Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture, 1844-1931

By Tomassi, Rose | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture, 1844-1931


Tomassi, Rose, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture, 1844-1931 BY JAMES EMMETT RYAN WISCONSIN, 258 PAGES, $29.95

American Catholics were writing prolifically throughout the nineteenth century, publishing novels, essays, book reviews, and devotional literature. Yet while authors such as Emerson, Melville, and Dickinson were defining the American literary canon, Catholics of this era produced no literature of significant artistic merit or lasting cultural influence.

Why? James Emmett Ryan, associate professor of English at Auburn University, takes up this apparent incongruity in Faithful Passages, his sociological study of Catholic print culture in the mid-nineteenth century. The literary shortcomings of Catholics in this era, he suggests, were due to an often combative and excessively didactic posture, which obscured human and artistic engagement with religious questions. "Religious function," Ryan suggests, following Marcel Gauchet's analysis in The Disenchantment of the World, needed to leave behind its role as a heavy-handed instrument of conversion and be "metabolized," or drawn into an "aesthetic repertoire" infused with "Catholic ways of knowing and habits of being," before Catholic authors could have a serious impact on American literature.

Orestes Brownson and Fr. Isaac Hecker, for example, both saw the potential of Catholic literature as a tool for combating anti-Catholic prejudice and educating the rapidly growing population of American Catholics. They imagined enormous possibilities for evangelization in the burgeoning printing industry, calling for a Catholic literature that would provide an education in the doctrines of Catholicism while instilling moral values, hoping to counter the influence of the wildly popular sentimental novels and scurrilous romances of the era. …

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