Fr. Robert Hugh Benson in 1907. Photo colorized by Register staff. (Russell & Sons/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Is the Catholic Literary Revival dead? If not, where are the signs of the Revival’s continuance today?
One of the most encouraging phenomena of the last two centuries is the Catholic Literary Revival, which, in its gestation period, from 1798 to 1845, saw the rise of neo-medievalism, beginning with Coleridge’s Mariner and Scott’s chivalrous heroes, and ending with Pugin’s Gothic Revival and Newman’s Oxford Movement. After its 47 years in the womb of neo-mediaeval culture, the Catholic Literary Revival could be said to have been born, in 1845, amid the controversial pangs of Newman’s conversion. This heralded what may be termed the Newman Period in the Revival, dating from 1845 until the great man’s death in 1890. Apart from Newman himself, this period was graced with the presence of other eminent convert literati, including the poets, Coventry Patmore and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the latter of whom is perhaps the finest and most important poet of the whole Victorian period.
Following Newman’s death there was the Decadent interlude of the fin de siècle in which a host of Catholic converts, such as Wilde, Beardsley, Dowson and Lionel Johnson, came to the Church via the dark and dangerous path of sin. In doing so, they were following in the footsteps of a previous generation of French converts, such as Baudelaire, Verlaine and Huysmans, each of whom had also taken the same dark path to conversion.
The period from 1900 to 1936 could be called the Chesterbelloc Period, in which the giant figures of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc presided over a golden age of literary converts, including R.H. Benson, Ronald Knox, Maurice Baring, Christopher Dawson, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and T.S. Eliot. (Although Eliot was technically an Anglo-Catholic who never crossed the Tiber his work is, to all intents and purposes, as Catholic as anything written by his Roman contemporaries.) From 1936 to 1973 we enter the Inklings Period, in which the formidable presence of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis dominate. (Lewis, like Eliot, was an Anglican and not a Catholic, but his work, which is overwhelmingly orthodox, sits very comfortably alongside the work of his Catholic contemporaries.) Eminent literary converts during this period include Roy Campbell, Edith Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, Muriel Spark, Dunstan Thompson and George Mackay Brown. In America, this period also saw the emergence of those two fine writers, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.
What an array of talent! What a procession of literary giants! And yet one is left wondering what has happened to the Catholic Literary Revival in the past 30 years or so. Did it come to an end with the death of Tolkien in 1973? If so, why; if not, where are the signs of the Revival’s continuance today?
It is sad but true that the Revival is not what it was. There are no literary giants of the caliber of Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Waugh, Lewis or Tolkien today. Why is this? Does it, as some have suggested, have something to do with the malaise that followed in the wake of the second Vatican Council? Perhaps, up to a point. “Much water has flown under Tiber’s bridges, carrying away splendor and mystery from Rome, since the Pontificate of Pius XII,” lamented Sir Alec Guinness, himself a Catholic convert. It would, however, be an over-simplification to blame everything on the rampant modernism that followed Vatican II. After all, much water has also flown under the bridges of the Seine, the Thames and the Potomac since the death of Pius XII in 1958, carrying away much of what remained of Western civilization. Indeed, so much has passed away in the past half-century that we have seen Eliot’s Wasteland prophecy that London Bridge was falling down and that the “unreal cities” were doomed to self-destruct being fulfilled before our eyes. Whatever else can be blamed on the modernist zeitgeist posing as the so-called “spirit” of Vatican II, the “spirit” of the Council cannot be held responsible for the tidal wave of ethno-masochistic self-hatred which characterized the 1960s and beyond. If anything, one might suggest that the latter was responsible for the former. And this brings us back to our discussion of the Catholic Literary Revival. If it is true that there are no great Catholic writers today, it is equally true that there are no great secularist writers either. Where are today’s Orwells, Wodehouses and Shaws? The fact is that Chesterton was correct when he said that the “coming peril” was “standardization by a low standard.” Chesterton, like Eliot, was a prophet whose prophesies are coming true before our eyes. We live in a dumbed-down subculture where excellence is shunned in favor of the banal and the inane. What place is there for the great and the true in such a desert of inanity? Is there no hope of a literary revival and of cultural renewal in such a wasteland?
These questions are answered by history. The great and the true can thrive in the desert. Christ triumphed in the desert, as did John the Baptist, and as did the Fathers of the Church. And what is true of God and his Catholic saints is true of Catholic writers. Shakespeare rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the Machiavellian desert of Elizabethan politics; Newman rose from the ruins of Anglicanism; Chesterton ascended from the wasteland of heresy; and Eliot sang like a latter-day Jeremiah from the wreck of postwar England.
A desert, or wasteland, is in need of water, as Eliot reminds us, and the Church is the living water that refreshes the sojourner in the desert of (post)modernity. It is, therefore, not altogether surprising that we are beginning to see the emergence of a new generation of Catholic writers in the very midst of today’s hostile culture. All is not lost and there is much to be won. As we begin to see the twilight of the secularist gods, these signs of the renewal of the Catholic Literary Revival are heralds of the dawn. London Bridge is falling down but the bridges of Rome remain.