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

9
"Yes, We Have No Bernanos." The Search for the Great American Catholic Novel, II: Catholic Fiction During the Era of Transformation

It has been alleged that Catholics always seem to be fifty years behind the times. In matters of literary realism it was actually closer to twenty. Beginning in the mid-1930s, however, an increasing number of Catholic critics, writers, and college teachers began to demand that their fiction come to terms with the complexities of modern life.

"It is sheer nonsense," complained Fordham professor Francis X. Connolly in 1933, to insist that every Catholic character "should always be wearing a painted halo," or to suggest that Catholics had a monopoly on moral probity. 1 This kind of sterotypical characterization, Connolly warned, only would alienate the more discerning reader.

More significantly, Connolly joined Frank O'Malley and other Catholic critics in protesting that too much Catholic imaginative literature lacked devotion to truth. Literary "naturalists" like Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Ernest Hemingway "falsified reality" and created only caricatures of humanity, Catholics alleged; but many Catholic critics were painfully aware that these same criticisms applied equally to their own writers. "Little monsters of goodness" was how one 1943 critic described the pale characters who inhabited the novels typical of Lucille Papin Borden's genre. 2 Therefore, while Francis X. Talbot, Calvert Alexander, Daniel A. Lord, and the earlier proponents of an American Catholic literary emergence continued to pin their hopes on writers like Borden, Kathleen Norris, and Ethel Cook Eliot, a growing number of other Catholic teachers and critics viewed these same authors with an increasing sense of embarrassment.

No doubt these earlier novelists would have passed easily enough from the American scene as Catholics matured during the 1930s and

-143-

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