The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage
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The story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God
In the mid-twentieth century four American Catholics came to believe that the best way to explore the questions of religious faith was to write about them-in works that readers of all kinds could admire. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is their story-a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker in New York; Flannery O'Connor a "Christ-haunted" literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them-the School of the Holy Ghost-and for three decades they exchanged letters, ardently read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a "predicament shared in common."
A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story; and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own Paul Elie tells these writers' story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms the faithful could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change-to save-our lives.
recognized that the people of her part of Georgia were kin to the outsize figures in the Bible. An orphan, a survivor of tuberculosis, a descendant of illustrious melancholics, Percy saw himself as a searcher after life’s meaning, like the characters the existentialists wrote about, and he quietly slipped out of the harness of his family history to live in a small town and write fiction, testing his philosophy with his life. Already, they saw themselves as representative figures, whose concerns
the swift and vivid public gesture more than the unspectacular work of showing poor people hospitality. So did Day’s desire to make an impression on the stranger, the ordinary Godfearing patriotic American. So did Ammon Hennacy, who had a calling to direct action as Day had a calling to poverty. A war resister from the Southwest, slight and bristlehaired as a Beckett character, he moved to New York in 1951 to live at St. Joseph’s House. Shortly afterward he became a Catholic. But his real
identification.” Reading “The Man on the Train,” you think: “No wonder the poor guy couldn’t write a decent novel, with all that philosophy stuffed into his head!” There is something to this. Percy was burdened with self-consciousness (escaping it is the theme of his later essays). But “The Man on the Train” is part of the solution, not the problem. However philosophy may have clogged his fiction, his experience of writing fiction was the source of the essay; and underneath its surface clatter
concluding in London. That last night he sat drinking champagne in a bar in Oxford Circus with a college friend. Once he was drunk he staggered away from the bar to phone his guardian one last time. But first he tried to remember the telephone number—he could not—of a woman he knew in London. The pregnancy would have been coming to term, and Merton left England with the assumption that he would soon have a son or daughter there. Through his guardian’s intercession he would be free to begin a new
Foote spoke with Faulkner. In New York the next fall, he began to see a psychoanalyst. He went for drinks with Harry Stack Sullivan, and shortly afterward started treatment with a disciple of Sullivan’s named Janet Rioch. Their sessions went on through the end of medical school, and the schedule he kept is remarkable: a fifty-minute hour, five days a week, plus a half-hour commute each way. Percy’s biographers discuss the treatment at length, conjecturing that Percy sought to explore the