- Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture, 1844–1931 by James Emmett Ryan
In Faithful Passages, James Emmett Ryan offers the most definitive examination yet of Catholic literary culture in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The story of nineteenth-century Catholic American literature has until recently emerged through a hodge-podge of articles and book chapters spanning the last half-century. Charles Fanning’s wide-ranging literary history of Irish-American fiction is an excellent exception. Few, however, have examined the hundreds of works produced by other Catholic writers in this formative era. Faithful Passages seeks to fill this gap in examining the various “catholicisms” at play in the imaginations of significant Catholic authors.
Ryan’s opening chapter, “Orestes Brownson in Young America,” is especially good. After his conversion to Catholicism in the mid-1840s, Brownson served for decades as the gatekeeper of Catholic literary and intellectual culture through his own platform, Brownson’s Quarterly Review. Ryan shows Brownson’s two-fronted battle against the liberal ideology of the Young America movement on the one hand—with its wide-eyed eagerness to “refuse the good models,” as Emerson put it in his Divinity School address—and against the feminization of Catholic culture on the other. As Brownson put it, “nothing is more uncertain, variable, and fickle, than sentiment” (p. 41). Insofar as his Review served as imprimatur for Catholic writers and publishers in this period, Brownson was responsible for the development of Catholic literary culture, for better or worse.
Chapter 2, “Print Evangelism,” explores Father Isaac Hecker’s literary evangelism—his idealistic vision, influenced by his preconversion experiences with utopian projects like Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, of expanding Catholic America through mass print culture. Ryan offers substantive analyses of Hecker’s central works, Questions of the Soul (New York, 1855) and Aspirations of Nature (New York, 1857), neither of which appealed beyond a small cadre of Catholic intellectuals.
Chapter 3, “Entering the Mainstream,” offers the most substantive examinations to date of works by two prolific and popular Catholic novelists, Jebediah Huntington and Anna Hanson Dorsey. Like Hecker and Brownson, both were converts. Unlike those writers, however, these novelists enjoyed larger audiences by participating in more commercially viable forms such as the sentimental novel. [End Page 173]
In his fourth chapter, “Sentimental Catechism,” Ryan works farthest into the heart of a text with a careful reading of Bishop James Gibbons’s Faith of Our Fathers (Baltimore, 1876), a popular catechism that defies generic labeling. Gibbons wrote both to educate the faithful and to evangelize Protestants on their own terms: with abundant scriptural references and with strong emphasis on domestic ideals familiar to any reader of popular fiction.
Ryan’s concluding chapters focus on Kate Chopin and Willa Cather, two canonical writers less interested in the Catholic faith than in appropriating Catholic settings and scenes. One will find here brief discussions of canonical works like Chopin’s The Awakening (New York, 1899) and Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York, 1927). He is very interested in tracing a “Catholic aesthetic” among writers outside Catholicism and opens the way for examinations of the various “catholicisms” at work among twentieth-century writers ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Louise Erdrich.
Ryan’s scholarship is impressive. His work references dozens of full-length works, four decades of Brownson’s Quarterly Review, many letters dug tediously from archives, and nearly every noteworthy study of nineteenth-century American Catholic culture to date. Further, he adeptly contextualizes these Catholic works within the wide terrain of canonical American literature, a terrain he knows quite well. To be sure, this is an important, elegantly written work—necessary reading for any student of American Catholic culture. Yes, he works in broad strokes, pausing perhaps too seldom to look closely at various works. But Faithful Passages lays the groundwork for closer readings of these and many other writers.