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Literary Giants, Literary Catholics.

Literary Giants, Literary Catholics WRITTEN BY Joseph Pearce PUBLISHED By Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2005 ISBN: 1586170775, Hardcover, pp. 425, $31.50 CDN

I found myself turning the pages of Joseph Pearce's latest book with a bit of ambivalence. Literary Giants, Literary Catholics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005) is a collection of mostly previously published essays by the writer in residence at Ave Maria University, who is most notable for his biographies of G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkein, Hilaire Belloc, and Oscar Wilde. Among the various topics Pearce touches upon in Literary Giants are the lives and works of the "Chesterbelloc" (i.e. Gilbert Keith and Hilaire); the fiction of Maurice Baring and R.H. Benson; the poetry of T.S. Elliot and Roy Campbell; the art of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso; and the sexual struggles of Oscar Wilde.

The title captures the spirit of a book replete with encomia to a score of English literati who traveled a long and tortuous route to the Catholic Church. Pearce includes select and fascinating passages from the Anglo-Catholic literary corpus delightful in their own right. Yet, trudging though this 400+-page volume is often a tedious chore.

The author opens the work with a note of apology for not having remembered exactly where and when most of the chapters were originally published. Such memory lapses are easily forgiven. However, the multiple recycling of passages throughout the book is not so easily forgivable. In the word-processing age, every writer occasionally falls prey to liberal cutting and pasting, but few do so as unabashedly as does Pearce. At times there was enough space between repeated paragraphs to make me think I had simply miss-inserted my bookmark. But at other times (such as on pages 187 and 194) the re-used passages are unmistakable.

Though he tries hard to imitate the heroes who constitute the subject of his study, Pearce's prose is often either mushy or clunky. As an instance of the former, consider the following appraisal of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: "The particular novel ... contains and conveys such an abundance of purest profundity that it demands a place among the most important novels of the twentieth century" (p. 71). As an example of the latter, take: "It is a truth invariably missed by those allergic to allegory that Tolkien's attacks on allegory always and invariably refer specifically to this 'formal and mechanical' kind" (pp. 315-316). Unfortunately, "purest profundity" is not a particularly egregious example of the author's ready recourse to arid alliteration, nor is "allergic/allegory/attacks" an isolated instance of acerbating assonance (please pardon the parody). His incessant use of these devices too often sinks to mere tongue-twisting.

Conversely, I sympathize deeply with the author's conviction that Chesterton's Lepanto, Belloc's Tarantella, and Newmann's The Dream of Gorontius deserve to be numbered among not only the most exquisite English poems of the twentieth century, but of all time. I share his opinion that The Napolean of Notting Hill, Belinda, and Come Rack! Come Rope! are woefully undervalued novels. But I am not so sure that Pearce will be successful in convincing those who don't share his and my opinion. And for those who do, I am not so sure they will finish the book with a deeper understanding of why these works should be esteemed so highly.

I further concur with the author's judgment that Dante's Divina Commedia is the greatest Christian poem of all time. However, if you want to be taken seriously as a critic, you need to corroborate such a claim with an engaging explanation. Pearce, however, rests his laurels on the apparent sufficiency of the claim's self-evidence. The Divine Comedy, he asserts, is the only answer to the question, "What is the best Christian poem of all time?" "After all," he asks, "what's the point of asking a question to which only one answer is possible" (p. 370)? I wonder if Pearce has dared to use this logic on undergraduates furiously studying for the G.R.E.

Pearce does attempt to defend [he Divine Comedy's superiority, but it consists of little more than pointing out the "abysmal difference" between Milton and Dante, haranguing against those who pay excessive attention to the Inferno while neglecting the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, and, of course, by appealing to the almost infallible authority of Chesterton.

Other common threads running through the essays are Pearce's fondness for distributism (which he rather glibly equates with Leo XIII's idea of subsidiarity); his abhorrence for communism and fascism (though he empathizes with those who tended toward the latter out of hatred for the former); his distaste for postmodernism; and the drama of his own personal conversion to Catholicism (the seeds of which were planted by his reading of Chesterton's The Outline of Sanity). As with so many other converts, the author's contagious zeal for the Catholic faith and the culture it animates are refreshing. Yet at times his effervescence borders on giddiness, and his love for the Church on triumphalism.

Yet, all ambivalence aside, the book has some finer moments. The short essay entitled "Truth is Stranger than Fiction" is but a single example. The author's delineation of the distinction between allegory and myth will be of particular assistance to the novice reader. He firmly grasps the multi-layered meanings of J.R.R. Tolkien's fiction. Though I would caution against a single continuous reading of the book, Pearce has compiled a commendable cornucopia for those in search of savoring the sweetness (so sorry!) of some decent Catholic writers.

Fr. Daniel Gallagher is Assistant Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI.
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Author:Gallagher, Daniel B.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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