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Reviewed by:
  • Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South
  • W. J. Stuckey
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1985. 190 pp. $20.00.

The three Catholic writers of Brinkmeyer's book are Allen Tate, his wife Caroline Gordon, and Gordon's one time protegé, Walker Percy. Brinkmeyer, however, does not deal with significant connections among these writers, nor between them and their native region. Instead, after a brief introduction, he devotes a chapter to each and concludes with a brief epilogue in which are made predictable assertations (about art, religion, and tradition), along with a brief summary of key points.

The chapter on Tate argues that throughout his career Tate sought a tradition that would order and unify existence. His essays and poetry reflect that struggle and search. When Tate finally found a tradition in the Church, he quit writing poetry. Caroline Gordon, according to Brinkmeyer, was a pessimist until the 1940s; after her conversion, her fiction underwent a change for the worse; she resorted to trick endings and forced conversions in order "to deliver her message" to the reader. Walker Percy, on the other hand, was already a Catholic when he began writing fiction. His early novels dealt with his own psychological/spiritual struggle as a southerner, but later he came to see the writer's role as that of a prophet, and his books from then on became an open assault on modernity.

The implicit thesis of this books appears to be that these three writers all did rather better while struggling with belief, but as soon as convictions became settled, their creative work either ceased entirely (Tate) or became less interesting (Gordon, Percy). Brinkmeyer's point appears to be that religious certainty (at least in these writers) creates propaganda for the faith rather than art. Of the three, Brinkmeyer sees Percy as the only one to have escaped the fully numbing effects of religious certainty, though even he on occasion "overplays his religious bias." Still, Brinkmeyer concludes, Percy "continues . . . to probe the ongoing questions surrounding man's fate."

Three Catholic Writers suffers from a number of faults, most of them the result of the approach taken by its author. Biographical criticism (it should hardly be necessary to state) is an inadequate way of dealing with complex literary works, first because, as T. S. Eliot long ago reminded us, the truly important events in a writer's life are not, like laundry lists, available to the critic and, second, [End Page 610] because the very assumption of a biographical meaning in a literary fact (or a literary meaning in a biographical fact) introduces a priori assumptions about how that fact—in a wholly different sort of context—is to be read. The dangers of the biographical approach are most apparent in Brinkmeyer's crude readings of Caroline Gordon's post-conversion novels. Having decided that Gordon has become a propagandist for the faith, Brinkmeyer consistently misrepresents the artistic function of characters and scenes and turns books with more subtlety than he is able to perceive into bald-faced tracts.

Finally, it should be noted that because there are as yet no biographies of Gordon and Percy (and only one of Tate), Brinkmeyer's thesis frequently coasts on very thin ice indeed, and attempts to bridge artistic and intellectual questions are sometimes made with pat rhetorical phrases ("I think," "apparently," "evidently") and assumptions based on the flimsiest of facts. For example, because she poked fun at Tate's over-solemn agrarian friends, Gordon is said to be anti-Agarian, even though her fiction, particularly The Garden of Adonis, suggests otherwise. But then the absence of sufficient facts is not the chief problem here; it is the approach itself—and the determination to make the facts fit the thesis.



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pp. 610-611
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