Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

By Margaret M. McGuinness; James T. Fisher | Go to book overview

SIX
American and Catholic and Literature:
What Cultural History Helps Reveal

Una M. Cadegan

For as long as there have been American Catholics, they have been writing what we can call “American Catholic literature.” For the cultural historian, the trick is that what we call literature is a slippery category—it has changed a great deal over time and keeps changing as we speak. That is, “literature” is a historically contingent category—not everything written comes to be regarded as “literature,” and much of what is included in that category at one time might be left out at another. Understanding how and why the criteria for inclusion change helps us see where Catholic literary culture fits into the big picture. Two questions will help us to orient ourselves—What were Catholics writing and publishing? And how did what they wrote and published relate to what was going on in the publishing world and the literary academy? When we answer these questions thoughtfully, we will see that we can learn more not only about Catholic literature, but about American literature as well.

Most of the earliest sustained narratives written by Europeans in the decades following first contact with the continents of North and South America are “Catholic literature” in the sense that they were written by Catholics, often by priests, and are also usually explicit explorations of how Catholicism was faring in the New World. So, for example, the diaries of Christopher Columbus, or Bartolomeo de las Casas’s (1484–1566) passionate condemnation of the treatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish conquistadores in his Defense of the Indians, or the massive (18,000 pages, in one English translation) Jesuit Relations, documenting the seventeenth-century history of the Society of Jesus’s work among

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