The Life You Save May Be Your Own Critical Essay

And”a matter very important to Elie”all four placed an extraordinarily high valuation upon the written and printed word as an avenue of spiritual inquiry.They were people who lived in and through books, in a way that is increasingly rare today.“ We are all skeptics now,” he writes, “believer and unbeliever alike.

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Instead, it merely proposes to gather together these four figures, linked by the common theme of pilgrimage, and relying on the charm of an engaging narrative style to carry the intellectual burden of cohesiveness.

But even the most winsome individual stories do not automatically weave themselves together into a larger whole; they require the loom of an argument to bring them into a more meaningful unity.

That brings me to a final concern, well expressed by one of the book’s blurbs, from the literary scholar Harold Bloom: “ As a work of the spirit, [ ] is universal and in no way sectarian.” Bloom of course meant this as praise, but I am not so sure that it should be taken thus.

It is entirely misleading to think of these four Catholics, all of them Catholic by fierce or passionate choice, as nonsectarian pilgrims.

If it remains the case that this Catholic strain is best understood over the course of American history as a cultural foil, a counter to mainstream ideals of individualism and autonomy, then it has at least been a remarkably productive foil, one whose enriching acts deserve much more attention than the record has thus far accorded it.

Paul Elie’s sprawling, spirited, and immensely appealing book, , is a significant contribution to that record, though perhaps all the more effective for not being self-consciously intended as one. He has instead merely taken as his subject the lives and works of four twentieth-century American Catholic writers: the activist Dorothy Day, the monk Thomas Merton, and the Southern writers Flannery O’ Connor and Walker Percy.

Although no one would mistake for a work of Catholic apologetics, it is an unusually affirmative work, a splendid counter to the cynicism and obscurantism that have brought literary scholarship in present-day America to the point of ruin.

It is affirmative of its subjects, affirmative of their bookishness, affirmative of the possibilities of the written word, and affirmative of its subjects’ shared pilgrimage”the endless high-minded seeking that consumed their lives.

I did not, for example, find in Elie’s book any account of the early influences that helped make Dorothy Day and Flannery O’ Connor into such strange and formidable personalities; it all seems to emerge from nowhere, forming the “set” with which they make sense of subsequent experience.

Ultimately, it is a book about pilgrimage, and as the subtitle suggests, the pilgrimage is somehow the same for all of them.


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