Take Another Look at “The Cardinal”, a Forgotten Catholic Bestseller

William Ewart Lockhart, "Cardinal of Rheims" (1876)
William Ewart Lockhart, "Cardinal of Rheims" (1876) (photo: Screenshot)

James Joyce’s inscrutable Finnegans Wake is now so much a part of the collective canon of literature in English—or any language, as it is a compendium of really all languages, as well as an invention of Joyce’s own—that it is worth remembering that when it first appeared in 1939, it was not as warmly-welcomed (or notoriously greeted) as Joyce’s previous masterpiece, Ulysses, in 1922 which had the promotional benefit of being banned for “obscenity”, which always helps sell books.

Part of that mild reception for Finnegans Wake was bad timing: World War II was about to break out, the Spanish Civil was proving that something worse than The Great War was definitely on the way, and Joyce’s own health was failing fast, as was that of his beloved, and insane daughter, Lucia. Joyce, who was by this point almost totally blind, would be dead in less than two years, aged 59.

Finnegans Wake was received—it can hardly have been said to have been “read”—coolly, if at all. The fact that it was practicably unreadable didn’t help its cause, either.

However, two scholar-friends, Henry Morton Robinson and Joseph Campbell set about explicating Joyce’s “neverending masterbeast” in just five short years with the publication of their A Skeleton Key To Finnegans Wake (Viking, 1944). Though their book never satisfied hard-core Joycean-scholars the way it later satisfied true-believers in Joseph Campbell’s “Power-Of-Myth”, it was a pretty impressive original reading of The Wake.

Joseph Campbell, of course, went on to give new life not only to Joyce, but to Carl Gustav Jung, and all things Mythological, culminating in the late 1980s PBS series hosted by Bill Moyers.

But what of his co-author, Henry Morton Robinson?

In 1950 Robinson actually wrote a #1 best-selling novel that Time decreed was “The year’s most popular book, fiction or non-fiction”: The Cardinal. The book was such a huge hit that renowned director Otto Preminger made it into an Oscar-nominated film starring Tom Tryon, John Huston (in one of his few acting role where he didn’t direct), a very young Ossie Davies, Burgess Meredith (who seems was never young), and the stunning Romy Schneider. The movie isn’t exactly as “good” as the book—but I often find comparing movies-based-on-books a lot like comparing a sculpture to a ballet: they are really two different and discrete works of art, and both are enjoyable in their own ways.

The book and movie have been mentioned in NCR in passing (2009 and 2013), but given its 65th birthday this year, and the fact that The Cardinal has been re-released both in e-book format and in paperback by The Overlook Press (Simon & Schuster published the original), it is worth a look back at this American-Catholic classic—a notably small group, this.

By 1950 novelists had a choice about how to construct a novel: you could either write it in a pre-Joycean way, that is, with a discernible beginning/middle/end, or one could throw all that out and write an avant-garde piece, since authors like Joyce, Faulkner and Woolf had shown that the traditional structure of the novel was now open to debate.

Robinson, who had spent the better part of a decade studying Joyce, decided on the former: HIS epic bildungsroman—The Cardinal is almost 700 pages long—was not going to brook innovation, but rather harken back to the great novels that show the growth of the protagonist in a clearly recognizable, realizable, and believable way. The protagonist, Stephen Fermoyle, is as clear a character as they come.

However, having spent so many years explicating and investigating Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Robinson had an entirely new appreciation for language. Despite the popularity of The Cardinal it is a book rife with archaic, difficult, even recondite language. Part of this is due to the ecclesiastical nature of the subject matter, but Robinson is able to show the full sweep of his linguistic powers throughout and it’s tough for me to read more than ten pages without reaching for a dictionary.

Still, the book is written in a stilted, almost old-fashioned way:

“The recorder of minor annals, lay and ecclesiastic, making his entries for the Archdiocese of Boston as of Sunday, May 2, 1915, would have had a full but mixed book by sundown.”

Who on earth actually talks like this? However, this strange flavor, applied occasionally like vinegar on a this huge salad of a book, is actually stingingly refreshing.

In addition to the style of the book in general, and its lexicon in particular, the book takes in nearly any and all possible Social Justice and Church issues that are with us to this very day: abortion, ecclesiastical obedience, homosexuality in the priesthood, mental illness in the priesthood (one minor character wanders off, never to be seen again; another “goes melancholy”), end-of-life issues (care of a priest who has MS), a gruesome suicide of a failed monk, the influx of unwanted immigrants (in this case, Italians into Boston), hate-crimes in the Deep South against blacks and especially black-Catholics, anti-Catholic prejudice in politics—the real life New York Governor Alfred E. Smith makes a guest appearance-- the scourge of inner-city poverty, mixed marriages, premarital sex, artificial contraception, economic inequality, and the seemingly meaningless attempt at ecumenical dialogue, which is brilliantly summed up as:

“The formal resolutions of the Inter-Faith Convocation, published some months later, were unanimous only in agreeing that bigotry and intolerance, like the grade crossing and the man-eating shark, must be eliminated.”

However, this parade of real-life issues couched in a novel makes The Cardinal sound more moralistic and ham-fisted than it really is. Indeed, the book really reads: not for nothing did the book sell hundreds of thousands of copies—and it’s resurrection by the Overlook Press is a tribute to its perseverance. And the fact that ultimately it is a satisfying book that, in the words of Wallace Stevens, “provides pleasure.”

The book is said to be based “very loosely” on the life of Francis Cardinal Spellman. I don’t know enough about Spellman to say. Nor does it much matter. It is a work of fiction and I think readers wanting to find elements of Spellman’s life and career will either be rewarded or disappointed depending on what they are looking for. Maybe it’s best just to read and enjoy rather than chase images of who “might” represent whom in it…though the fictive Cardinal Giacobbi is pretty clearly a type of the very real Cardinal Gaspari.

However, like Dumas, Robinson deftly places real people (like Al Smith) in this fictional account of first half of the 20th century and pulls it off quite well: Eugenio Pacelli appears – and a rendering of his election to Supreme Pontiff is masterfully painted by Robinson in a way only a scholar of all things Catholic could have imagined. In another memorable scene, the sawdust-caesar Benito Mussolini meets with the Secretariat of State in what is a completely believable exchange. And Cardinal Merry del Val makes a guest-appearance as a juggler and reciter of Horace.

No doubt that detractors of The Cardinal will say it paints an all too rosy picture of the Church and especially its hierarchy. However, the main character, Stephen Fermoyle, is, for all of his super-priest abilities, quite human, which is maybe what made him so likeable to so many readers: his believability. Neither is the supporting cast two-dimensional (though in the movie version they tend to be): from the local-boy-made-papal-knight to Stephen’s family, all Irish, voluble and Catholics, you can kind of see your own parish, if not your family in a time-machine in this book.

I’m always leery of novelist’s “Prefaces” or worse, endnotes. Robinson thankfully spares us any notes, but he does provide a two page “Author’s Foreword”. The last part of it is worth quoting at length and I hope it will help spur those who have not read this book to dip into its deep, but refreshing waters:

“The reader may be interested to know that I [Henry Morton Robinson] am, and always have been, a Roman Catholic. Whether or not I am a “good” Catholic is surely a matter between me and my Creator. I never aspired to be a priest. As a writer, I was struck long ago by wonder and awe at the priest’s function. In The Cardinal I have attempted to express these feelings by describing a gifted but very human priest fulfilling his destiny as a consecrated mediator between God and man. Some readers may find my hero too-improbably virtuous; others may complain that in certain episodes he forgets, momentarily, his divine calling. With no desire to disarm such criticism beforehand, I ask only that Stephen Fermoyle be judged (as all men must) not on the testimony of single incidents, but on the manifest intention of his entire life. The Cardinal is neither propaganda for nor against the Church. Most emphatically it is not a theological treatise or a handbook to history. It is a purely fictional tale, a story to be read as a narrative woven by a watcher of our world, who believes— in spite of evils fearfully apparent— that faith, hope, and compassion animate men of good will everywhere.”

There are only a handful of novels I read again and again and again, always with enjoyment. The Cardinal is one of those few.