I once asked the novelist and Thomistic philosopher Ralph McInerny why the Catholic renaissance of mid-century America collapsed so suddenly. The nation had lacked a strong tradition of Catholic writing through much of its history, but then such work as the fiction of John O’Hara and the prose of Thomas Merton seemed to open a floodgate. The early poetry of Robert Lowell, that surprising first novel from Walker Percy, anything by Flannery O’Connor, the stories of J.F. Powers: From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, Catholic writers writing on Catholic themes occupied a vital place in the literary culture of the United States.
And then suddenly, they didn’t. A few holdovers survived past the mid-1960s, but for the most part the Catholic literary renaissance vanished even more abruptly than it had arrived. The writers weren’t writing those books much, their audiences weren’t reading them, and the critics turned away, with a sigh of relief, and began seeking elsewhere for seriousness in literature.
So, given the opportunity, I thought Ralph McInerny the perfect person to ask about it. After all, his first novels—from Jolly Rogerson (1967) to The Priest (1973)—were very much in the old renaissance line, before he turned his hand to the lighter literature of detective fiction with his first Father Dowling mystery in 1977. Mary Gordon, Jon Hassler, Ron Hansen, Paul Mariani, for that matter: There were a handful of younger American Catholics who also began publishing literary works in the 1970s. Why didn’t they join McInerny and carry the tradition on through another generation? Good as they often were, successful as they sometimes proved, they did not find a great deal of what the writers of the Catholic renaissance had known: a combination of general audience and critical acclaim precisely for the moral seriousness that their Catholicism seemed to provide.
I expected in answer something about the changes of Vatican II. Something about the sociological shift that melted away the ethnic identities of the Irish, Italians, and Poles. Something about the "crabgrass frontier," as it used to be called, luring people away from the tight urban neighborhoods and out to the suburbs. Instead, all Ralph offered as explanation was a single line: "We just weren’t good enough."
Any account of Catholic literature over the past 50 years has to start with that line of Ralph McInerny’s. That doesn’t mean that McInerny was right, of course, and several estimable critics would say that he was wrong. Thus, for example, Gregory Wolfe, the editor of Image magazine, has long insisted that Catholic fiction belongs at the forefront of contemporary literature. Dana Gioia, the poet and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts, has argued that only a kind of self-defeating nostalgia keeps us from recognizing the good work now being done. Still, the faltering of the Catholic renaissance requires explanation. What did cause the strange disappearance of the critical literary sense that Catholicism gave its authors some unique power of moral seriousness?
Consider the case of Alice McDermott, who must be judged a very fine writer in any company—including the company of the writers of the 1940s and ’50s. Her 1992 At Weddings and Wakes, for example, was a very delicately constructed tale of three generations of Irish Catholics in Brooklyn, as seen through the eyes of the family’s children. Her 1997 Charming Billy, winner of the National Book Award, told the story of an Irish man slowly drinking himself to death in New York.
McDermott’s specialty is an eye for the key domestic detail that serves both as a symbol for the novel’s greater purposes and as an illumination of the social situation of her characters. And so, for example, her latest novel, The Ninth Hour, is in some ways a novel mostly about laundry. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, an active order of nuns in 1900 New York, serve the Catholic underclass of Brooklyn. And serving often means the most menial of tasks: feeding, clothing, and washing those too weak to take care of themselves. "Down here," as Sister Illuminata tells a girl in the nunnery’s laundry room, "we do our best to transform what is ugly, soiled, stained, don’t we? We send it back into the world like a resurrected soul. We’re like the priest in his confessional, aren’t we?"
The Ninth Hour opens with a suicide, as a young father gasses himself to death in a cheap New York apartment. Walking on the sidewalk, Sister St. Saviour sees the hubbub of police and neighbors the suicide has caused—and is unable to pass by. She steps in to clean up the mess, including finding shelter for Annie, the pregnant widow and a soon-to-be-born daughter Sally.
The story of Sally, brought up in a convent’s laundry room, is told by her own children, looking back at the years gone by. Sally thinks of becoming a nun, but eventually settles on marrying Patrick, another child of the neighborhood. The story follows the ups and downs of the family, the ebbs and flows of faith among the 20th-century Catholics, and the rise and decline of the old New York ethnic world. But through it all, McDermott keeps her sharp eye focused on the earthiest of details: the filth of laundry, the heat of cooking, the stench of nursing—all the way down to the "feral smell of death."
And this earthiness is what allows McDermott her conclusion about the human condition. "Love’s a tonic," she writes, but "not a cure." Even while the characters, like the author herself, express doubts about the Church and the salvation, they recognize that life needs something more than itself. The earthly is both real and symbolic—a demand for a universe in which we have the possibility to reach beyond the natural to the supernatural.
Alice McDermott’s books win literary awards like prizes at a church raffle, and The Ninth Hour will undoubtedly prove no exception. The book certainly deserves recognition as one of the year’s great artistic accomplishments. But it is, like so much of her work, a tale of a world gone by: a looking backward at what we no longer have, good and bad, rather than an account of the present or a promise of the future.
The consequence is that The Ninth Hour, powerful as it is, and Alice McDermott, wonderful as she is, are not moving us toward an answer to the question of the Catholic novel in our own literary moment. Ralph McInerny’s self-deprecation won’t apply to McDermott’s prose. Her writing clearly is good enough. But The Ninth Hour won’t have the impact or the importance of the Catholic works of the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a social novel, more than a theological one, and its sense of time past makes it, like so much of Alice McDermott’s work, a throwback. It remains an account of how we were, not how we are.