- All Good Books are Catholic Books: Print Culture, Censorship, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century America by Una M. Cadegan
Una Cadegan’s All Good Books are Catholic Books is an excellent examination of how Catholic readers, writers, and critics viewed literature as a means of engaging broader currents of twentieth-century American culture. Far more than a study of Catholic print culture, this book sheds light on a complex engagement with modernity far more nuanced and far less reactionary than previous historiography has suggested.
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Cadegan begins by outlining a uniquely Catholic literary enterprise, one that both paralleled and departed from mainstream publishing. Catholic publishers, Catholic authors, Catholic magazines, and Catholic critics reached out to engage a Catholic readership that was more immigrantoriented than its non-Catholic neighbors. Catholic literature in the early to mid-twentieth century, Cadegan insists, was not wholly antithetical to modernity. But neither was Catholic literature an exact replica of conventional literary culture and mass-market publishing. Rather, Catholic literature, publishing, and periodicals negotiated a middle ground that articulated an explicitly Catholic-American cultural identity. For instance, Cadegan insists, “at a time when literature was supposed to express the freedom of the individual liberated from the stifling past, Catholic literary culture set itself the task of shoring up a unified communal identity” (22). Likewise, the Catholic art aesthetic differed from the mainstream, in which “art existed [End Page 175] only for itself, only to be, and to suggest that it should ‘do’ anything was to disqualify it as art” (25). In contrast, Catholic art producers and critics emphasized art as an inspiration to both individual religious salvation and to collective uplift.
Cadegan deftly combines Catholic biblical criticism, natural law philosophy, and Catholic theology in describing the Catholic literary ethos. Catholic literary and art critics, Cadegan notes, were able to combine Aquinas’ aesthetics with modern views on beauty. She demonstrates that traditional Catholic pronouncements on “modernism,” particularly as articulated in Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (1907) produced a significant “collision and the resulting impasse established Catholicism in an intellectually adverse relationship with philosophical modernity for much of the twentieth century” (52). Nevertheless, she points out, “As literary discussions sought an appropriate stance toward potentially dangerous or heretical ideas, they became an important site of Catholic engagement with philosophical modernity” (54).
Thus, friction between Catholic dogma and modernity did not mean a complete abandonment of twentieth-century culture on behalf of Catholic writers, readers, or publishers. Cadegan highlights this point stating, “The Roman Catholic conflict with modernity was genuine and persuasive, but it was not univocal” (54). In her discussions of Catholic censorship, Cadegan illustrates the Catholic literary effort to reconcile the “Index of Forbidden Books” with a simultaneous desire “to be clearly and firmly part of American culture—and especially American intellectual life” (86). The Index (and, by extension, other efforts at curtailing literary modernism) “looms larger in the imagination of twentieth-century Catholicism than it did in practice,” Cadegan points out, noting “it went from being an accepted element of Catholic regulation of reading and publication” to “quiet abrogation in the year following the close of the Second Vatican Council” (88). As the twentieth century wore on, Catholic literary critics took pains to explain “how censorship (as they defined it) could nonetheless be seen as not only compatible with but essential to American freedoms,” an effort that did not always resonate with the wider public but “cleared a significant swath of common ground” between the Catholic press and mainstream audiences (120).
This negotiation between Catholic and American identity, clearly a driving force of several generations of American Catholic writers, forms the foundation of Cadegan’s study as well. She incorporates a tremendous array of sources, including novels (both popular and obscure), a wide range of Catholic periodicals, and an excellent survey of secondary scholarship. She not only focuses on Catholic popular books, as her title would suggest, but [End Page 176] dedicates significant attention to aesthetics, philosophy, theology...