If the influence of religion has been largely elided or submerged in mainstream accounts of American intellectual history, then the role of Roman Catholicism in that history would have to be counted as doubly excluded.During the heyday of the American Studies movement in the years after World War II, when the larger meaning of America was (as it is becoming once again today) a vital and hotly debated topic, it was still possible for serious thinkers to regard the American nation as the lengthened shadow of certain Protestant and Enlightened ideas, often occurring in amalgamated form.
Elie has chosen to tell all four of his subjects separate stories at once, rendering their lives in alternating bits and pieces, shifting from person to person, jumping from time period to time period, in a way that is difficult for even knowledgeable readers to follow.
Elies lucid style somehow manages to carry the day, making the book eminently readable even in spite of this expository chaos.
All four were, in some sense, deeply marginal figures, being either adult converts to the Roman Catholic faith at a time when such conversion was costly, or, in the case of O Connor, being constrained to live out her Catholic life surrounded by a sea of Southern Protestants.
All four were deeply critical of the arrogant spirit of modernity and sought in Catholicism an escape from a progressive world which left no place of grace intact.
Nineteenth-century American history was, in this view, a progressive story of a New Zion set down in the virgin wilderness, a fresh beginning for the human race that would follow its manifest destiny westward toward the earthly realization of Gods kingdom.
As for the notion that Catholic ideas or thinkers might have contributed anything essential to the nations meaning”well, that seemed too far-fetched even to require refutation.Although no one would mistake for a work of Catholic apologetics, it is an unusually affirmative work, a splendid counter to the cynicism and obscurantism that have brought literary scholarship in present-day America to the point of ruin.It is affirmative of its subjects, affirmative of their bookishness, affirmative of the possibilities of the written word, and affirmative of its subjects shared pilgrimage”the endless high-minded seeking that consumed their lives.And”a matter very important to Elie”all four placed an extraordinarily high valuation upon the written and printed word as an avenue of spiritual inquiry.They were people who lived in and through books, in a way that is increasingly rare today.As the historian John Ibson wittily expressed it, students of American life saw little reason to explore the possibility that for some nineteenth-century Americans the Virgin Mary was of more consequence than the Virgin Land. Even a brilliantly eccentric figure like Henry Adams, who seemed to defy that pattern, only confirmed it”for it was not the real Church in real time (or for that matter, the real Virgin) that he loved, but an idealized medieval Catholicism, chiefly designed to function as an opposite number to a modern world he had come to loathe and fear.This state of affairs has begun to change, however, thanks to talented younger American historians such as James Terence Fisher, Patrick Allitt, and John Mc Greevy, whose works have filled in some of the blank spaces and made it much more difficult to ignore the vein of Catholic thought and expression running through American history.Perhaps Elie avoided this approach in order to give priority to his subjects biographies and avoid any taint of academicism, both of which are commendable aims.But the choice may have inadvertently had the opposite effect, blurring the subjects together, and sacrificing a searching examination of their psychological peculiarities by blending it all into a larger (if itself ill-defined) story of pilgrimage.Its prose is pleasingly lean and astonishingly jargon-free, and its analysis of texts is nearly always fresh and engaging. But this fine work also has some considerable faults, and given its many commendable points, one comments upon those faults only with the greatest reluctance.But comment one must, and to begin with, one must remark upon the books perplexing and confusing structure.