Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 20
Running the Ancient Ark by Steam
Catholic Publishing

Una M. Cadegan

.  .  .

In an 1868 Atlantic Monthly sketch of prolific Catholic publisher Isaac Hecker, biographer James Parton noted that Catholics were “adopting, one after another, all our Protestant plans and expedients … putting American machinery into the ancient ark, and getting ready to run her by steam.”1 U.S. Catholics wholeheartedly embraced some aspects of modernity but defiantly rejected others. Parton’s metaphor captures the spirit of Catholic publishing that extended far beyond Hecker’s efforts.

In 1880 the Roman Catholic Church in the United States was still mission territory and would be until 1908. Its membership, estimated to have been more than 6 million in 1880, had risen to 10 million by 1900 and 21.5 million by 1940. In 1880 many Catholics had little formal education; these immigrants and their children scrabbled for access to prosperity and respectability. The Roman Catholic Church had only begun to develop a national self-consciousness. Yet, despite the increasing Protestant-Catholic hostilities of the mid-nineteenth century, the eighty U.S. bishops and a handful of other church leaders attending the Third Plenary Council, held in Baltimore from 9 November to 7 December 1884, emphasized their hope that there could be “no antagonism” between American and Catholic identity, for nowhere else could a Catholic “breathe more freely that atmosphere of Divine truth which alone can make him free.”2 By 1940, after more than a century of nativist opposition, defensive self-definition, and upward mobility, Roman Catholics in the United States were on the verge of being the most affluent American subgroup, confident in the compatibility of their Catholic and American identities.

Changes in Catholic publishing over the course of this period both contributed to and exemplified U.S. Catholicism’s movement from an immigrant mission church to a substantially assimilated subculture.3 The history of Catholic publishing in these years sounds in many ways like the broader story of American publishing—expansion, consolidation, capitalization, and professionalization. Understanding the distinctiveness of this particular story, however, re

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