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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, January 6th, 2004


 

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Paul Elie

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Interweaving the lives, work, and spiritual struggles of four twentieth-century American Catholic writers — Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy — Elie probes above all what Percy called their "predicament shared in common": the struggle to reconcile religious faith with the demands of art. Elie, though, is at his most insightful when examining the predicament shared most intensely by O'Connor and Percy (by far the two most accomplished writers in the group, and the authors with whom he's clearly most engaged). "My subject in fiction," O'Connor explained, "is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. I have also found that what I write is read by an audience which puts little stock either in grace or the devil." (As Percy said of O'Connor, she "saw the enemy clearly, namely a certain sort of triumphant humanist.") This book (which was published earlier in the year, and takes its title from that of an O'Connor story) is difficult to characterize, because it's almost impossibly rich. Elie keenly anatomizes religious experience and expression and the often agonizing pilgrimages that defined his subjects' lives (his portrait of the holy sinner Day's progress from despairing libertine to probable saint is especially vivid and affecting). He is a gifted critic (particularly in his assessment of O'Connor's fierce art, and of her position in the southern literary tradition). He is a sensitive historian as he places these writers' lives and art in the context of an evolving Catholicism and the social, cultural, and political developments of their times — and as he reveals the often subtle connections among these rather disparate figures (they read one another's work and corresponded, but some of them never met; their common confidante, Caroline Gordon, dubbed them "the School of the Holy Ghost"). This is the sort of ambitious marriage of criticism, biography, and history of which Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore and To the Finland Station are the superlative examples. Elie's book can't match the sweep and austere authority of Wilson's masterpieces, but it's an exceptionally intelligent and often elegant work, and Elie should be applauded for the reach — and grasp — of his literary ambition.


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