- All Good Books Are Catholic Books: Print Culture, Censorship, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century America by Una M. Cadegan
Cadegan adds to the body of recent scholarship that seeks to explain the complex relationship between American Catholicism and American intellectual culture in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council. Her main theme is that in the area of literary culture, “Catholics involved in literary work” (p. 17) moved from an adversarial attitude toward the dominant modernist aesthetic in literature early in the century to creatively engage, reconcile, and eventually appropriate many modernist elements within the scope of their own literary framework in the years that followed.
Cadegan asserts that Catholics managed this accommodation primarily through the development of a flexible, theologically-driven literary aesthetic that, while refusing to affirm modernity in its entirety, managed to “remap the divide” (p. 65), imaginatively reconfiguring and reconciling the conflicting “oppositions” that had delimited modernist-Catholic rapprochement since the 1890s. Attitudes of U.S. Catholics toward censorship experienced similar reconfiguration, as Catholics developed rationales that attempted to both reassure the faithful and make censorship more understandably “American” to moderns. Cadegan writes that the larger importance of this journey is that in working out an intellectually serious response to modernity in literature, the Catholic literary enterprise became an “important site” (p. 54) by which U.S. Catholicism as a whole worked its way back to engagement with important existential philosophical and theological questions that, although off-limits to theologians since the papal condemnation of modernism in 1907, were fair game in any discussion of modernist literary technique and outlook. “In this way, literary history is perhaps more central to the intellectual history of twentieth-century U.S. Catholicism than has yet been appreciated” (p. 48).
The book is composed of eight chapters, including several that reprise material from previously published articles. Three chapters address the problem of censorship. The remainder of Cadegan’s narrative details the developing Catholic aesthetic: the challenges posed by modernity to orthodox belief and traditional Catholic literary analysis; the means by which Catholic writers, critics, and teachers reframed and reconciled these oppositions; and, finally, how, through employing “their own categories and criteria for defining and evaluating literature,” Catholics reclaimed “their place in the cultural and intellectual landscape” (pp. 2, 19).
The modernist-Catholic oppositions that Cadegan sets up—individualism over community, iconoclasm over orthodoxy, innovation over repetition, and openness over closure—although imaginative, seem a bit arbitrary, and her juxtapositions are not always sharply drawn. Nevertheless, Cadegan writes that taken together, insights springing from Catholic theology and the fundamental mysteries and doctrines of the Catholic faith—the Incarnation, the sacramental nature of creation, the liturgy—provided the categories and resources instrumental in their rapprochement. [End Page 176]
Cadegan’s thesis works best when she demonstrates how the doctrine of the Incarnation, and its analogical complement—the belief that “all created reality and human experience potentially reveal the presence of God” (p. 33)—was an especially important tool in helping Catholics come to terms with the iconoclastic sensibility behind so much of the “realism” in modern literature. By “insisting that all aspects of human experience”—the sacred and the profane—“were appropriate, even necessary subjects, for literature” (p. 45), Cadegan illustrates that Catholic writers and critics by the 1950s no longer merely stood apart from modernity, but rather had succeeded in broadening it by crafting an imaginative stance that combined both terms of the divide. This new synthesis allowed Catholics to redefine James Joyce and to come to terms with the ambiguities of Graham Greene, and it provided Flannery O’Connor a powerful imaginative framework through which to depict evidence of the divine even in Christ-haunted Misfits.
This is a thought-provoking and inventive book, although in some instances the enabling role of theology in Cadegan’s story may seem overly nuanced. (How the oppositions of innovation and repetition found...