seen their share of talented Catholic writers, to be sure, but where are the Graham Greenes, the Muriel Sparks, the Evelyn Waughs and Flannery O’Connors of today?
They’re out there; it’s just that no one knows where to find them. Such is the contention of Mary R. Reichardt, a professor of Catholic studies and literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and the editor of Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature. Reichardt notes in her introduction to this interesting and informative volume of essays that while she finds no shortage of authors exploring the Catholic vision in the contemporary literary world (and in fact considers the genre to be thriving), rare is the reader in or outside the Catholic tradition who can identify them.
These 15 essays by scholars from throughout the English-speaking world and Japan introduce and explore Catholic works in the fields of fiction, poetry and memoir, though the very term “Catholic author” takes on a variety of meanings for different scholars. Hard enough to define in a pre-conciliar church often presented as somewhat monolithic, the label is not always a useful one in a more fragmented contemporary religious and literary era. Must an author be a baptized Catholic? Must his or her work include the trappings of Catholicism? Must they be somehow sacramental or redemptive in their themes? Reichardt wisely writes instead of a “Catholic vision” that incorporates many of the conventional notions of what Catholic literature is about but requires no litmus test for inclusion—after all, one finds no birettas or incense in the work of Flannery O’Connor—and the authors treated here are diverse enough to include non-Catho-lics as well as a few lifelong Catholics who spent years rejecting the label.
These brief studies vary in their use of academic jargon, so some are more accessible to the general reader than others (may I plead here for the retirement of “othering” as a term in literary analysis?). Some of the fiction authors treated are well-known literary figures who need no real introduction, like Jon Hassler, Sh?saku End? and Alice McDermott; but other essays introduce lesser-known writers and establish their relevance as important Catholic authors. I found the three essays on Catholic poets (Robert P. Lewis on Mary Karr, Stephen McInerney on Elizabeth Jennings and Les Murray, and Gary M. Bouchard on Dana Gioia, Desmond Egan and Sherman Alexie) to be particularly informative and insightful. Bouchard, for example, makes unexpected but fruitful connections between the central theme of loss in almost all poetry and its particular resonances with such typically Catholic themes as redemption, sacramentality, incarnational spirituality and the central mysteries of Christian faith.
There are some curious additions as well as omissions in the collection, though Reichardt acknowledges its 304 pages are not meant to be an exhaustive catalog so much as an invitation to explore further. I was surprised that the American fiction writers Ron Hansen and David Plante did not receive more mention, as well as by the inclusion of only a single essay on memoir (Nan Metzger and Wendy A. Weaver’s “Some Contexts for Current Catholic Women’s Memoir: Patricia Hampl and Her Contemporaries”). As the 800-pound gorilla of the literary world in the past two decades (and the preferred genre for many a disaffected or “returned” Catholic), the memoir is for better or for worse quickly becoming the bildungsroman of our time.
A striking commonality among all the authors covered in this volume has perhaps less to do with their Catholic vision than with their participation in modern existence: a conscious grappling with the notion of mystery and its possibility in contemporary life. What is sacred, what is ineffable, in a world of the glow-in-the-dark plastic Jesus and drive-through spirituality? And where can the individual find mystery when nothing is sacred? As Daniel S. Lenoski notes (“How Far Can You Go to Therapy—Catholicism and Postmodernism in the Novels of David Lodge”), even postmodern atheists like Derrida have focused much of their philosophical work on their struggle with “the Mystery, of explaining the infinity and numinous using the finite, imperfect language of the world of phenomena.”
In other words, we are all in search of the sacramental, regardless of how that might be defined or how we might define ourselves. In that sense, Catholic literature today may be less identifiable as such than in previous generations, but it remains just as germane to any writer or reader’s exploration of the human condition.