Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Literary Converts

Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief
© 2000 Joseph Pearce
452 pages


Literary Converts is a historical survey of the 'second spring' of Anglo-Catholic literature and all that followed, covering most of the twentieth century.  Its author would call it a history of grace acting through literature, and Joseph knows about the power of literature; his own soul was rescued through it. In his youth he was the publisher of Bulldog, a vicious racial newspaper in the U.K, but while exploring economic debate he encountered Chesterton, and through Chesterton the redemptive power of the Christian faith.   In Literary Converts, he takes on nearly a century of English literary society, focusing on a group of authors  whose paths brought them closer to Rome, even as the rest of society became more secular. While the 32 sections appear to be miniature biographies, they are in fact intertwined; Pearce tells here the story of a multi-generational community, one decade’s converts inspiring the next through literature and personal conversation.  There are many familiar names here, the greatest being G.K. Chesterton, but some have passed into obscurity.  Many caused scandals when they converted, either because of their social status (R.H. Benson, the son of an Anglican archbishop), or because of their long-respected stature as libertines, like Evelyn Waugh.   What did they see in tradition and the Catholic church, amid increasing material prosperity?

 In an age of dehumanizing work and political machines, of eugenics and social 'darwinism'*,  they saw an institution which insisted on the dignity of the human person, regardless of the ideology of the hour; when populations were being shifted from the fields to the cities, when everything seemed chaotic and new, they saw stability in a  tradition that had weathered the storms of centuries and would, most likely, stand fast through these,As  monstrous factories belched smoke, armed mobs brawled in the streets, and ugliness was enthroned,  they saw in the west's tradition a preserve of beauty, truth, and love. The work produced by these authors -- a lifetime's worth of reading --  wasn't mere spiritual dabbling. Chesterton and Belloc, for interest, provided works of political economy in The Servile State, What's Wrong with the World, and An Outline of Sanity;  T.S. Eliot created The Waste Land, and Christopher Dawson contributed insightful history. Even if they did not join the Catholic church, as was the case with C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, they still drew very near it, and did so through literary engagement – and often through engagement with one another. To read this book is to eavesdrop on a great conversation, a century of  passionate and introspective men and women grappling with the fundamental question of meaning.     

While Pearce is an accessible writer, this is a book of density, and may fall on the obscure side for those who aren't passionate about -- even smitten by -- literature.  I only heard of it while listening to Pearce  lecture on the 'English spring' following the Romantic period in literature. 

Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Phillip Zaleski
The Third Spring: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and Davis Jones; Adam Schwartz

* With apologies to Charles Darwin, since that pernicious social policy owes its name to Herbert Spencer. 

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