Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
PROVIDENCE — Professor Anthony Esolen has thought deeply about the connections between excellence in literature and the cultural renewal of America. For a long time, he has fought a battle on the campus of Providence College, where he holds a tenure as an English professor, for a Catholic worldview that values cultural diversity anchored in truth and virtue, against a politically-inspired moral diversity that he believes homogenizes culture by celebrating mediocrity to the exclusion of Christian civilization’s wide patrimony of letters and learning.
In this interview with the National Catholic Register, Esolen explains in his own words why he decided to leave Providence College behind. The esteemed translator of The Divine Comedy, and recent author of Out of the Ashes: Restoring American Culture, will soon commence a new chapter at the Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where he will have a hand in establishing its new Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture.
Why are you leaving a tenured position as a literature professor at Providence College for a faculty position at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts?
First, because Thomas More College is a sound and sweet and wise place that deserves the prayers, the attention, and the support, financial and otherwise, of every Catholic who wishes to see culture — the real thing, not its mass-produced counterfeit — restored in America; culture in general, and a vibrant Catholic life in particular. I came home recently from a day at Thomas More College, full of good cheer and energy, and for somebody who isn’t getting younger, those can take you a long way. They can add many years to your life as a teacher, whereas discouragement and disappointment lead to exhaustion.
Second, it is a great opportunity, because of the center for cultural renewal that the college has begun; it is as if they had read my mind, or I had read their minds, when I wrote my book, Out of the Ashes: Restoring American Culture. That’s not just for me but for my family too. A large and necessarily bureaucratic institution, run by lawyers, is no easy place for your spouse and your children to enter into a real community and to offer their gifts for the college and the common good. A small but telling example: my son is a student of the pipe organ, and we’d asked if he could come to Providence with me sometimes to practice at the big organ in the chapel, when it is not being used. Permission denied. My daughter would very much like to introduce young people to classic films, especially those that are Christian in spirit; the works of John Ford and Frank Capra, for example. Doing so at a large institution run by lawyers would be like tunneling through Mount Everest. We are eager to begin that educational enterprise at Thomas More College, in the new center.
Third, I find that being around people filled with the faith strengthens me in my own faith, and there is the considerable advantage of having daily Mass being offered at a time when no classes are scheduled, followed by lunch, when you have a chance of sitting with anybody and everybody.
You had a long-running battle within Providence College regarding its direction as a Catholic institution. What was the decisive turning point that led you to set that battle aside, and pursue this new course?
I could live with a somewhat Catholic school that was really committed to the humanities, such as we were for many years. I could live with an unreservedly Catholic school where the humanities needed shoring up. But to live at a used-to-be-Catholic school no longer committed to the humanities, where all the big decisions are basically secular in their inspiration and their aim, on a campus that is highly politicized and therefore treacherous — no, that’s not for someone of my years. I wrote, 10 years ago, that we had never really lost our identity, and what we had lost we were well on the way to recover. I could not write those words now. That is not to say that Providence College is lost. There are still many excellent people there, Catholics and others who are friendly to the faith even when they do not share it, and friendly to the humanities. But saving the school is no longer my battle.
The turning point came when the president refused to meet with a small group of Catholic professors, and persuaded the Dominican provincial not to meet with us either.
And what can you do against slander and detraction? Stand on a stump and shout your innocence to all passersby?
In your new book Out of the Ashes, you state that new colleges and universities have an opportunity to rebuild American culture. How exactly do you see Thomas More College playing a role in building a new American society?
At Thomas More College, students are meant to be surrounded by beauty and sanity; the whole human being, not disembodied chunks of him, is the focus of the education. Therefore, they rejoice when young men and young women do what they used to do, what in all healthy cultures they have done: to fall in love and to marry. There will be none of the rat poison of the Sexual Revolution — the Lonely Revolution — there.
Gabriel Marcel [the French Christian philosopher and playwright] said long ago that it was the duty of the sane man, the Christian man, to set himself apart from the mass society and against it, because the mass society bids fair to devour humanity itself. Thomas More College lives out Marcel’s wisdom. Every family you raise against that mass society is a castle of sanity and health in an age of confusion and disease. And from out of those sane graduates, there may arise some who will actually be what the mass-educators claim to produce: leaders in thought, art, public affairs, and the Church.
What do you hope to bring as a professor to Thomas More College’s academics and common life? When do you start and what classes will you be teaching?
I’ll be starting in the fall, with the regular course of study they have for all students. I imagine I’ll be assisting in introducing freshmen to the ancient world, and how to write like human beings and not machines. Most of all I’ll be learning again from my colleagues! What I bring [is] what I’ve brought here at Providence: a love for art and poetry and the best of human wisdom, and the trust that such things can bring us into the precincts of the divine; not into the sanctuary itself, but into the neighborhood. And that is no small thing that they can do.
Thank you so much, Professor Esolen. While you make this transition to Thomas More College, are there any upcoming projects that you could tell us about?
Yes. The poet and professor Dana Gioia, former head of the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], has written that Christians need to reclaim their rightful heritage in the arts. So I’ve turned my hand again to poetry — what, other than translation, I’d mostly set aside for twenty five years. It’s a very large project, extremely intricate, and nearly done. So far, I’ve considered the title to be Centuries of Grace. I may change my mind about that. I won’t say anything more specific about it yet, except that there will be no free verse! And there will be forms of verse, many and various, that have pretty much lain unregarded for too long.