In December 2013, Dana Gioia, the poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, published an article in First Things magazine on a certain “paradox” of American culture: “although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts – not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting.”
Half a century ago, America’s most revered authors included many Catholics in their ranks, most of them writers for whom the vocation of literature and the vocation of baptism were deeply and fruitfully intertwined. One need only think of Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor to get a sense of that.
As readers know only too well, most public debate these days takes place in a spirit of thoughtless outrage and rash denunciation, and there was a hint of that in the critical reaction to Gioia’s essay. Among the many published responses, most were indignant: if Gioia did not see an abundance of Catholic art and literature, that was only because he was not looking hard enough. It was out there, in spades, waiting for readers.
Earnest though I am sure those ripostes were, they missed the point. It was clear that “The Catholic Writer Today” was written specifically to provoke Catholic authors and readers alike to catch sight of one another “Today” as they had in the past. Authors, most of the time, rightly concern themselves simply with making a good work; readers, with reading whatever sounds good.
That is a fine foundation, but to build up, renew, or change a culture, those two activities need to be done with a certain consciousness or intention. And, most people just do not reflect on such matters, if they have not been stirred up by a good lament. They have other things to worry about.
But, Gioia got people worrying. Authors raised their hands in irritation that they were not being recognized; many readers expressed, perhaps for the first time, dismay that there was no one as great as T.S. Eliot writing today. Gioia’s aim was not, of course, just to exasperate, it was to inspire institution building. He wanted every interested person to ask: What kind of institutions could be created to harbor and cultivate a renewal of Catholic literature?
The answers came quickly. The literary journals Image and Dappled Things had been founded years earlier; a small press Wiseblood Books has begun publishing novels, poetry, and criticism in the spirit of O’Connor. They now had a hook by which to alert the world to their work. Gioia himself organized a three-day conference, at USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, on the Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination. Hundreds of people showed up, including students from local Catholic high schools.
And in the months that followed, those who had convened in Pasadena went home and tried something new. The English professor Mary Ann Miller founded a magazine, Presence, focused on Catholic poetry. Others, at Fordham and Loyola Chicago, agreed to establish the conference as a biannual event; it was held at Fordham, in April 2017, and will be held in Chicago, on September 19-20, 2019. Still others began reading and lecture series, at their universities or in their hometowns, to bring writers and readers together.
I review this brief history today as I consider my own minor part in it, one that is just beginning.
About a year ago, Franciscan University Press in Steubenville, Ohio asked me, to launch a series in poetry. I proposed the establishment of Colosseum Books, whose mission reads as follows:
In the ancient world, the civilizational achievements of Rome were transformed and leavened by the spirit of Christianity. The Colosseum stood as a symbol of the struggle and suffering such a new birth entailed, but also of final victory and union, as Christendom emerged to take possession of the treasures of Athens and Jerusalem with Rome as its spiritual capital. In the modern age, the English writer Christopher Dawson edited the review Colosseum as a forum for the Catholic intellectual world to engage contemporary arts and culture. In its pages such great minds as Dawson, Jacques Maritain, and E.I. Watkin studied and discussed the literary achievement of T.S. Eliot, Sigrid Undset, and other writers of the Catholic literary revival and beyond.
In such a spirit of struggle and revival, transformation and synthesis, we propose to publish important new books by contemporary poets worthy of the serious reader’s attention. The volumes will be at once works of humility and ambition, of craft and spirit, by authors attentive to the workmanlike responsibilities of the artist and to the classical understanding of the fine arts as occasions of epiphany and beauty. They will remind us of the true scope of the intellect, the great drama of human life, the discipline and dedication of serious work, and the great destiny of the human person.
Even as we moved toward publication of the first two Colosseum Books, this spring, I was also asked to establish a program for aspiring writers, and so the first Colosseum Summer Institute will be held, this July, bringing fifteen young writers to the Franciscan University’s campus for four days of discussion on the philosophy of art and beauty, the history of poetic form, and a proper workshop to hone their own craft. We plan to invite distinguished authors to come read from their work and share their wisdom as we try to build up, in some small way, a Catholic literary culture in need of renewal.
Such an enterprise is unlikely to stir much indignation or outrage. But, someday a few years from now, someone will no doubt complain, “Why are there no great Catholic writers anymore?!” And some casual reader will be able to reply, “Well, I don’t know about great, but I can name you a dozen good ones.” That will be a good start.
*Image: The Dream of the Poet or The Kiss of the Muse by Paul Cézanne, 1860 [Musée Granet Aix-en-Provence, France]