The Odd Immortality of John Crowe Ransom

The Complete Poems of John Crowe Ransom | ed. Ashby Bland Crowder | LSU Press (2019)

Reviewed by James Matthew Wilson

More than forty years ago, John Crowe Ransom’s biographer, Thomas Daniel Young, called for a variorum edition of his subject’s poems. Ransom had published three volumes of poetry between 1919 and 1927, books that struck a distinctive note in modern American poetry, at once awkwardly modern and stiltedly antique, wherein awkwardness and stiltedness are comic virtues. They had shaped the sensibility of two generations of American poets, including Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, and Richard Wilbur.

When Ransom fell silent as a poet and turned to cultural and literary criticism, he further shaped two generations’ sense of what literature ought to do in itself and the role it ought to play in society. His Agrarianism, New Criticism, and religious humanism defined human life as a richly textured, aesthetic whole, from which the modern physical sciences and the utilitarianism of everyday life abstracted, but to which they were finally inadequate. The properly full or rich human life must always return to the localized weave of mythology that was religion, and, Ransom contended, the irreducibly complex, uneven structures that were poems were principal pathways to just such a restoration of experiential fullness.

Poetry and literary criticism were, therefore, matters of great importance: our pedagogues to living not just by abstraction and technical know-how, but in close contact with what he called, as the title of one book, The World’s Body (1938).

It is almost certain that Ransom so overburdened the function of poetry with his theory that it led to his virtual silence as a poet, after 1928. So also is it probable that his critic’s mind provoked him to revise his work extensively, as it hopped from periodical to book, and from individual volume to the several editions of Selected Poems published during his lifetime. Further, in his declining years, he revised a certain few poems so extensively, thinking to “improve” them, that they constituted essentially new poems—new poems that found little favor with his longtime readers.

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Ransom’s reputation as poet and critic were both in decline at the time of Young’s writing, and for nearly four decades nothing happened to bring all the poems into a single, complete volume, represented in their best versions. And so, it is strange to say that in just the last four years, we have had not one variorum edition of Ransom’s poems, but two.

Years ago, I learned that the poet Ben Mazer was preparing one such edition. The publisher originally contracted to publish the book, as I understand it, delayed and then withdrew from the endeavor. Mazer eventually announced a luxury edition to be published by Un-Gyve Press; to finance the project, the press accepted subscriptions with subscriber names to be listed at the back of the volume. So anxious was I, at last, to have all Ransom’s work in verse that I subscribed immediately, as did many others.

The resulting book was elegantly designed, the pages and text large enough that each poem began on a new page. The editorial apparatus was less elegant. Mazer’s appendix at the back was largely limited to recording textual variations; the headers guiding one through the appendix were sufficiently unhelpful that it was difficult to track down the notes to each individual poem. The edition itself was expensive enough that it seemed unlikely to draw renewed attention to Ransom’s work; those of us who had long cherished it, however, were very much in Mazer’s debt for finally bringing off what had seemed a long frustrated and deferred feat.

By the time I held Mazer’s work in my hands, Louisiana State University Press had announced that it too would publish an edition of the complete poems. Not good, I thought, quite frankly. Mazer’s long toil will almost certainly be superannuated by a properly academic edition from the one publisher that had earnestly tried to keep Ransom’s work in print in the years since his death.

As with Mazer’s edition, however, the LSU Complete Poems almost did not happen. The edition was delayed several times; when it did finally appear, the editor, Ashby Bland Crowder, did not live to see it. He must have worked for many years and up to the very end, for his edition of the poems is a monument of editorial care. The attention to the textual history of the poems is comprehensive. Textual variants appear as footnotes, where they can be conveniently consulted. The annotations of the poems, printed as an appendix, include discussion of the origin and reception of each of Ransom’s three volumes, and not only account for textual matters but attend to interpretation as well, including the glossing of Ransom’s quirky vocabulary compounded of colloquialism and archaism. Finally, Crowder’s years of research reaped poems never before published. At last, Ransom’s work is genuinely complete.

The poems are a bit crammed together, with new titles sometimes starting near the very end of a page, but in fact, that has made the otherwise over-large volume more compact and suitable for use as a proper reading copy, rather than as a mere library reference. Crowder’s superb care in preparing final editions of the poems is conspicuous; alas, I found at least three typos, which are perhaps signs that he was denied by his death the opportunity for one last round of copyediting galley proofs.

I apologize for leading with such a prolonged and pedantic story! Many readers will wonder whether Ransom is a poet worth troubling over, these decades after his death, the great movement in American poetry and literary criticism he helped to incite having been, by and large, routed in the academy and in the broader culture.

The answer is, yes, indeed. When Ransom’s first book, Poems about God, appeared, it was obvious why Robert Frost himself had recommended it for publication. The poems display a homely, ironical humor, where Ransom at once respects and casts a cold light on the various devotions human beings give to whatever is most sacred or lasting in their lives. The union of the folk and rural; a documentary, impersonal eye; and a myriad-minded spirit of irony echoes Frost, Robinson, and A.E. Houseman without being merely derivative.

His earliest and least impressive performances wind plain, even cliché, language into a bundle until the repetitions of rhyme reveal the “waggish humor” behind it all. In “The Swimmer,” for instance, the narrator tells us the “dog-days” are times when “eggs and meats and Christians spoil.” So, he plunges into water, and out of that place of spoiled Christians, like a true Epicurean. He says to the icy pond water,

And now you close about my head,
And I lie low in a soft green bed
That dog-days never have visited.
“By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread:”
The garden’s curse is at last unsaid

Only a few years later, in Chills and Fever, Ransom attained to a more mature synthesis of these elements. His poems from that point on would largely consist of ungainly narrative ballads, a union of the old Scottish ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” with Flannery O’Conner, specifically that eye for the grotesque caricature that marks southern gothic literature’s peculiar spiritual insight about sinfulness and depravity.

In Ransom’s old age, the neighbors complained that he would plant his garden with each kind of flower in a separate row—all the tulips together, as it were, rather than mingling their many colors to form a pleasing whole. For all his concern for the fullness of the world’s body, Ransom’s poems gain some of their charm from the clean, dualistic theoretical categories that he puts in play within them. As the poem unfolds, we have the sensation of abstractions akin to medieval allegorical figures coming into conflict and making a mess of one another. His best-known poem, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” for instance, confronts a vision of the world that is all a young girl’s dynamic, wonderful innocence with its sudden end, as that world is revealed as fallen through her own death:

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

In “Armageddon,” Christ and Antichrist meet and become brothers, until a “godly liege of old malignant brood” catches the ear of the Lord and in his lust for blood-justice transforms Christ himself into a raging Greek warrior, desirous not of the glory revealed on the cross, but that worldly glory of the pagan societies before his coming:

Christ and his myrmidons, Christ at the head
Chanted of death and glory and no complaisance

“Captain Carpenter” depicts the eponymous character as he goes “riding out” for adventure. At every turn, the disappointments of the world lop off a portion of his body: “his nose for evermore,” “His two legs at the shinny part,” “his arms at the elbows,” until at last “a black devil . . . had plucked out his sweet blue eyes.”

In Ransom’s view, we enter the world with a rich, immediate vision of reality as violent, dramatic, strange. Only too soon does our urge to “science,” to impose abstract concepts, lead us to believe we can master it all and thereby be at peace within it. His poems constitute a third moment, where violence and peace, strangeness and understanding exist together, chastening our ambitions but also restoring to our vision a sense of oddness and mystery.

By the time he wrote the poems for his last book, Two Gentlemen in Bonds, Ransom had mastered the clattering rhythms, the use of a stilted meter and falling, feminine rhymes that give to nearly all his poems their meditative yet clunky music. In “Blue Girls,” for example, youthful beauty, which thinks it will last forever, is suddenly revealed, in its very delicacy, as fragile and subject to loss:

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

There are limits to our power’s doing; we have a certain obligation to stand still in reverence before what is fine but “so frail.” Elsewhere, another girl, beautiful Janet, wakes to discover that her rooster, “Old Chucky,” has been killed by a “transmogrifying bee.” Latinate polysyllables and homely southern names jostle together, delivering a shock of nature as at once brutal and humorous, mythologically grand and disappointingly vain:

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.

In both these poems the falling, slant-rhymed, rhythms (PUB-lish/est-AB-lish and JAN-et/up-ON it), which Ransom borrows with so much else from Mother Goose, are coupled with the mundane and the parenthetical, rhetorical, Latinate grandeur, and these all conspire to create poems immediately amusing to the ear; grotesquely jerry-rigged so as to compel us to ponder their inner-workings; and finally insistent that life in this world is a long defeat, where what is most precious, beautiful, and humane merits our reverence and study even though it will, in God’s time, fail us.

Ransom’s world is not ours. The descendant of Methodist ministers and himself an attenuated, but sincere, theist, he feared that the successes of the physical sciences would thoroughly disenchant culture of its necessary, religious mythology. Men would no longer believe in good and evil, discipline and transcendence, tradition and piety, but would rather give themselves over to a religion of commerce and complacency. In response, he tried in his poetry to acknowledge this disenchantment even as he revealed why the primeval insights of the religious imagination give us a truer vision of reality.

In our day, the physical sciences confirm as much as they challenge Christian belief; modernity has not been secularized by the disappearance of Christendom, but by a weird and unpredictable pluralization of religiousness that includes, among many things, that old god Mammon. Scientific knowledge and philosophical wisdom no longer seem incompatible and dualistically divided, as they did for Ransom. For those of us who have outlasted the age of disenchantment and been born into a new age of idolatry, it is possible to see once again the world as a great book authored by our Creator. Philosophy and theology have been restored to their proper place in the intellectual life for many, and that restoration continues apace.

For us, then, Ransom’s poems take on a new significance. Their gaudy, uneven, and awkward constructions remind us to cherish the surface of things and the depths they conceal; to treat the oddness of the rhythm of things as occasion for us to enter more attentively into the mysteries that lie within, behind, and beyond them. Ransom’s influential literary criticism is now mostly of historical interest. His poems, in contrast, are at last demonstrating their independent value and immortality as the great comic fairy tales of modern melancholy and unbelief.

This review was originally published in the autumn 2019 print edition of FORMA Journal.

James Matthew Wilson is an author, essayist, poet, and critic. He is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University. His most recent book of poetry is The Hanging God.

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The Primordial Facts of Fathers and Sons

My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son's Search For Home | Michael Brendan Dougherty | Sentinel (2019)

Reviewed by Carla Galdo

In the midst of a culture that proclaims personal identity a product, rather than a gift, it can be easy to bury the fundamental human need to know—and be known by—one's origin. Who am I? Who, and where, am I from? What then, must I do? Taken seriously, such questions pierce the heart, and can often be held at bay, knocking at the mind's threshold for years, threatening to penetrate the clouds of technological diversions and day-to-day busyness, and break down our staunch walls of self-assurance. Yet the onslaught of meaning can break through at pivotal moments in life—birth, illness, death—when the questions slip past our defenses and, suddenly vulnerable, we're halted, wondering, in the midst of them all.

Michael Brendan Dougherty's book, My Father Left Me Ireland, is the record of one man's full-stop in the midst of his life, a raw and compelling memoir which answers a not-so-casual question placed to him by his father, in the days after the death of his mother: “Do you have anything you want to say to me, Michael?” Dougherty's response takes the form of seven chapter-length letters, narrative responses that record the blossoming of an adult relationship with a mostly absent father, and his growing certainty about the meaning of his blood-ties to Ireland.

Dougherty spent his childhood and early adulthood as the American son of a single mother, while his Irish father lived his own life on the other side of the Atlantic. His parents met and quickly fell for one another while his mother made an extended tour of Europe. The love affair was short-lived, but the consequences were not, as his mother informed his father via letter shortly after her return to the States. She spent the rest of her life single, nurturing a mix of unrequited love and anger towards his Irish father; his father married another woman in Ireland and built a life of his own. Nevertheless, Dougherty's mother was determined that her son would know his Irish roots. Though her own family had its own vanishing Irish-American roots, her inspiration in this regard was due more to her heart's attachment to an Irishman. The Irish identity she cultivated was not the kitsch of shamrocks and new-age Celtic fads; rather, she attempted to learn the dying Irish language, bought and read Dougherty children's books in Irish, and traveled with him to immersion weekend festivals where only Irish was spoken. She even stubbornly jumped on a States-side bandwagon of support for Irish nationalist causes. Surrounded by all this, as a young child at the Jersey shore, Dougherty would point, squinting, across the Atlantic, and cry out to his mother that he could see Ireland in the mist.

Dougherty's relationship with his father was tenuous throughout childhood. Each encounter—there were only a handful before his college years—left him reeling with grief, then silence. During his elementary years, his father visited the U.S. on a few occasions, each a more searing reminder of his absence than a moment of connection. As he entered his teen years, the push to self-definition and self-protection took over, and while his father wrote letters and sent gifts, Dougherty closed the doors of communication, sealing off any overtures towards a relationship, and ignoring the connection he had to Ireland. This silence lasted a decade until a spontaneous letter written in his college library—full of self-assurance and between-the-lines insinuations that his millennial identity, forged alone, was just fine without his father or his Irish roots—provided the clumsy but workable basis for a thaw in the iced-over relationship.

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With this thaw, the fissures in Dougherty's carefully-constructed life begin to spread, breaking open and revealing that this father who had only intermittently been in contact with him had been a compelling force in his life, even in his absence. His gestures are the same, as is his posture, his face—it all pointed to the fact that their “relationship wasn't a series of events, but an unalterable and primordial fact.” Dougherty lives through the death of his mother, feeling “marooned by history” as her departure dissolves the only in-the-flesh link he had to the bulk of his own childhood. Then, in the years shortly after this event, he and his wife welcome their first child. A new drive for connection to his father, the only living symbol of his origin, begins, and with phone calls, visits, and letters, they reconstruct the edifice of the relationship they both had missed. Along the way, Dougherty begins to realize that this identity, as his father's son, was a relationship with Ireland itself.

The unique offering of this book is Dougherty's exploration of what it meant to be an American child-in-absentia of Ireland. “Ireland is what you gave me when you wrote letters and sent them into the silence. Ireland is what my mother gave me when she put those CDs on constant rotation or hung the bodhran proudly in her room.” Within the details of his own story, and his own growing understanding of himself and his father, he explores Irish history, faith, nationhood, and language, and offers an incisive critique of how the American millennial tendency to “define life on our own terms” hobbled his (and everyone else's) ability to value the transcendent over the useful, and ultimately to realize their need for the “other”—be it supernatural or incarnate. He compares his own attempt to negotiate a relationship with his father to Ireland's centuries-old attempt to self-define—to break out of the twin shackles of self-denigration and the modern grasping at salvation via material affluence. He experiences a reversion to the Catholic faith when he departs from his childhood understanding of the Church as a “friendly ghost” that existed only as a rubber stamp upon whatever he wanted his life to be. His father's father, descending into illness and old age, clung to the prayers of the Rosary like a rock amid the obliviating storms of dementia.

This “adamantine stubbornness” is for Dougherty a beacon, shedding light on a thicker sense of truth as a gift from outside us, something unchanging, serious, and solid. He shares anecdotes of his own attempt to re-learn the Irish language and pass it on to his daughter via song and story, and he sketches out reasons to admire the self-sacrifice of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, martyrs to the cause of Irish nationalism. The tone of witty irony and detachment prevalent in our own culture stands in stark contrast with their sense of honor, their vision that “that events and ideals have real meaning, that something outside ourselves deserves our loyalty.”

My Father Left Me Ireland is deeply human and unguarded; the letters are often awkward with their mixture of historical narrative, personal memoir, and direct-address to Dougherty's father. A conversational tone most at home in the blogosphere takes over at certain points, then retreats behind pages filled with poetic, epigrammatic flourishes. One gets the sense that a more assertive editor may have pushed Dougherty a bit harder to refine the text. Yet the book remains a compelling and relevant hymn to the universal desire to embrace one's origins more deeply—whether they be familial, national, or even, as Dougherty hints, supernatural. As he closes the book, in a final crescendo, he addresses his father-become-grandfather:

Romantic Ireland is dead and gone; it yet rises from the grave. And underneath a canopy of blush and violet sky, my daughter will see this transfigured Ireland through songs her daddy sang to her.

These gestures are small rebellions measured against an Empire built on forgetting, in a world that, having given up a sense of duty to posterity, also finds itself a stranger to the past. But the Rising has taught me that when we act, or when we are forced to act on behalf of the future, the past can be given back to us as a gift.

Carla Galdo is a graduate of the Washington, D.C. session of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family. She is a contributor to Humanum, an online quarterly review of books of the JPII Institute's Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research, and the publications of Well-Read Mom, a nationwide movement of women endeavoring to cultivate the moral imagination through the attentive reading of literature in the Western and Christian tradition. She lives in rural Virginia with her husband and five children.

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A Journey into the Freeing Forms

Pilgrim, You Find the Path By Walking | Jeanne Murray Walker | Paraclete Press

Reviewed by Sean Johnson

In her 1991 poem, “Deciding Where to Stop,” Jeanne Murray Walker confronts the anxiety of walking a cyclical path, “around and around,” nervously, because any possible destination seems as good as every other. “If I kept walking, I would come the whole / circumference of this lake to where I started / and worry would drive me like its slave around again.” When she wrote those lines Walker would not have qualified as a formalist poet, and they would come to be a suitable image of her growing boredom with the “flatness” of much contemporary poetry, including her own.

To reinvigorate her art, Walker began rereading “the masters”—Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, and Donne—and was struck by a vibrancy in them that she attributed in part to their use of strict poetic forms. Writing to a form entails its own angsts, but the old formalists are rarely anxious about “where to stop.” The path is—for a writer of sonnets, say—laid out before them. Apprehending this, Walker apprenticed herself to these greats and determined to learn the sonnet form through extensive practice. The recently published Pilgrim, You Find the Path By Walking—her ninth published collection—is the fruit of that endeavor.

With decades of writing and teaching under her belt and numerous accolades to her name, Walker is no novice poet. Indeed, there are no bad poems in this collection. Yet, with remarkable humility, Walker freely admits that these poems are the work of a student learning a new craft, and presents the passable alongside the extraordinary. Her debt to her masters, Donne chief among them, is frequently on display and always mixed with evident affection. In her own rendition of “Death Be Not Proud,” Death is the unkempt limo driver who keeps his car idling by the curb night after night, and the speaker is shouting out the window, “Where’s your ambition, / Death?”

In “The Knock On Your Door Disguised As a Sonnet,” Walker softens Donne’s proverb to “No man’s an island, / Darling.” More than mere allusion, her playful interaction with the source material springs into a meditation on the sonnet form itself. Formalism is often derided as limiting (“When I stormed to my room and slammed the door, / I made two rooms—you helpless there, sealed in”), and form does impose boundaries, but boundaries need not be barriers. The sonnet—with its eye-opening sestets and problem-solving final couplets—is, after all, a form characterized by reconciliation and the bringing together of disparate parts. “This is a sky, books tell us, that’s a lake. / But things fall into one another’s arms / to find out who they are…”

Ultimately, Walker (a serendipitous name) discovers that (the sonnet) form is a salve to the poet’s own inadequacies, the shortcomings and failures of vision common to the human condition. She imagines, in “Road to Emmaus,” the dejected disciples of Jesus scattering after his funeral, bereft of vocation and direction as well as friend and lord. “Now frankly, their own stories needed ending.” Two who have “opted to find and mend their rotten nets” are walking the familiar road back to their old lives when “He caught up to them at dusk. A maddening stranger / who told a cheerful story. What disaster?” Walker’s pilgrimage into the sonnet is an apology for formalist poetry generally. And while she does not promise salvation by form alone, she imagines form as a path to be walked—and a path where the pilgrim is likely to be overtaken by something or someone greater than themselves.

Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

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A Bundle of Hopes and Hungers

On The Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts | James K. A. Smith | Brazos Press

Reviewed by Anthony Barr

I first read Augustine’s Confessions as a college freshman. The book was gifted to my entire cohort upon admission and I felt a certain compulsion to “get ahead on the reading.” So I read the book in the manner you might expect from an incoming freshman, with a mix of pride and ignorance and interest. We spent about a third of the semester working through the text with a renowned Augustinian scholar, but I’ll confess that during that semester I was more fascinated by Neoplatonists like Plotinus than I was by Augustine.

Midway through junior year, I reread Confessions at a point of epistemic crisis in my life. And as I floundered trying to work out what to believe (or if justified belief were even possible), I encountered the Augustine I hadn’t known before, the Augustine who knew intimately the pain I was experiencing. In Book 6 of Confessions, Augustine is very near entering the Church, but then he remembers all the things he used fervently to believe and starts to panic. His words gave shape to my own feelings: “The anxiety as to what I should hold as sure gnawed at my heart all the more keenly, as my shame increased at having been so long tricked and deceived by the promise of certainty, and at having with a rashness of error worthy of a child gone on spouting forth so many uncertainties as confidently as if I had known them for sure.” Augustine recounts how he “held back my heart from accepting anything, fearing that I might fall once more.” Augustine the bishop, recalling that season of inner turmoil many years later, notes that “[I] could not be healed save by believing, and refused to be healed that way for fear of believing falsehood.” And then Augustine poses this question: “Is it true that nothing can be grasped with certainty for the directing of life?” His answer brought me to tears: “No: we must search the more closely and not despair.”

James K. A. Smith has been searching the more closely with St. Augustine for many years. As a young Ph.D. student at Villanova University, Smith was interested in Heidegger and the other continental philosophers, but it is not surprising that at an Augustinian school he finally fell in love most deeply with Augustine. Smith’s latest book, On The Road with Saint Augustine (out October 1 from Brazos Press), is a letter of gratitude to Augustine, but more importantly, it is an invitation for us to encounter Augustine as one who can aid us on our journey home. While Smith draws on a wide range of Augustine’s writings, the animating principle of Smith’s book is soul-searching reflection on Augustine’s Confessions, which Smith describes as “a book that breathes, a book with a beating heart.” Smith helps us to see that Augustine is a cartographer whose pastoral aim is to map “the geography of desire” that is also a “geography of grace.” Augustine is deeply introspective, sometimes painfully so, but neither his nor Smith’s books are about losing ourselves in the conflicting depths of our own interiority. Instead, their books are about the gospel, about “the outward, upward turn” where our desire steers us toward the Father even as the Father runs to meet us, his prodigal sons and daughters.

One of the more fascinating threads Smith develops is the interconnection of ambition and education, a theme he highlights in his book’s central narrative. Close your eyes and imagine Augustine, age twenty-something, transplanted from rural North Africa to Milan and then later to Rome—the cultural and political centers of the world’s greatest empire. Augustine, the smart kid from the flyover states, the boy-genius who finally escaped the stifling small-town. Here’s how Smith frames this season in Augustine’s life: “Working in the precincts of the imperial palace, unleashing his creative energy and expertise, mingling with the great and the good, he would be seen for who he was: Augustine, the precocious provincial, the African from the edge of the empire who’d made it to the center.” Augustine, the staffer on Capitol Hill, the newest consultant at McKinsey, the hot pick for a clerkship at the Court. He’s a twenty-something in the most important city in the world, and there’s so much money to be made, and plenty of right swipes on Tinder, but more importantly, he’s part of the vanguard: connected, influential, and sophisticated. And yet, with the world at his fingertips, Augustine is utterly miserable?

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It is here that Smith asks a rather Augustinian question: what does he actually want? Ambition can be good, and in fact, a lack of drive is often a sign of acedia (the slothful spirit the Church Fathers call the “noonday devil”). But the question Smith wants us to wrestle with is, “what do I love when I long for achievement?” Smith observes that “there is a bundle of hopes and hungers bound up with our ambitions, but so often they boil down to the twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention--to win the crown and be seen doing it.” Notably, these disordered desires do not disappear when Augustine is baptized, and indeed Augustine continuously doubts the purity of his own motives in even writing Confessions. But Smith paints love as both the mitigating force to check unbridled ambition and to steer it to appropriate ends. In Smith’s telling, it is Augustine’s newfound love for his mother, Monica, that ultimately allows his identity to become one of acceptance and gratitude for his roots rather than disdain. Later, as bishop, it is love for his flock that motivates him to publish Confessions, trusting that grace can be mediated through it to the reader even if his own motives remained mixed. And finally, as a Christian, it is love that propels him into the very dialogue with God through which he discovers the authenticity he craves. At the end of the day, it is not prestige or power or wealth or women that Augustine wants so much as it is to love and be loved authentically.

Throughout the book, Smith shows how deeply indebted Heidegger is to Augustine for his ideas of authenticity and self-actualization, but more importantly, Smith shows why Augustine offers a corrective to the radical individualism at the heart of the existentialist project. As Smith argues, “to refuse the existentialist script for authenticity is not to embrace inauthenticity; it is to imagine why friends are gifts, how grace is communal, and how I find myself in communion.”

Inasmuch as education (read: personal formation) shapes the contours of our rationality, the nature of our reasoning is also communal. Remember Augustine, the twenty-something on top of the world? His parents pushed him toward a liberal arts education because they were ambitious for him, and as they expected, that liberal arts education paid a dividend of social capital. Smith points out that “it was Manichean connections that landed Augustine his appointments in both Rome and Milan.” This means that the experience of education and the epistemological context for Augustine’s whole worldview were directly shaped by the ambition (“the bundle of hopes and hungers”) that helped lead him into the Manichean network in the first place. As Smith explains, “the attractiveness of the Manicheans was an intertwined set of benefits that spoke directly to an aspiring provincial, running from his mother’s backwater faith, newly interested in being ‘in the know,’ and still clambering for positions of power and influence.”

Young Augustine was ambitious for himself, and that means his education was in service to that aim. Smith remarks that “it’s remarkable how philosophy—the alleged love of wisdom—can be domesticated by those other lingering habits of the heart, such that philosophy actually becomes just one more lust, one more game of domination and conquest.” Smith notes that the Augustinian term for this disposition toward learning is curiositas, which often manifests as “knowing for the sake of being known as someone who knows.” Smith explains that this “disordered love of learning makes you a mere technician of information for some end other than wisdom.” And he further writes that “when learning is reduced to curiositas, actual truth and wisdom are disdained as an affront to my interests, my authority, my autonomy.” This internal state is remarkably similar to the sense of alienation that Augustine experienced in Milan and Rome. As Smith notes, curiositas “generates its own frenetic anxiety” and produces the “burden of having to always be clever.” This is the kind of burden that one sees vividly illustrated in Tolkien’s Gollum, one of the most curious (and therefore anxious) characters ever depicted.

As a recent college graduate, I am still searching—sometimes frantically—for what Wendell Berry calls “the shape of a life.” Questions regarding marriage, career, or geographic place are fully existential for me: “who can I entrust myself to?” and “what kind of work should I pursue?” and “where should I put down roots?” And the bundle of hopes and hungers that Smith identifies in Augustine is very much the same bundle in my own heart. This is precisely Smith’s point: The reason Augustine is such a good companion is because his heart is our heart, his temptations are our temptations, and the grace that he found is very much the grace that we need. In those quiet moments in Milan when Augustine is forced to be honest about his own restlessness (“our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee . . .”), the bitter weight of alienation from oneself and one’s world is itself the first sign of prevenient grace calling Augustine to a long pilgrimage. Smith asks us to “imagine a refugee spirituality, an understanding of human longing and estrangement that not only honors those experiences of not-at-home-ness but also affirms the hope of finding a home, finding oneself.” Inasmuch as we experience this world as a vale of tears, we are refugees. And yet as Christians, we travel with a destination dimly in view on the very edges of our horizons and in that sense, we are also pilgrims.

I reflected above on Augustine’s admonishment that we must search without despairing. If we were existentialists, we might read that passage as a heroic call to shun all dependency and relationship in order to seek out the truth on our own. But this is not how Augustine reconciles himself to belief. Instead, Augustine realizes that even his own self-conception and identity is contingent on the testimony of others. Augustine notes that since he has no memory of his mother’s womb or the earliest years of his infancy, he cannot know who his own parents are without some degree of faith. This realization—that faith is the bedrock of any meaningful knowledge—helps open Augustine toward belief. But more importantly, it allows Augustine to surrender himself to the loving influence of people like Ambrose the bishop without the radical skepticism that inhibited his reasoning. In his commentary on Augustine’s epistemic journey toward faith, Smith explains that “there is a relationality to plausibility. Illumination depends on trust; enlightenment is communal.” Smith thus connects Augustine’s maxim of “I believe in order to understand” to his equally important maxim that “I love in order to know.” There is a stunning degree of contingency in all of this. Smith holds up Augustine’s life as a narrative of radical dependency, first and foremost on the grace of God, standing over and against what he calls “an epistemic Pelagianism” that pictures salvation as the product of our human will and intellect.

Once Augustine allows himself to be open toward the Other, seeking wisdom not as a means to fulfill his ambition but as an end in itself, he is able to encounter Christ sacramentally in sacred Scripture. You probably know the famous scene in which Augustine randomly opens to the book of Romans, but Smith underscores the ways in which Scripture (especially the Psalms) became the very language in which Augustine lived, thought, loved, and worshipped. Smith writes that “Scripture irrupted in Augustine’s life as revelation, the story about himself told by another, and as illumination, shining a light that helped him finally understand his hungers and faults and hopes.”

Pilgrimage is communal and, in the end, Smith’s book is a loving invitation to embrace Augustine as a spiritual father who can guide us into authentic formation. Smith borrows the concept of “witness authority” (what Aristotle called ethos) to suggest that Confessions is about bearing witness to our human condition and testifying to the grace that can fulfill our nature. For Smith, what Augustine offers is a chance to “find ourselves in someone’s story—to feel known by the witness of another.” Speaking from his own personal experience as Augustine’s spiritual pupil, Smith notes that “it can be freeing to effectively live as the understudy of some exemplar who gives us an orientation to the world, something to live for and a way to live.”

I’m still searching for that “shape of a life” that can make sense of my bundle of hopes and hungers. But Smith assures me I have a companion in Augustine. His ultimate exhortation to readers like me is that despite the angst and alienation, I do not despair in searching the more closely, because I have a hope grounded in the promises of Christ and the testimony of all the saints who find their rest in those promises. The harder the pilgrim’s journey grows, the more valuable a literary friend like Augustine becomes. As Smith memorably quips, “Augustine doesn’t write from the sky, he writes from the road.”

Anthony Barr is a graduate of Templeton Honors College at Eastern University where he studied History, Literature, and Orthodox Thought and Culture. He also writes for Ethika Politika, University Bookman, and the CiRCE Institute.

If you enjoyed this review, which is a preview of the autumn 2019 print edition of FORMA, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.

The Freedom of the Book Review

John Wilson on the job of the book critic and the importance of miscellany in the good reading life

Interview by David Kern | This interview first appeared the summer edition of FORMA.

As the longtime editor of Books and Culture, the now-defunct bimonthly review that engaged the contemporary world from a Christian perspective, John Wilson emerged as one of the preeminent voices in Christian cultural criticism. His ability to engage with a wide range of subjects, combined with his thoughtful, careful approach to reading and editing, made Books and Culture the most important Christian literary review of the last twenty-five years. Under his tutelage, a generation of emerging reviewers was given a platform to explore the considerable way in which books (of all kinds) are transformative cultural artifacts.

Today, Wilson—whose writing has also appeared in the
New York Times, the Boston Globe, National Review, and First Things, where he still maintains a column—lives in Wheaton, IL, with his wife. We spoke with him about his life as a book critic, what he believes makes for a good review, and why miscellany is key to a quality reading life.

You have been involved in the world of book-reviewing for a long time now, as a writer and as an editor. Has your sense of what makes a good book review changed much over the years?

Yes and no. When I first started reading book reviews, I was in high school. I couldn’t have articulated clearly then what so delighted me about this protean form, but I think that from the start I was responding to the same elements that delight me today, as I’m about to turn seventy-one. In part, I was drawn by the appeal of miscellany. I wrote about this for Comment magazine in the Fall 2011 issue, under the title “Magazine as Microcosm,” in which I talked about some of the reviews in a single issue of the Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 10, 2010), chosen at random and offering “an unpredictable and never-to-be-repeated juxtaposition of subjects.” Good reviewers typically share this zest for miscellany and assume that their readers will share it too. They don’t try to “sell” their subject—the “sacred” in modern India, a dictionary of Hinduism, animal suffering, fiction by a nineteenth-century Portuguese novelist, a history of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, new fiction by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and the American novelist Richard Powers, David Hempton’s Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt, or whatever it might be—but rather assume a curious reader whom they seek to inform and entertain, and now and then to provoke.

Many people, I've discovered over the years, have a narrow conception of what a book review can do or should do. This reaches its nadir in the perception of a review as essentially a “book report,” hence (supposedly) boring. But what attracted me from the beginning (though, again, I couldn't have said so at the time) was the enormous freedom the form allows! A good review can be “impersonal” or “personal.” It can be focused almost entirely on the book (or books) at hand or use the book under review primarily as a point of departure. There are very few “rules,” in fact, though this or that editor, this or that publication, may impose all sorts of constraints. That freedom appealed to me enormously (it still does), and I enjoyed seeing how many different ways a review could be done, and done well.

So when you were running Books and Culture did you have to work hard to enable a culture of thought in which that sense of freedom was felt by your contributors?

It wasn’t hard at all, especially once we had several issues out, so that anyone who actually read the mag could get a clear sense of what we were doing. (Strange but true: Throughout the twenty-one-year history of B&C, I routinely received pitches from people who had obviously not read the magazine. Most of these were for free-standing essays as opposed to reviewish pieces, our bread and butter. We did publish such essays, but only in small numbers.) The magazine brought together writers and readers with wide-ranging interests and the conviction that a robust faith should not be narrow or defensive.

In your own work as a book-reviewer do you find that you have to be conscious of crafting reviews that meet this standard or does it come naturally? That is, do you see it as something you are continually practicing? Something you’re reaching for?

It comes naturally, but you have to keep working at it—and that’s part of the fun. I can give you a recent example. I’ve thought a lot lately about the problem of “gush” in reviewing. When there’s so much hyperbolic praise floating around, how do you single out a genuinely exceptional book in a way that will hold the attention of good readers weary of the relentless oversell? That was the problem that preoccupied me when I was writing about H. S. Cross’ excellent novel Grievous (FSG) for National Review this summer.

With that in mind, I wonder: Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?

Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.

But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it. I read tons of reviews in part because I enjoy learning in an entirely unsystematic way. (Here we go back to the appeal of miscellany.) Hence I’ve enjoyed and profited from countless reviews of books that I’ll never read.

That misconception of which you speak has, of course, infiltrated the very way people read in general. The Good Reads-ification of the reading life, if you will. We are constantly thinking in terms of questions like: What am I going to rank this book? How many stars am I going to give it? Where is it going to show up on my year-end list? And then, of course, what is that going to reveal or say about me to all my Goodreads followers or friends—or whatever we call those people. These may perfectly reasonable questions, helpful ones even, but I can’t help wondering if they’re fundamentally distracting from what a reading life ought to be about. So I wonder: Would you say that such an approach to reading has made the quest for miscellany more difficult, and the life of the reviewer less rewarding?

You’ve described the phenomenon so perfectly, you’ve left me feeling terribly depressed. Add to that the shrinkage of venues that actually pay for reviews, and I feel even worse. But then I remember Orwell’s hilariously dour essay, “Confessions of a Reviewer,” written at a time when “literary culture” was comparatively thriving, and (oddly enough) I start to feel better. Like the book itself, the book review really is a wonderful invention. And the appeal of miscellany, if not universal, has deep roots in human nature.

Ah, that’s very interesting. Do you mean that we are instinctively inclined to look for it?

In that 2011 piece for Comment that came up at the start of our conversation, I mentioned that our word “magazine” comes from an Arabic word meaning “storehouse.” Some storehouses hold just one thing, but a lot of them hold many things. “What do you have in your garage, your attic, your dorm-room closet, the back seat of your car, or those other catchalls for this or that? In our garage [which, between 2011 and now, was converted into a library], you’d find bug spray, badminton gear, bicycles, and boxes of books (many boxes of books), along with charcoal for the barbecue, old letters, and large bags of birdseed for the feeder (secured under tight lids to foil invaders), among other things. Seen in one aspect, the world is just like that, except that there’s much more stuff. Everything, in fact.”

So magazines in general and review sections, in particular, give us a taste of the whole shebang. Reality is miscellaneous.

It seems to me, though, that the job of the review section is to assess that miscellany. So as an editor of a review section, how do you balance the sense that you need to assess the quality of what you’re looking for, with the desire to follow your bliss, so to speak.

Hmm. There’s a lot to sort out here. First, and once again, an over-emphasis on one function of reviewing: assessment. That’s an important part of what reviews (and review editors) do, but only a part. There’s no question, of course, of merely “following your bliss” in deciding, let’s say, what books will be covered in this week’s or this month’s issue or next Monday’s postings online. Whoever is making those decisions, whether the editors of the New York Times Books Review in conclave or the book editor (singular) of a weekly or a small print quarterly or the editorial team of a web-only site, there will be many more books worthy of consideration than there are available review-slots. How then do you decide what to cover?

That’s a question I was asked hundreds of times during the twenty-plus years I was editing Books & Culture, and before that I dealt with it in a slightly different form when I was working for a reference publisher (among things) editing Magill’s Literary Annual, which covered each year (in two bound volumes) two hundred books published in the previous calendar year. There’s no simple answer. I started by talking about an economy of abundance as opposed to an economy of scarcity. You can’t endlessly wring your hands over what you’re unable to cover. Better to relish the wild variety in what you are able to cover, always suggestive of much more. My own preference is for a wide range in subjects, a wide range in reviewing style and viewpoint. As a reader, I like to be surprised; I don’t like a narrow predictability.

Given the reality that there is limited time and limited space (even for an online publication), did you feel any special pressure as you chose what books to cover—and how to cover them?

No. Again, think in terms of an economy of abundance. This isn’t Panglossian prattle. There are several stacks of recent and fairly recent new arrivals within a few feet of me as I’m typing just now. Every single book in those stacks could legitimately be reviewed. I do my best to spread the word by various means (Twitter included). But what gets in any given review section will be a small slice of what could be there. It would be possible to brood endlessly about that. But it’s also possible to reflect on the sheer abundance surrounding us (contrary to many popular narratives).

Speaking of which—what effect do you think reviews actually have on the buying habits of readers? And to what degree should reviewers be attentive to their corresponding influence (or lack thereof)?

It probably depends to some extent on the reviewer and the reader. In 1975, I read Hugh Kenner’s review of Walker Percy’s book The Message in the Bottle. After roughly forty-five years, I can still remember how the review began. (Kenner, among his many gifts, was one of the best reviewers I’ve encountered in my lifetime.) Before I even finished the review, I knew I wanted to read Percy’s book as soon as possible. I called Vroman’s, by far the best bookstore in Pasadena (where I’d been working just recently), but they hadn’t received it yet. So I called B. Dalton’s in Hollywood. Yes, they had a copy. I asked them to hold it for me, and Wendy and I drove from Pasadena to Hollywood. On the way back, Wendy needed to stop at Kmart and pick up a couple of things. I started reading the book sitting in the Kmart parking lot. You may remember the amazing first essay, “The Delta Factor,” which opens with a series of questions. “Why is man so sad in the twentieth century?” And so on. By the time I’d read a couple of pages, there were tears in my eyes—not because I was sad, but because the book was so good.

But as I mentioned earlier in our conversation, I’ve profited from reading countless reviews of books that I will never purchase or check out from the library, books that I will never read.

Have you read David Epstein’s new book, Range, by any chance?

No, I haven’t. Tell me about it.

Well in some ways it’s an apology for what you’re espousing in the reading life. The subtitle is “Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” and it makes the case that our cultural inclination to “rush to develop students [well—everyone, really] in a narrow specialty area, while failing to sharpen the tools of thinking” more broadly is problematic. The best readers (and certainly good reviewers), I hear you saying, are, like great jazz musicians, improvisers. They’re capable of creatively interpreting a wide variety of sounds. It takes a long time to acquire a familiarity with a catalogue of sounds to interpret—a lifetime even—but that pursuit is part of the craft. Much like the art of reading. As an art, it’s more than just a set of skills (or questions to ask).

That’s interesting. I don’t think I buy the bit about generalists necessarily “triumphing,” but I love what you say about “improvising” and about certain lifelong practices and habits of mind. There really is a payoff in the long haul—as long as one has one’s “faculties,” at least!

Well, that brings me to my final question: As a longtime reviewer who spends a lot of hours in a lot of books, do you have any recommendations for habits or skills or techniques, so to speak, for helping someone read more closely and remember more?

I don’t think I have anything golden along those lines, but here are a couple of practices (not in the least original or striking, not rising to the level of “techniques”). When I’m reading a book for review, whether fiction or nonfiction, I always have a lot of Post-its handy. (I have a horror of writing on the pages of a book; many good readers would scoff at this notion, I know.) I also use Post-its when I’m reading a novelist that I periodically re-read, sometimes simply to mark a striking sentence, other times for jotting brief notes. When I’m reviewing a book of fiction, or simply reading a novel, say, for the first time, I almost always immediately re-read it, assuming it’s a book I have enjoyed. The first reading is unique. In the follow-up, I try to get a deeper sense of the way the book works. Reading nonfiction is different, and of course “nonfiction” comes in many flavors. But there’s a characteristic excitement, early on, when you begin to grasp the “argument” of the book. Good writers have a way of allowing you to share in the sense of discovery they felt when they were first understanding what it was they wanted to say. You’re getting that experience in a radically compressed form, and it can be intoxicating.

*Photo credit: Gary Gnidovic

David Kern is Editor-in-Chief of FORMA Journal, the director of the Close Reads Podcast Network, and head of multimedia for the CiRCE Institute.

If you enjoyed this interview, which first appeared in the summer print issue, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.

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