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T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 72 Furl That Banner: The Life of Abram J. Ryan, Poet-Priest of the South. By David O’Connell. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2006. xvii, 251pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-88146-035-4. When Abram J. Ryan began to publish his poetry in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, he struck an extraordinarily sensitive and passionate chord in his southern readers. Such poems as “The Conquered Banner” (1865) and “The Sword of Robert Lee” (1866) touched the defeated South deeply, articulating its sorrow and bewilderment, and providing stanzas that would adorn the southern monuments and memorials that would dot the region’s landscape. Much of Ryan’s life was spent as an itinerant Roman Catholic priest. He conducted missions, heard confessions, and gave talks from Boston to Milwaukee and across the South. Throughout the volume and in an appendix, O’Connell provides excerpts from Ryan’s poetry, quotations from his extensive correspondence , and detailed explanation of his life and travels. The result is a well-informed, well-documented, and accessible presentation of the story of a celebrated individual who was not always appealing, but who was in the end painfully human and representative of his own co-religionists and of his time. Ryan’s oratory was apparently marked by a good deal of scripted theatricality , common for the period. Flamboyant and studied gestures accompanied his presentations, many of which exceeded an hour in length. They were appreciated by his audiences and generated an acclaim he enjoyed but publicly declined. O’Connell observes that Ryan’s “superiors had been right about him, for he desperately needed, even craved, the attention he received in his travels, no matter how much he denied it” (p. 146). This pride was also present in his oftentimes prickly dealings with most of the authority figures in his priestly life, especially bishops. Ryan had a great generosity of spirit, an abiding desire to help others, and a selflessness about his own material needs. Despite these qualities, friction was a persistent theme in his interaction with duly constituted authority figures. This, oddly enough, seemed to include his relationship with his mother, whom he did not visit for over twenty years. Nevertheless, he celebrated her in sermons, including her role in his vocation, and maintained a correspondence with her and a sister in St. Louis. According to the author, this neglect was occasioned by his mother’s pressure on him to become a priest and leave his childhood sweetheart, who consequently became a nun. Ryan was haunted for the rest of his life by the choice and gave voice to it, sometimes cryptically, in both his poetry and his correspondence. J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 8 73 While the authorgives much attentionto Ryan’sunreconstructedviews, during and after the Civil War, the historical context could be deepened. According to Ryan, the South’s cause, or the Lost Cause, a conceit he would help to create, was constitutionally just. It was an authentic expression of states’ rights against an overbearing federal government and unjust and intrusive “Northern political policies” (p. 14). In addition, while he was against slavery, he refused to accept the political and social equality of the freedmen, including universal suffrage. With these opinions , Ryan represented the views of many of his fellow Roman Catholics, northerners and southerners, before and after the Civil War. The author does offer a brief discussion of the pre-war Catholic struggles with the slavery issue, particularly the Catholic anti-abolitionist sentiment fostered by abolitionist nativism (pp. 15–19). The continuing struggles with the Catholic response to emancipation and Ryan’s place in the debate could be further developed. The Second and Third Plenary Councils (1866, 1884) of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States were notable for their lack of enthusiasm to assist and evangelize the freedmen . Painfully, and despite his priesthood and its vocation to universal charity, Ryan was not alone in his insensitivity to the sufferings of the newly emancipated. Abram J. Ryan was one of those personalities who appear in history, famous for a moment...


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