Paul Elie, a senior editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux, is well placed to juxtapose the biographies of four of America's most famous Catholic writers, who were linked by common publishers (FSG being notably one), common clever friends, common readership. Writers they were, and more than writers.
Thomas Merton was the monk who could have been a literary lion. He allowed himself to be de-clawed by the Mother Church, though he knew, he secretly knew and cherished the truth that he was as much writer as priest. A Catholic by conversion who took well to monastic life at first, he was given unusual latitude to practice his craft after the unprecedented success of Seven Storey Mountain brought pilgrims to the door of the monastery at Gethsemani, in Kentucky, a place Merton once saw as the center of the world. But he was also neutered by Catholicism, and his writing would always be limited to purely spiritual subjects. He began to look Eastward for spiritual correlations and parlayed with D T Suzuki and the Dalai Lama in his continuing search for the experience of the Divine. The very likely scenario, had he lived, was that he would have, painfully, left the Church. Speculation has been bruited that his accidental death was a kind of suicide, an outcome he did not resist, an alternative to the terrible schism towards which he was tending.
Dorothy Day was the literary lioness who devoted her life to pacifism and the poor, becoming a kind of nun by default. In the inner city and on farms established to feed the city houses, she and her Catholic Workers welcomed the poor because they were there, regarding it as a duty based on what Jesus would do. Day was a brilliant and prolific expository writer, maintaining a weekly column or more in every issue of her creation, The Catholic Worker newspaper, which still sells for twenty-five cents a year. She was also a woman; she had one abortion and one child out of wedlock (interestingly, Thomas Merton also had a child, one he was not allowed to acknowledge and whose impending birth became his ticket to America). By the time Day's daughter was born, she was ready for conversion and Tamar was baptized Catholic. A meeting with the strange and possibly saintly Peter Maurin inspired Day to begin her ministry to the poor. She then took up the anti-war cause with the same conviction that led her to give coffee, sandwiches and clothing to the poor of New York City. Neither endeavor was easy - the poor she labeled "critical" and never grateful; the protests landed her in jail many times and heaped much condemnation on her head. She was often labeled "communist", the very word anathema to the established Church. Her many well-received books about her life and the history of the Catholic Worker movement were a major support for her companions and her large brood of grandchildren. Her canonization, criticized by many as something she wouldn't at all have wanted, is in the works.
Walker Percy was an invalid from a line of depressive men - his father and grandfather were suicides, and Walker contracted tuberculosis while working as a pathologist among the poor. His first novel, The Moviegoer, won a National Book Award and subsequent works were widely lauded. His writings are polemic, born of empathy for the downtrodden, an intellect that embraced subtlety, and the incentive that parenthood brought to bear on an invalid who had to support his family. A man who loved Kierkegaard, he came to write fiction because he sought an allegorical voice for his many surprising and sometimes disturbing observations about his fellow men and his fellow Christians. Percy believed that man is the "only alien creature on planet earth," a stranger and pilgrim who will only get home by reconnecting with the source. He became a correspondent with the fourth writer/religious in Elie's book, Flannery O'Connor.
O'Connor never achieved the greatness for which she seemed destined. An odd child who made clothes for her roosters and had a lifelong passion for peacocks, she was hailed among the literati because she could write, in her quirky way. She was remembered for saying to a roomful of Catholic intelligentsia that if Holy Communion was merely a symbol, then "to hell with it," a mot juste that perhaps only other Catholics could fully appreciate. She is also responsible for injecting into common parlance the oft-quoted "a good man is hard to find." Elie's book, in fact, takes its title from O'Connor's work, a roadside sign viewed by one of her complex characters. Her books are loved for their humor, their ethnicity specific to the Deep South, and her rich use of language, but they are largely misunderstood in their totality. She felt that was because her Catholic conviction shone too bright. She died young, of lupus, and her home place, "Andalusia", has become an offbeat shrine of sorts.
Elie does a workman's job of reining these individual chronicles in rough tandem. The four were of different ages but shared an overlapping timeframe, the years of the Depression and World War II, a period of great proving in America. This reviewer has never found Percy or O'Connor to be compelling characters. Both were Southerners who never came to grips with issues of racial equality - O'Connor seemed to glory in the use of the word "nigger" as though she had invented it - and both were born to Catholicism, never questioning it for a single moment, so it looks, on them, like faith unexamined.
Whereas Merton and Day, who also corresponded with and prayed for one another, were great apart from their Catholicism, great even apart from their creative gifts, great because of their open-minded willingness to take life as a quest that never ends.