Published January 30, 2006
Although my years at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School coincided with the cultural meltdown of the Age of Aquarius, I was happily spared the kind of English-class reading lists with which students (and parents) are now afflicted. It’s virtually impossible to escape any high school today without having been compelled to read Kurt Vonnegut’s vastly overrated Slaughterhouse-Five or Mitch Albom’s treacly Tuesdays with Morrie; worse, it’s entirely possible to spend four years in a Catholic high school without ever having heard of, much less read, the great twentieth-century authors whose fiction reflects the Catholic sacramental imagination: Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, to name just the all-stars. There’s some serious cheating going on here.
Things were rather different in 1967, 1968, and 1969, when my English teacher was Father W. Vincent Bechtel: a holy terror, as my classmates and I thought of him then, but a man whose memory I now revere. Why? Because he threw me into the deep end of the pool of Anglo-American literature and told me, in so many words, to start swimming.
Father Bechtel had occasional intellectual quirks. A summer program at the Johns Hopkins University English department got him transiently infatuated with Freudian literary analysis, which, as I recall, led to some odd readings of Herman Melville (who is odd enough in his own right). But even that crotchet of Father Bechtel’s was to my ultimate benefit, for the memory of it caused me to laugh out loud years later at Frederick Crews’s send-up of the Freudians in his masterful parody of trendy literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex. In the main, though, Father Bechtel was a classicist. He knew, as a matter of self-evident truth, that there was an Anglo-American literary canon. He believed that educated people should have read it, or should at least have read seriously in it. And he somehow planted in me the seed of the conviction that knowing and 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.
Please don’t get the impression that Father Bechtel was a stick-in-the-mud, though. He had us read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and the canonical American moderns: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams. At the same time, though, we were baptized by immersion into Jane Austen, the Brontës, Conrad, Dickens, Hardy, Hawthorne, Henry James, the aforementioned Melville, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. All of which leads to the thought, hardly original, that everyone really ought to do high school English twice: the second time, when we’re old enough to appreciate it.
Paul Horgan, whom almost no one remembers today, was one of the modern American writers to whom Father Bechtel introduced me. It was an introduction for which I’ve been grateful for the past forty years, for, in his day, Horgan was the embodiment of that seemingly now-extinct species, the “man of letters.” He won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in history for his epic study of four cultures in the American Southwest, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Twenty-one years later, in 1976, he won the Pulitzer again, this time for Lamy of Santa Fe, a magisterial biography of the émigré French prelate and pioneer who was Willa Cather’s model in Death Comes for the Archbishop. (In preparing his Lamy biography, Horgan was allowed unprecedented access to the Secret Archives of the Vatican, thanks to a personal intervention by Pope John XXIII; the tale is nicely told in Tracings, a 1993 collection of some of Horgan’s more memorable occasional pieces.) Horgan wrote sparkling, insightful essays and autobiographical reminiscences of events and people, including such literary giants as Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot, and Edmund Wilson; the devastatingly acerbic but nonetheless charming Washington hostess, Alice Roosevelt Longworth; and his friend Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer. All in all, he published fifteen novels, seven books of short stories, eighteen volumes of essays, a volume of clerihews, a book of watercolors and drawings, and the libretto for a folk opera.
Born in Buffalo in 1903, he moved with his Irish-German family in 1915 to New Mexico, where the climate was thought to be better for his father’s health. He was a cadet at the New Mexico Military Institute from 1919 to 1921, and then from 1922 to 1923. There, he met his lifelong friend, the prominent Southwestern artist Peter Hurd; and there he would work as librarian until joining the U.S. Army in World War II. The New Mexico years stuck with Paul Horgan in various senses of the term. Thus, insofar as Horgan figures in American literary studies today, it is as a “regional” writer: a literary craftsman who drew his materials from the Southwest and whose writing reflects a certain regional cast of mind. The first part of which is, at least in part, true enough, for many of Horgan’s short stories and several of his novels are set in west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and both his histories and his fiction reflect a fascination with the interaction of Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American cultures in that unique, and uniquely beautiful, corner of the United States. Thus the first Horgan novel Father Bechtel had us read was set in Arizona at the end of the U.S. cavalry’s struggle to pacify the territory; A Distant Trumpet is a just and fair portrait of the virtues and vices of Apaches, cavalrymen, and settlers, and a moving study of the meaning of manliness and leadership (it’s been one of my standard confirmation/bar mitzvah gifts for years).
On the other hand, Paul Horgan’s literary sensibility and the distinctive cast of mind that shapes his work can’t be captured in regional terms alone. By his own testimony, he was a product of the culture to which his family of writers, artists, and musicians had first introduced him in the Northeast before their move to Albuquerque: as he once wrote, “I…derived most of my education informally from the cultural expressions best exemplified in the intellectual and artistic life of the East and of Europe, and I have been concerned with people without regard…to the ‘typical’ character imposed on either [the] eastern or western environment by other writers and observers.” The interaction of cultures that he experienced in his own life and that he explored in his histories and his novels gave Horgan an insight into the universality of certain human affairs, temptations, and virtues. And, of course, another word for “universal” is “catholic” – as in “Catholic.”
Paul Horgan did not wear his faith on his literary sleeve, so to speak. But it is impossible to read Things As They Are without quickly recognizing the Catholic sensibility that permeates the book. At the most obvious level, Richard (the protagonist whose experiences mirror the young Horgan’s) and his parents are manifestly Catholic in their belief and practice. Structurally, the book resembles Death Comes for the Archbishop, another “collection” of medieval-type vignettes that still holds together as a coherent novel (call those vignettes “miracle stories,” if you’ve a broad understanding of the miraculous). But the Catholicity of Horgan’s creation in this exquisitely crafted book is more than a matter of certain characteristics with which he invests his principal characters, or the literary structure of the work. It’s a matter of a sensibility, an angle of vision, a way of seeing things – of seeing “things as they are,” because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary. Seeing “things as they are” is, in other words, the way to detect the divine at work in the human and the mundane.
Horgan’s literary style is about as far away from Flannery O’Connor’s as can be imagined. Yet much of Horgan’s fiction, and especially Things As They Are, is an expression of O’Connor’s “habit of being:” that spiritual intuition that allows us to see life, not simply as one damn thing after another, but as a dramatic arena of temptation and fortitude, creation and redemption, sinfulness and grace – a cosmic drama being played out here and now, a drama in which God is producer, scriptwriter, director, and, ultimately, protagonist. Like O’Connor (and despite the fact that he grew up in a time of saccharine devotional piety), Paul Horgan knew that there is nothing less sentimental than Catholicism, because Catholicism is realism. And he knew the reason why Catholicism is realism: because it is through the Incarnation, a real event at a real time in a real place, that God’s unsentimental, cleansing, and all-powerful love is decisively revealed – the divine mercy that is, according to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the defining characteristic of God’s interaction with the world. Catholic realism doesn’t deny “things as they are.” Catholic realism doesn’t deny the temptations of what an older generation called “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Catholic realism confronts the world, the flesh, and the devil in the confidence that, as Christ has conquered, so, by the divine mercy and grace, may the people who are Christ’s Body in history.
Those confrontations, as experienced in the life of a sensitive and intelligent boy, set the narrative rhythm of Things As They Are. Childhood, Paul Horgan understands, is anything but carefree; “guilt,” as he puts it, is the “first knowledge,” as remembering is the beginning of the stirrings of conscience. Thus young Richard confronts the classic temptations – of power, of ego, of false pride, of self-delusion, of ambition, of sex, of an overwrought piety that seeks to force God’s hand – not in rollicking adventures like Tom Sawyer’s or Huck Finn’s, but in his utterly unremarkable and ordinary encounters with his parents and relatives, his friends, his pets, his parish and his priests, the tradesmen who come to his home and the families in his neighborhood. There is nothing sentimental or cloying here. There is, on the contrary, an acute, unsparing, yet sympathetic spiritual excavation of the process of growing up – a process that, as Horgan demonstrates in the two novels that continue the Richard Trilogy (Everything To Live For and The Thin Mountain Air), continues long after childhood.
In a letter to a friend, Flannery O’Connor once reflected on her own literary experience and that of the Catholic convert and novelist, Carolyn Gordon Tate: “I have never had the sense that being a Catholic is a limit to the freedom of the writer, but just the reverse. Mrs. Tate told me that after she became a Catholic, she felt she could use her eyes and accept what she saw for the first time, [that] she didn’t have to make a new universe for each book but could take the one she found.” I’ve no idea whether Paul Horgan knew Carolyn Gordon Tate, but the ten episodes in Things As They Are demonstrate a cradle-Catholic’s complete agreement with a convert-Catholic’s experience: there is no need to “invent a universe” in fiction, for an invented universe typically becomes an author’s sandbox or playpen. The real universe – what we see and hear and feel and taste and experience – is adventure enough. It was adventure enough for the God who created it, redeemed it, and continually sanctifies it; it should be adventure enough for us, because amid the seemingly quotidian there are cosmic contests underway.
Prior to his death in 1995 at age 93 (he had left the Southwest in 1959 to teach and write at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut), Paul Horgan was never known as a “Catholic writer,” in the sense that J.F. Powers (Morte D’Urban) was known as a “Catholic writer” or Chaim Potok (The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev) was thought of as a “Jewish writer.” Yet an argument can be made that Paul Horgan was the most accomplished “Catholic man of letters” in mid-twentieth century America. Not because his fiction and his historical studies dealt over and over again with “Catholic” characters and situations (which they didn’t) but because his remarkably wide-ranging corpus of work is shaped, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, by an unmistakably Catholic sensibility: a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama. Paul Horgan was too gifted a writer to beat you over the head with that message. It was almost always there, though, as this gifted, learned, and deeply humane novelist, essayist, and historian kept reminding his readers that seeing things as they are is the index of human maturity – and thus of Christian maturity.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.