American Literature and the Catholic Faith

For these writers, all lovers of good literature should be thankful.

L to R: Orestes Brownson in 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1840, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868
L to R: Orestes Brownson in 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1840, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868 (photo: G.P.A. Healy / Charles Osgood / Julia Margaret Cameron / Public Domain)

It’s difficult to know where to start or finish in any discussion of the connection between American literature and the Catholic Faith. The whole topic is fraught with complexity, as is the relationship between the American nation and the Catholic Faith, or American history and the Catholic Faith. There are few American writers who are unashamedly or unabashedly Catholic, whereas there are many who have an ambivalent relationship with the Faith, sympathizing in some ways and yet keeping a safe distance. Others are converts whose embrace of the Faith radically transformed their very approach to life and literature. 

One such convert, who is often seen as the American equivalent of John Henry Newman insofar as his conversion was highly publicized and highly controversial, is Orestes Brownson (1803-76). An almost exact contemporary of Newman, Brownson converted to the Faith in 1844, a year before Newman took the same life-changing and life-giving step. Thereafter, like Newman, he became a tireless defender of the Faith and an outspoken controversialist on many topics, especially through his published essays in Brownson’s Quarterly Review.

Of the same generation as Brownson were two other major American writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), neither of whom were converts to the Faith but both of whom were attracted to what might be called the Catholic aesthetic. Hawthorne’s late work The Marble Faun is often seen as indicative of his sympathetic attitude towards the Church, and his short story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” conveys a timeless moral perspective entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching on original sin and concupiscence. An intriguing connection between Hawthorne and the Catholic Faith is the fact that his daughter, Rose, converted to the Faith, becoming a religious sister, whose charitable work has led to calls for her canonization. As Mother Mary Alphonsa, the name she took as Mother Superior of the order of Dominican Sisters she founded, she is now recognized by the Church as a Servant of God.

Longfellow, like Hawthorne, his lifelong friend, would never have countenanced conversion to Catholicism and yet his work, like Hawthorne’s, is often congruent with a Catholic aesthetic and sometimes displays implicit or even explicit Catholic sympathies. Nowhere is this more evident than in the marvelous narrative poem, Evangeline, in which the devoutly Catholic heroine searches for her true love, the man to whom she had been betrothed until they were forcefully separated on the eve of their wedding. And, of course, there is Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, indicative of his great admiration for Dante but also, surely, an indication of some level of sympathy and understanding of the Thomism which informs Dante’s work.

Of the following generation of American writers, Mark Twain (1835-1910) comes to mind as being preeminent. Like his literary predecessors, Twain would never have contemplated conversion but his masterful study of St. Joan of Arc shows a heart and mind enamored of the holy maid. Furthermore, Twain himself considered his fictional account of St. Joan’s life to be the best book he ever wrote:

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.

Unsurprisingly, his sympathetic account of a Catholic martyr has met with hostility from those who despise the Church. George Bernard Shaw vilified Twain for writing so sympathetically of the saint, and his pious approach to the subject continues to antagonize and bemuse Twain’s secular admirers. 

As with Mark Twain, nobody would suggest that Willa Cather (1873-1947) would ever have contemplated conversion. Yet, as with Twain, she wrote one of the most Catholic of novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop, an historical novel based on the real-life adventures of a pioneering priest in the Old West who would become the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico.   

No summary, however brief, of American literature and the Catholic Faith could omit to mention T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), albeit only a passing and cursory mention in this case; nor could it fail to mention the giant, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), a troubled convert whose works are nonetheless “Christ-haunted,” or the giantess, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), who coined the phrase “Christ-haunted” to describe the American South of which she wrote. Nor should such a summary, or literary roll of honor, omit Allen Tate (1899-1979) or Walker Percy (1916-90), though space-constraints restrict anything but a nod of deferential reverence in their direction.

Such are the eminenti and literati who have sought and found Catholic inspiration in their writing of American literature. Though they were in some cases not themselves believers, each has bestowed on American culture an edifying infusion of the true Faith. For this, all lovers of good literature should be thankful. Deo gratias!   

This article first appeared in the St. Austin Review and is republished with permission.