Paul Elie is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the director of the American Pilgrimage Project, a university partnership with StoryCorps based in the Berkley Center. His work deals primarily with the ways religious ideas are given expression in literature, the arts, music, and culture in the broadest sense. In the American Pilgrimage Project he examines the ways religious beliefs inform the experiences of the American people at crucial moments in their lives. Elie is also the moderator of Georgetown's Faith and Culture Series, a series of public conversations about the interaction of religion, art, literature, and society. He is the author of two books. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) is a group portrait of four twentieth-century Catholic writers (Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day). Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) chronicles the transformation of Bach's music through recording technology in the hands of great musicians (Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Glenn Gould, Yo-Yo Ma, et al.). Both books were National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, and The Life You Save May Be Your Own received the PEN / Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, a Christopher Award, and two Modern Language Association book prizes.
For years, working for Alice McDermott’s publisher, sharing an editor with her, and anchoring separate tables at Commonweal magazine’s anniversary dinners, I have seen her as something like a more accomplished relative—a person I see at social functions, and so imagine I know, and familiarly, but always wish I knew better. So I was thrilled to have the chance to sit in Riggs Library and pose a few questions to her and hear her replies—which were often startling in their definiteness and eloquence.
I could comment on just about any point in our conversation, but one in particular has stuck with me. Following on an exchange about the role Catholicism plays in her work, Alice stepped back from the question of Catholic subject matter to suggest that her work is Catholic in that it is shaped by her conviction—one she attributes to her Catholic faith—that every one of her characters is unique and uniquely valuable, a child of God. This was a striking insight in all sorts of ways. It broke the link between an author’s material and her point of view, moving the discussion away from the faith of the people in her fiction. It defied a longstanding critical suspicion of authorial intent, affirming that the author’s view of her characters was crucial to her creation of the work and our understanding of it. And it leapfrogged over much of a century’s debate about the nature of literary realism, suggesting that for McDermott realism has its basis not in writerly tropes or readerly credulity but in the author’s conviction that her characters are not only real to her but are something like objectively so—characters seen as valuable in the sight of God in such a way that (she hopes) pervades their presence on the page.
That is a very powerful conception of the novel and the novelist’s work. But it led me back to the question that has lurked in my encounter with McDermott’s work since the beginning. I remember reading once in an interview that she disliked novels in which “Catholicism is a problem.” The suggestion is that hers are novels in which Catholicism is not a problem, but part of the substrate of things, as Peter Manseau suggests. There is plenty to support that view. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that I was so struck by that comment because, in my reading of Alice’s work, Catholicism is a problem. It is a problem for the reader—for this reader—if not for the writer or her characters. Here’s how. As a writer who grew up in the suburbs in the shadow of Vatican II, I can hardly imagine that there was ever a place so thoroughly Catholic as the Catholic Brooklyn depicted in novels about mid-century. And if I can hardly imagine it, what of the readers with no religious experience or sympathy? Can Catholicism really have been so all-encompassing or pervasive? And if it was, it’s the gap between that experience of faith and the one more familiar in our time that animates my reading of the work. It leaves me agitated—agitated by the rigidities of that great program for human uniqueness and by the long, jagged arc from the Catholic inheritance as so many people so clearly knew it then and as so many of us know it today.
Alice’s account of her conviction that her characters are unique and uniquely valuable stirs me up further. There is, shall we say, a pretty tight hermeneutic circle in her work. The characters believe in the God-given uniqueness of everybody; the author believes this; and readers, if they have found the novel credible, on some level come away believing this. It leads me to ask—to ask myself, since it is question for my own writing, not hers: What happens when (as in the case in my own work, both fiction and nonfiction) that circle is not so tight? How can that conviction about God-given human uniqueness be extended out into situations where it is not shared by the characters, or even entertained by the characters themselves—into situations where religious belief takes many forms, and mingles with every shade of disbelief, often in a single character? How to mind the gap between the Catholic past and the heterogeneous present, and how to depict this world as vividly as that one? How is belief made believable when characters, reader, and even author are habitually inclined to disbelieve?