- The Wisdom of John Henry Newman
At first glance the essays in this diverse collection on John Henry Newman may appear to have little in common aside from their primary subject. "Voice of Reason" contains an essay that focuses on the influence of Newman on T. S. Eliot (Oser), another that shows Newman to have been influenced by Jane Austen (Lindley), an essay that examines the significance of Newman's famous motto cor ad cor loquitur in his argumentative writings (Bradshaw), one that seeks to add to our understanding of the function of reason in Newman's conception of conscience (Aquino), and one that explores Newman's apprenticeship as a writer of sermons by looking closely at his early sermon work as a clergyman in the Church of England (Poston). But on a second look a common thread will appear: each of these essays takes seriously the idea that Newman is a crucial intellectual in the history of nineteenth-century literature and that we need to continue the process of understanding his complex work. One danger to this understanding of Newman's significance, aside from the general turn away from challenging, difficult older works, is the recent focus on Newman's sanctification and potential sainthood, a focus that, while perhaps raising Newman's profile among Catholics with little or no interest in his intellectual labors, may have had the effect of dampening interest in Newman among younger students of literature. Fortunately, as we shall see, there has been no corresponding decrease in interest among scholars.
One of the effects of the dampening of popular interest has been that fewer and fewer readers know anything about him. Such readers would first learn of Newman from anthologies, but a quick look at the representation of Newman in anthologies tells a disheartening story. The first several editions of the Norton Anthology of English Literature contained twenty pages of Newman's writings, including eleven pages from the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman's spiritual autobiography. In a 2012 edition of the Norton, the Newman selection has been reduced to eight pages from his Idea of a University, a series of lectures on higher education. In the Norton Major Authors Edition, Newman has disappeared entirely, as he has from the Broadview Anthology's print versions. [End Page 1]
One could argue that nonfiction prose, Newman's primary genre, will always receive less attention than other more popular forms. And while this is undoubtedly true, Thomas Carlyle, also a Victorian non-fiction prose specialist, receives twenty-four pages in the Major Authors eighth edition and thirty-one pages in the ninth edition of the full anthology. So Carlyle has fared decently while Newman has suffered. Such cutbacks are inevitable in this era of canon expansion, and I am entirely in agreement on the need for such expansion. But the collateral losses can be painful. This sad tale for Newman scholars means that knowledge of Newman (and that of many other significant writers) is gradually slipping from the collective popular consciousness. And while there's no question that The Idea is an important book, I think readers are more likely to develop an interest in Newman if they have a chance to read selections from the Apologia, a more personal and historically interesting book than Newman's lectures on education (important as they are), so the Apologia's disappearance from the anthologies has been a real loss.
Given this state of ignorance about Newman, I will begin with some crucial facts about Newman's life and career as a writer. Born in 1801, Newman early on determined for himself a life in the Church of England (Apologia 19). He converted to evangelical views in 1816, the year he entered Trinity College, Oxford. At Oxford, he was elected fellow of Oriel College (1822), and after a brief flirtation with liberal rationalism (see Gilley 4–5), became a clergyman, an extremely popular preacher as Vicar of St. Mary's Church (1828), and a leading figure in the Oxford movement (also called the Tractarian Movement) during the 1830s. This effort sought to propel the established Church in the direction of a position less antagonistic to Roman...