By Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 534 pp., $27
Flannery O'Connor was dyed-in-the-wool; converts Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy were not -- born Catholics, that is. But all four writers, Paul Elie maintains (and maintains brilliantly) in the pages of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, were pilgrims in the faith and made that faith critical to their work -- a rocky road to be sure for each, including the uncompromising O'Connor. But true believers can take heart; readers who aren't need not beware: There's plenty of inspiration to go around.
Take Day. She'd had her fill of Greenwich Village bohemianism in the 1920s. What she couldn't shake were the profound inequities of urban life during the Depression, and by slow degrees she came to make caring for the poor and the souls of the poor her main mission. It was, she believed, the gospel truth.
St. Joseph's House in lower Manhattan became part soup kitchen, part revolutionary headquarters for what she called the Catholic Worker (the movement) and The Catholic Worker (the newspaper), a paper (a penny an issue) designed to reach the man in the street then teach "that 'the Catholic church has a social program' which would take account of his everyday problems, not just eternal life and the salvation of his soul." As journalist and memoirist (and particularly as pacifist), she made national news, and St. Joseph's became a pilgrimage destination. After her death, the cause for her canonization began. Her influence still stands.
Merton's best-selling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) reached even greater numbers than Day and put him at the center of what Elie calls a "Catholic moment" in U.S. history -- that moment in the mid-20th century when the church "escaped the confines of parish and ghetto and entered the middle class and the wilds of postwar America." That Merton, a Trappist monk living in Kentucky but born in France and educated in England, should find himself so celebrated was one thing. That Elie shows Merton at his hermitage with an open bottle of bourbon during his meeting with Walker Percy may come as news to others. It doesn't seem to have been much news to Percy and no news at all to Elie, whose purpose here is not so much to desanctify his subjects as to render them full body and soul.
It needs adding that Percy wasn't the only noteworthy visitor to Merton's Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Like Day's St. Joseph's House in New York, it too became a pilgrimage point for retreatants and authors alike.
Hard to say if a "site" ever became of the town of Covington, Louisiana, but it was the part-time home of Percy, a trained physician whose conversion seems to have taken less of a toll than his hard work at becoming an award-winning novelist -- a novelist existentialist in outlook and given early encouragement by O'Connor.
So, O'Connor, artist/defender of the faith in a Protestant South: Andalusia, her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, did have its share of visitors before the author's untimely death in 1964. And, yes, it is good to see Elie citing O'Connor if not at her most charitable then at her most memorable: The writer to one friend: "My editor wrote me that the book was selling better than anything on their list except Thomas Merton -- which doesn't say much for their list"; the writer to another friend: "Did I understand you right that you are writing from 5000 to 7000 words of bad prose a day? ... Girl, it couldn't be anything else but bad." (You decide if these quotes beat Regina O'Connor's question to her daughter on a certain English novelist/Catholic/critic who'd praised Wise Blood: "Who is this Evalin Wow?") In every other context though -- O'Connor's less than admirable regional prejudices; O'Connor's use of the Protestant South to investigate the mystery of belief; O'Connor's enormous contribution to American literature -- Elie is superb.
But he writes well everywhere and throughout this major, readable study, which is free of jargon, full of insight. I quote: "Certain books, certain writers, reach us at the center of ourselves," he states in his prologue, "and we come to them in fear and trembling, in hope and expectation -- reading so as to change, and perhaps to save, our lives." And Elie isn't overdoing it. He's a fellow traveler too, smart as hell.