For these writers, all lovers of good literature should be grateful.
It is difficult to know where to begin or end in any discussion of the connection between American literature and the Catholic faith. The whole subject is loaded with complexity, as is the relationship between the American nation and the Catholic faith, or American history and the Catholic faith. There are few American writers who are shamelessly or shamelessly Catholic, while there are many who have an ambivalent relationship with the Faith, sympathizing in some ways while keeping a safe distance. Others are converts whose adherence to the Faith has radically transformed their very approach to life and literature.
One such convert, often seen as the American equivalent of John Henry Newman in that his conversion was highly publicized and highly controversial, was Orestes Brownson (1803-1876). An almost exact contemporary of Newman, Brownson converted to the Faith in 1844, a year before Newman took the same life-changing step. Thereafter, like Newman, he became a tireless defender of the Faith and an avowed polemicist on many subjects, notably through his essays published in Brownson Quarterly Review.
Of the same generation as Brownson were two other major American writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), neither of whom were converts to the Faith but both attracted by what could be called the Catholic aesthetic. Hawthorne’s late work The Marble Faun is often seen as indicative of his sympathetic attitude toward the Church, and his short story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” conveys a timeless moral perspective entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching on original sin and lust. An intriguing connection between Hawthorne and the Catholic faith is the fact that her daughter, Rose, converted to the faith, becoming a religious sister, whose charitable work led to calls for her canonization. she took as Mother Superior of the order of Dominican Sisters that she founded, she is now recognized by the Church as a Servant of God.
Longfellow, like his lifelong friend Hawthorne, would never have accepted conversion to Catholicism and yet his work, like Hawthorne’s, often conforms to a Catholic aesthetic and sometimes displays implicit or even explicit Catholic sympathies. Nowhere is this more evident than in the wonderful narrative poem, Evangeline, in which the devoutly Catholic heroine searches for her true love, the man to whom she had been betrothed until their forced separation on the eve of their wedding. And, of course, there is Longfellow’s translation of Dante divine comedyindicative of his great admiration for Dante but also, surely, an indication of a certain level of sympathy and understanding of Thomism that informs Dante’s work.
Of the next generation of American writers, Mark Twain (1835-1910) comes to mind as preeminent. Like his literary predecessors, Twain would never have contemplated conversion, but his masterful study of Saint Joan of Arc shows a heart and mind in love with the holy daughter. Moreover, Twain himself considered his fictional account of the life of Saint Joan the best book he had ever written:
I like Jeanne D’Arc the best of all my books; and this is the best; I know it perfectly. Besides, he gave me seven times the pleasure that all the others gave me; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and had none.
Unsurprisingly, his sympathetic tale of a Catholic martyr has met with hostility from those who despise the Church. George Bernard Shaw reviled Twain for writing so sympathetically about the saint, and his pious approach to the subject continues to upset and confuse Twain’s secular admirers.
As with Mark Twain, no one would suggest that Willa Cather (1873-1947) ever considered conversion. Yet, as with Twain, she wrote one of the most Catholic novels, Death comes for the Archbishopa historical novel based on the real-life adventures of a pioneer priest in the Old West who would become the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
No summary, however brief, of American literature and the Catholic faith could fail to mention TS Eliot (1888-1965), even if only a passing and superficial mention in this case; he could not fail to mention the giant, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), a troubled convert whose works are nevertheless “haunted by Christ”, or the giantess, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), who invented the expression “Christ-haunted” to describe the American South of which she wrote. Nor should such a summary or literary honor roll omit Allen Tate (1899-1979) or Walker Percy (1916-1990), although space constraints restrict more than a deferential nod to them.
Such are the eminent and literate who have sought and found Catholic inspiration in their writing of American literature. Although they themselves were not believers in some cases, each brought to American culture an uplifting infusion of the true Faith. For that, all lovers of good literature should be grateful. Deo gratias!
This article first appeared in the St. Austin Review and is republished with permission.