Must-Read Classics for Reclaiming the Culture

A conversation with Joseph Pearce

Author and scholar Joseph Pearce says of such classics as those of J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘We tell stories because we are all living in a story, and we write poetry about the beauty of the cosmos because we have been given eyes of wonder with which to see it.’
Author and scholar Joseph Pearce says of such classics as those of J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘We tell stories because we are all living in a story, and we write poetry about the beauty of the cosmos because we have been given eyes of wonder with which to see it.’ (photo: Niferure /

Joseph Pearce will need little introduction to readers of the Register; however, his latest project may need a preface. In just 200 pages Pearce addresses the whole of Western literature in a new book simply titled Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know, recently published by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute.  

Is it really possible to survey the whole of Western literature in so few pages? And, if so, to what end?

The Englishman spoke to the Register in August from his home in upstate South Carolina.

The Register began by asking if the whole of Western literature was not too ambitious a topic for any author to cover in a single volume. “I would describe it as being not so much ambitious as challenging,” said Pearce. “It was certainly a challenge to endeavor to cover the whole panorama of great literature that Western civilization has bestowed upon us in a modest volume of only 200 pages.” Interestingly, Pearce says the task called for one quality above all, namely, “restraint, in order to keep the work to a manageable length. The key was to cover all the salient features of Western literature in a succinct way. It was knowing when to stop. It was, therefore, about silence as well as salience!”


Behind the Lines

Every writer envisages an audience when they begin to write. In his case, whom did Pearce have in mind? “The book was written for ordinary Catholics who would like to know more about literature,” he said. “It is not intended for an academic readership, nor is it written in a dumbed-down or patronizing style. It aims at that happy medium in which the intelligent lay Catholic will feel comfortable and yet stretched and enlightened.” For this reader, Literature was all three: comfortable enough for any educated reader but still stretching and surprisingly enlightening. So it appears Pearce achieved what he set out to do in terms of engaging his readership, if this reader is anything to go by. But what of the ideas within the book? These Pearce hoped would “show that literature is one of the most powerful ways in which goodness, truth and beauty are conveyed.”  

Pearce’s personal voyage from white supremacist to Catholic apologist, via prison and reading the works of G.K. Chesterton is well known.

Three decades on, the former street fighter is the director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. He is also the author of numerous books, including those on Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Hilaire Belloc, and, of course, Chesterton.

Pearce’s conversion to the Catholic faith took place when he was in his 20s. Yet from the time of his conversion there has never been a dichotomy between his love of his new faith and his love of literature. In fact, his conversion to Catholicism, he says, made him view literature in a “different light”: It “deepened” his appreciation of all truly great literature. That is, he says, because he sees all creation and humankind as part of one story. As Pearce explains, “Storytelling is the mode by which God himself shows us the most important things about himself and about ourselves. [In Literature] I show how all of us are living in a story, which is ultimately God’s story, because history is His Story. I show that each of our lives is a life story which is about a journey or a quest to get to heaven. This is the meaning and purpose of life. It is for this reason that writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Tolkien have said that literature holds up a mirror to man. It shows us ourselves in light of our relationship with God and with each other. It shows us who we are. In this sense, we can say quite truthfully that ignorance of literature is ignorance of life.”


Catholic Tastes

Fine words with which many Catholics, especially Catholic writers, would not disagree; but if this is indeed the case, how do we account for the present state of Catholic letters?  Pearce is clear about that.

“[There are] many encouraging signs of a genuine Catholic literary revival. There are some very good contemporary Catholic novelists and poets, the latter of whom we publish regularly in the St. Austin Review. For this revival to continue to flourish, we need courageous publishers willing to take a chance and adventurous readers willing to explore what is new in Catholic letters.”

In an essay entitled “Beauty in the Face of Indifference” published at The Imaginative Conservative in June 2019, Pearce made the case that Catholic arts have traditionally flourished only with patrons. It is they who have funded many great artists.

For example, the works of 13th-century Italian poet Dante — considered one of the greatest poets of history — were made possible through the support of Italian nobleman Cangrande della Scala. Without such patronage, the world would be missing many of the great works referenced in Literature.

Pearce believes that now is the time for a new generation of patrons — “noble souls,” he calls them — to step forward: “Now is the hour for the Catholic patron of the arts to play a role in the reclaiming of culture and the rebuilding of Christendom.”

In many ways Pearce’s thoughts echo some of the sentiments in the groundbreaking First Things essay by Dana Gioia entitled “The Catholic Writer Today” published in December 2013. Both Pearce and Gioia see the need for the Catholic writer of today to enter into the mainstream of literature, though Pearce wonders if this entry into the mainstream is now “possible in our current secularized culture.”  

Although the title of Pearce’s book indicates this work is aimed at a Catholic readership, Literature is not simply a book “about Catholic literature, nor is it about Catholic writers,” said Pearce. “It’s a book about literature which every Catholic should know.”  

He feels that Catholics need to know the greatest writers, even if those writers are not Catholics. “Take the ancient writers Homer and Sophocles, for instance,” he says. “Although these literary giants were writing before the coming of Christ, they show an understanding of the world that harmonizes remarkably with the Christian worldview. One can even say that there is something in their writing and the philosophy and theology that informs it which desires the Christ that they do not know. We can almost call them proto-Christian because they are groping in the twilight for the Christ who is not yet revealed to them, baptized by their desire for him and prefiguring him in the Christlike suggestiveness of some of their characters.”


Man Alive

In Literature Pearce’s presents a vision of man as being homo viator (“man-on-a-journey”) and also as anthropos (“up-looker”) traveling through life gazing at the wonder of the cosmos. This characterization, he points out, is the opposite of the homo superbus (“proud man”), who has been blinded by his pride and prejudice. Like the struggle between St. Paul’s Old and New man, Pearce sees the battle lines “between the homo viator and the anthropos we are made to be and the homo superbus we are tempted to be, fought in the heart of every man and played out in the great works of literature.”

Of course, so short a book can in no way summon the full complexities of the great works of which Pearce writes. There is limited space, for example, to quote or illustrate the points made. But the sure and penetrating thumbnails of each great writer make the pages of Literature engrossing and, at times, not just illuminating but thought-provoking. Perhaps this is because, for Pearce, literature is always much more than entertainment. “We tell stories,” he says, echoing Tolkien, “because we are all living in a story, and we write poetry about the beauty of the cosmos because we have been given eyes of wonder with which to see it.” This creativity in response to God the Creator and his work is for Pearce “a mark of the Divine Image in man. God is the Creator, and our creativity, our image-ination, is one of the truest signs, alongside love and reason, of our being made in God’s image.” He adds: “We are not merely creatures but creators.”   

Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.

This story was updated after posting.