To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960

By Arnold Sparr ; Henry Warner Bowden | Go to book overview

4
The Revival as Reaction, I: Catholics against Modernity

Calvert Alexander The Catholic Literary Revival ( 1935) characterized the revival as a movement in revolt against modern thought. "Catholic literature," the Jesuit wrote, "when we discover it coming into being in the mid-nineteenth century, is a literature of protest against the course being followed by European society."1 Earlier, Alexander had similarly portrayed the revival as a "protest against the things in modern civilization that deserve to be dynamited." 2 That was a large order, but it illustrates the profound alienation Alexander and many other Catholics of his generation exhibited toward the course of modern intellectual culture.

Alienation from modern thought was a motif that dominated Catholic intellectual, philosophical, and literary expression well into the 1950s. Many popular Catholic novels during the 1920s and early 1930s read like antipositivist tracts. 3 A large number of Catholic philosophical works during the same period record a similar disaffection. Even as late as 1948 Thomas Merton ( The Seven Storey Mountain) is found reading his way into the Church via the antirationalist expositions of William Blake, D. H. Lawrence, and Jacques Maritain. 4

Other early twentieth century American groups were equally estranged from modernity. New Humanist critics, Southern Agrarian writers, and fundamentalist Protestants, in many cases, were as vocal as Catholics in their protest against modern cultural relativism and unbelief. But Catholic alienation was broader and, in many ways, more profound. Catholic literary critics during the early 1930s, for example, joined New Humanists Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More in sharply attacking naturalistic assumptions in modern philosophy and literature. Yet Cath

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