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Let’s Renovate the Catholic Literary Tradition

Let’s Renovate the Catholic Literary Tradition

Jorge Quinteros

Daniel McInerny - published on 12/13/13

To visualize the American Catholic arts today, don’t imagine Florence or Rome. Think Newark, New Jersey.

In the current issue of First Things, Dana Gioia offers the most significant assessment of the situation of the American Catholic writer since the publication of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (posthumously published in 1969) and Walker Percy’s Signposts in a Strange Land (posthumously published in 1991). Gioia, of course, is the American Book Award-winning Catholic poet and critic, past chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003-09), and the current Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

I will not even attempt a summary of Gioia’s argument in “The Catholic Writer Today.” I will have done enough if I convince you to click on this link and go read it yourself. If you are a Catholic writer of fiction, literary critic, or scholar who writes on fiction and the arts, this essay is indispensable reading. And if you are a Catholic artist in some other field, you will easily be able to apply Gioia’s argument to your own situation.

I would, however, like to draw your attention to one part of Gioia’s argument, namely, his discussion of the cultural sea-change that has taken place in the last 60-odd years vis-à-vis the Catholic writer in the United States. In mid 20th-century America, argues Gioia (in section V of the essay), four things could be said of the literary landscape:


– many important writers publicly identified themselves as Catholics
– the cultural establishment accepted Catholicism as a possible and permissible artistic entity
– there was a dynamic and vital Catholic literary tradition visibly at work in the culture
– there was a critical and academic milieu that actively read, discussed, and supported the best Catholic writing.

Unfortunately today, Gioia laments, not one of these statements holds true. And in this he is absolutely right. I’ll leave it to you to dig into Gioia’s reasons for why this sea-change took place. RIght now I want to focus on where this cultural change leaves the Catholic writer. Gioia employs a powerful metaphor to describe the situation:

“If one needs an image or metaphor to describe our current Catholic literary culture, I would say that it resembles the present state of the old immigrant urban neighborhoods our grandparents inhabited. They may still have a modicum of local color amid their crumbling infrastructure, but they are mostly places from which upwardly mobile people want to escape. Economically depressed, they offer few rewarding jobs. They no longer command much social or cultural power. To visualize the American Catholic arts today, don’t imagine Florence or Rome. Think Newark, New Jersey.”

Keep reading on the next page

Nothing against Newark, mind you, but this is an all-too-painful description of the disarray in which the Catholic literary tradition finds itself today. Gioia concludes his essay with the following peroration:

“If the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the big city—where we can renovate these remarkable districts that have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition. It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition. Starting the renovation may seem like a daunting task. But as soon as one place is rebuilt, someone else will already be at work next door, and gradually the whole city begins to reshape itself around you. Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay to have the right home.”

So now I want to hear from you, Catholic writers, critics and scholars–and indeed, from Catholic artists everywhere. How are we going to take back our neighborhoods? How are we going to renovate our tradition? 

Maybe you’re already active in the task of restoring the tradition. I know some of you who are. 

But we need more workers in this vineyard. The world is thirsting for the fruits of our Catholic culture. 

What contribution are you going to make? 

Daniel McInerny is the editor of Aleteia’s English language edition. He is also the author of the comic novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, as well as two books in the Kingdom of Patria children’s series, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits, and Stoop of Mastodon Meadow. You are invited to contact him at daniel.mcinerny@aleteia.org, to follow him on Twitter @danielmcinerny, and visit his blog devoted to the renovation of the Catholic literary tradition, thecomicmuse.com

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