Although my high school years coincided with the Age of Aquarius, I was spared the kind of reading lists that now imagine Dan (DaVinci Code) Brown to be a serious writer, or that ignore the great twentieth-century authors whose fiction reflects the Catholic sacramental imagination: Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh, to name just the all-stars. It’s virtually impossible to escape high school today without having to read Kurt Vonnegut’s vastly-overrated Slaughterhouse-Five; it’s entirely possible to spend four years studying English in a Catholic high school without ever having heard of Death Comes for the Archbishop (and yes, I know Willa Cather wasn’t a Catholic, but the Catholic imagination permeates her fiction).
My English teacher from 1967 through 1969 was Father W. Vincent Bechtel: a holy terror, as we thought of him then, but a man I now revere for having thrown me into the deep end of the pool of Anglo-American literature. Father Bechtel had his intellectual quirks; a summer program at Johns Hopkins got him transiently infatuated with Freudian literary analysis, which led to some odd readings of Herman Melville (but later caused me to laugh out loud at the send-up of the Freudians in Fred Crewes’ masterful parody of trendy literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex). In the main, though, Father Bechtel was a classicist: there is a literary canon; educated people have read it, or at least read seriously in it; learning to appreciate the canon is part of becoming the trustee of a civilization. These days, kids may read two or three novels over the summer and another one or two during the school year. Under Father Bechtel’s tutelage (as I remember it now) or reign of terror (as I thought of it then), we read five or six novels during the summer and at least another half-dozen during the school year (not to mention plays, poetry, and short stories).
Shouldn’t everyone do high school English twice – the second time, when we’re old enough to appreciate it? My dog-eared copy of Paul Horgan’s Things As They Are – arguably the best novel ever written about boys growing up – testifies to the number of times I’ve returned to a masterpiece to which Father Bechtel first introduced me when I was fourteen or fifteen. Each time, I find a new insight; but would I have gone back to the book a second (much less tenth) time if Father Bechtel hadn’t planted the seed early? And please don’t get the impression that Father Bechtel was a stick-in-the-mud. He had us read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and the canonical American moderns: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson. At the same time, though, we were baptized by immersion into the Brontes, Conrad, Dickens, Hardy, Hawthorne, Henry James, the aforementioned Melville, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain.
I mention all this, not to skip down memory lane or repeat what Adam reportedly said to Eve on their way out of the garden (“Things just aren’t the way they used to be.”). Rather, I want to salute Chicago’s Loyola Press for its new series, “Loyola Classics,” which is bringing great novels forged by the Catholic imagination back into print. The first in the series, Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, took me back to a book I’d found saccharine in high school – but which I now found more intriguing. Others include Rumer Godden’s marvelous novel of vocation, In This House of Brede; Evelyn Waugh’s Helena (for which I had the honor of providing an introduction); Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate (written two decades before the author sadly slipped into a terminal case of liberal bitterness); Nikos Kazantzakis’s St. Francis (demonstrating how catholic the Loyola Classics consider the “Catholic novel”); and John R. Powers neatly named Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? The plan is to do eight books a year – which, over time, will introduce a lot of great books to a new generation of readers.
So: Catholic educators, take notice! Dan Brown certainly isn’t all there is, and neither is Kurt Vonnegut. And remember – from the other side, Father Bechtel is watching.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.