- Revisiting the Catholic Literary Imagination
During the last fifteen years we have seen some renewal of interest in the subject of Catholicism and literature. Since the publication of Arnold Sparr's 1990 study, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920–60, Joseph Pearce, Ross Labrie, and others have published books on the influence of Catholicism on film, art, and literature.1 Much of the current scholarship examines what Sparr terms the post-World War II "Catholic literary revival" (xi). This development was sparked by European thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and others who brought the theology and aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas into the twentieth century. At the time, there was considerable interest in contemporary Catholic authors such as [End Page 174] Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. In the same period, Allen Tate and his wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, converted to Catholicism under Maritain's personal influence and actively sought to promote an American Catholic literature. They also acted as mentors for two younger Catholic Southern writers, Flannery O'Connor and a convert, Walker Percy. In time, this literary trend ended. O'Connor died in 1964. Percy continued publishing into the 1980s. However, in many ways, Gene Kellogg's 1970 study, The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence both summarized and brought an end to this period.
Some of the questions posed during the Catholic literary revival have resurfaced. What is meant by the term, "Catholic literature"? Is there a distinct Catholic literature rooted in a definable aesthetic? What are the features of the Catholic literary imagination? How is the Church itself portrayed in literature?
Three recent books examine the influence Catholicism exercises over the literary imagination. In its own way, each attempts to answer the questions posed above. Two studies deal specifically with Flannery O'Connor: Susan Srigley's Flannery O'Connor's Sacramental Art and Farrell O'Gorman's Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction. Srigley locates the origins of O'Connor's aesthetics in Thomism and Catholic doctrine. She takes a deliberately restricted view of her subject, limiting her discussion to only three of O'Connor's works: the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and a single short story, "Revelation." Peculiar Crossroads divides its discussion between O'Connor and Walker Percy and examines biographical as well as literary and theological affinities between the authors. Like Srigley, he identifies Thomist thought as an important influence on O'Connor's aesthetics. In addition, he presents a fascinating account of the literary and theological interactions of O'Connor and Percy with Tate and Gordon. The third book, Jeana DelRosso's Writing Catholic Women: Contemporary International Catholic Girlhood Narratives, is an investigation of contemporary Catholic women's literature across cultural and ethnic lines, touching only briefly and peripherally on O'Connor. Instead, DelRosso is concerned with the broad question of how women writers of diverse ethnic and national origins "challenge and embrace" the Roman Catholic Church in their fiction and autobiographical narratives (5).
Srigley and O'Gorman agree on the importance of Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism to the development of O'Connor's aesthetic. O'Gorman calls the book "the essential starting point in any discussion of O'Connor's and Percy's commitment to realism and an important source for their understanding of art's moral function" [End Page 175] (109–10). Srigley sees O'Connor's theology and art coming together in an "ethic of responsibility" toward others (10). "My concern is to demonstrate how O'Connor's ethics are inextricably linked to her role as a storyteller and how her moral vision is played out in the drama of her fiction" writes...