I did not, for example, find in Elies book any account of the early influences that helped make Dorothy Day and Flannery O Connor into such strange and formidable personalities; it all seems to emerge from nowhere, forming the set with which they make sense of subsequent experience.Ultimately, it is a book about pilgrimage, and as the subtitle suggests, the pilgrimage is somehow the same for all of them.
I did not, for example, find in Elies book any account of the early influences that helped make Dorothy Day and Flannery O Connor into such strange and formidable personalities; it all seems to emerge from nowhere, forming the set with which they make sense of subsequent experience.
If it remains the case that this Catholic strain is best understood over the course of American history as a cultural foil, a counter to mainstream ideals of individualism and autonomy, then it has at least been a remarkably productive foil, one whose enriching acts deserve much more attention than the record has thus far accorded it.
Paul Elies sprawling, spirited, and immensely appealing book, , is a significant contribution to that record, though perhaps all the more effective for not being self-consciously intended as one. He has instead merely taken as his subject the lives and works of four twentieth-century American Catholic writers: the activist Dorothy Day, the monk Thomas Merton, and the Southern writers Flannery O Connor and Walker Percy.
Nineteenth-century American history was, in this view, a progressive story of a New Zion set down in the virgin wilderness, a fresh beginning for the human race that would follow its manifest destiny westward toward the earthly realization of Gods kingdom.
As for the notion that Catholic ideas or thinkers might have contributed anything essential to the nations meaning”well, that seemed too far-fetched even to require refutation.
His book seeks to draw them together into a movement of sorts, a band of pilgrims, a loose coalition of inveterate seekers whose unflagging search for ultimate meaning is an example worthy of our study and our imitation. Although they did not quite form a proper intellectual circle in their actual lives, the similarities between them are complex but genuine.
Obviously, for one thing, there were the shared profound religious concerns which informed their lives work and caused them to be labeled the School of the Holy Ghost. But the similarity goes further.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that they also had in common the ability to produce works of extraordinarily high quality, whose influences echo down to the present day.
What is most attractive about Elies book is its earnest and unfeigned passion for such a worthy but unfashionable subject.
Instead, it merely proposes to gather together these four figures, linked by the common theme of pilgrimage, and relying on the charm of an engaging narrative style to carry the intellectual burden of cohesiveness.
But even the most winsome individual stories do not automatically weave themselves together into a larger whole; they require the loom of an argument to bring them into a more meaningful unity.