THE CATHOLIC WRITER TODAY AND OTHER ESSAYS
By Dana Gioia
220 pages, $25
The poet Dana Gioia is on a mission rallying Catholics today to reclaim the arts.
“For years I’ve pondered a cultural and social paradox that diminishes the vitality and diversity of the American arts. ... Stated simply, the paradox is that, 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.”
So starts Gioia’s essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” which appeared in First Things in December 2013 and was rightly hailed as a classic. It is a perceptive summation of Catholic arts today as well as a practical call to action for Catholic artists. Now it forms part of the beautifully presented collection of Gioia’s essays from Wiseblood Books entitled: The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays.
Born in 1950, Gioia was baptized and raised a Catholic in working-class Los Angeles. The first person in his family to attend college, he received a B.A. and MBA from Stanford and an M.A. from Harvard in comparative literature. For 15 years he worked in corporate America before quitting, at age 41, to follow his dream of becoming a full-time writer. He went on to become chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003-09) and California’s poet laureate (2015). Today Gioia is an internationally acclaimed poet and writer who is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, as well as a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, a Christian-based educational organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.
The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays is divided into three parts. The first section includes The Catholic Writer Today and five other essays on poets. Some of the poets discussed are famous: John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins; others less so: Dunstan Thompson and William Everson; and one cruelly neglected: Elizabeth Jennings. Gioia’s writing about poets and their craft is impressive. In these penetrating essays he is able to encompass a life story and document key elements in each writer’s struggle to bring to light the poetic gift entrusted to them.
The greatest compliment one can pay to Gioia’s writing here is that it makes you want to read the poets of whom he writes. He has a natural ability to educate and enthuse — talents no doubt well honed by many years of teaching. In addition, it is obvious that he is a poet in love with his craft and so empathetic to the personal battle of each of his subjects that his creative gift has gratefully borne much fruit: the kind that can help sustain Catholicism’s “positive presence” in culture.
The book’s second section comprises two interviews with Gioia: the first was given in 2006 and appeared in Christianity and Literature; the second was granted to Image in 2012. In these interviews, Gioia comes across as a man who is equally at ease speaking about his own life experiences as about the artistic world he inhabits. This comfort and dexterity emerges, whether Gioia is discussing his interest in genres other than poetry, such as novels, other art forms such as music, or his Catholic faith.
“I was raised by Italian and Mexican Catholics and attended Catholic schools for twelve years. I attended daily Mass and studied religion, church history, and theology. I learned Church Latin before Classical Latin and can still read the Latin Bible with ease. Catholicism is in my DNA — my ethnicity and my upbringing. I refuse to join the ranks of ex-Catholics, who so slavishly follow intellectual fashion as part of upward mobility. My sympathies are with the poor and the faithful — the people who raised me. No genteel Ivy League agnostic is going to shame me into renouncing my working-class Latin identity and heritage.”
The third part of the book comprises five essays of an eclectic nature. Subject matter ranges from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians to the nature of Christian martyrdom in the modern age; from the painter George Tooker to the sculpture of Luis Tapia; it concludes with a memoir of growing up in the 1950s-60s in Los Angeles.
Needless to say, with such a variety of subjects one would be hard-pressed not to find something pertinent and illuminating in The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays. Moving across diverse subject matter, Gioia writes clearly, concretely and concisely with a wise eloquence. Undoubtedly Gioia has thought long and hard about the subjects of which he has chosen to write. One characteristic marks all the essays, though: the writing is superb, particularly so in the case of Elizabeth Jennings:
“The ordinary nature of Jennings’s background is crucial in understanding her extraordinary place in English Catholic letters. Born Catholic, she eschewed the personal dramas of conversion that preoccupied many of her Romanized contemporaries. She likewise lacked the visionary fervor of the mystics. Jennings is the poet of quotidian spirituality — a real woman living in real places touched by divine grace. Her religious sense was never detached from her physical senses. Her adult reawakening occurred in Rome, where Christian history took material shape in churches and shrines. The sacred spaces spoke to her soul. Her renewed faith was never fussy and self-dramatizing but a quiet and joyful return to her core identity. One anecdote from her time in Rome illustrates her commonsensical approach. As she climbed the Scala Santa on her knees, Jennings remembered a skeptical priest who doubted that the ancient steps were actually the stairs from Pontius Pilate’s praetorium, which Christ had mounted to stand trial. It didn’t matter, she decided; authentic or not, the shrine was ‘hallowed by centuries of penitence.’”
The standout essay, for me, remains the one that gives the collection its name: The Catholic Writer Today. This essay is part historical inquiry; part assessment of the Catholic artist today; part a rallying call to Catholic creativity, especially in the United States. The essay begins with an historical overview of the arts in America through a Catholic lens and how, as Gioia sees it, this “Catholic moment” in America peaked, both in their visibility and in receiving appreciative public acknowledgement, between the years 1945 and 1965. During this time there were artists who were Catholic, identified as such, and who were equal if not superior in their artistic work to their secular peers. For example, a shortlist of some Catholic authors writing in English during that period illustrates the point: Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Walker Percy, J.R.R. Tolkien and Anthony Burgess. Indeed, between 1945 and 1965 Catholic writers received no less than 11 Pulitzer Prizes and five National Book Awards. These were not Catholic artists speaking narrowly to their co-religionists. These were Catholic artists leading — and feted by — the mainstream.
So what went wrong? And how do we begin again? Gioia is not in the business of sterile lamentation. Instead, having analyzed the historical situation and acknowledging the fact that there is no comparable Catholic artistic presence today, he moves to suggest ways to inspire Catholic artists now, before concluding with a call for a spiritually inspired cultural “renovation”:
“If the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the big city. … It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition. Starting the renovation may seem like a daunting task. But as soon as one place is rebuilt, someone else will already be at work next door, and gradually the whole city begins to reshape itself around you. Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay to have the right home.”