by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Rocky Bleier’s Literary Army

Now it’s clear why Dwight Garner is the best book critic working right now: because he grew up a Pittsburgh Steelers fan in the era of the Steel Curtain and Franco’s Italian Army.

More precisely, because he grew up reading extraordinary books that didn’t fit the category of literary books – and now, as a critic, keeps such books in view better than his counterparts do.

Books such as Rocky Bleier’s Fighting Back, the subject of his current Times piece, and the book where his literary upbringing meets mine.

The first hardcover book I bought with my own money was “Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story” (1975), published the week I turned 10.

I had the paperback – got it for Christmas a few months after I turned eleven. I read it a dozen times, and my brother did too.

The thing about Mr. Bleier, a halfback for my team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, was that he was fearless. He was pint-size for a football player (5-11, 210), yet he threw himself around. I also liked his tilting handlebar mustache, the kind of facial hair the novelist Jim Harrison would describe not as macho but as nacho.

The thing about Rocky Bleier was that he was what was called, and maybe still is called, a “blocking back.”  He wasn’t star material.  He was meant to open spaces for Franco Harris.  Yet he turned the role of blocking back into that of a “fighting back” and wound up rushing for a thousand yards and making All-Pro several seasons running.

Bleier was an authentic hero, of the sort not often minted today. As a rookie for the Steelers, fresh out of Notre Dame, he was drafted and went to fight in Vietnam. He had both legs shot out from under him (rifle fire, shrapnel) and was told he’d never play again. He did play again. He’s the only man who has four Super Bowls rings, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Bleier was an authentic storyteller, too.  I’ll never forget his description of lifting weights (you york them, after the brand stamped on the side).  Or of how a leg injury affects you (just a pebble in your shoe makes it hard to walk; now imagine a foot full of shrapnel).  Or of his fear, as a Catholic from a happy family in Wisconsin, that life couldn’t go as well as it was going, that it had to turn sometime – and then it did (or seemed to do) when he was wounded in Vietnam.

My friend Stephen Dubner wrote a strong and original book about his boyhood Steelers obsession.  He and Dwight Garner and I are the makings of a small army.  But Fighting Back – amazingly – is not only out of print; it has no customer reviews on Amazon. Well, Dwight’s piece is a heckuva first twenty-first-century review.

I’m going to order the out-of-print book for my sons now.  And for their father, too …  

(Where) Have You Gone, Reinhold Niebuhr?

Over at The Dish, Matthew Sitman is asking what happened to the Niebuhr revival — the one we all saw coming.  Why has the attention paid to Niebuhr in the era of Iraq War II subsided?

Supposing it has – and I’m not sure it has – I can think of all sorts of reasons.  Number one is the stiffening of President Obama into a pragmatist as his opponents have hardened into ideologues – so that neither side is inclined to aver to the “moral man” Niebuhr represented.

Another, it seems to me, is that Niebuhr is better known lately for his ideas (or for distillations of his ideas) than for his character or achievements.

The South African novelist and social reformer Alan Paton was moved by Niebuhr’s character as much as his ideas.  He gave a few pages to Niebuhr in Towards the Mountain, the first volume of his autobiography, now out of print in the U.S., which I found in a brick-a-brac shop in Simon’s Town, near Cape Point.  Paton met Niebuhr at a conference in London in 1946, on the same trip in which he abruptly began the piece of fiction that became his first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country.  His portrait of Niebuhr is as vivid as any I’ve read (and I’ve read plenty):

He spoke for an hour or more, with no papers, no books, no notes. He was the most enthralling speaker I had ever heard, and now, more than thirty years later, I have not heard his equal. What he said I cannot remember except for one thing, and I quote it diffidently, perhaps because somewhere in some record of that conference, his address was published, and it will be found that I have got it all wrong. He was speaking – for a portion of his address at least – on one of his favourite themes, moral man and immoral society. The one thing I remember is that he told us – in words that I have no doubt much changed – that individual man could become a saint, but that collective man was a tough proposition.

He was thus denying a hope that I had cherished when young, that human society could be perfected by love and devotion; and he was making articulate something that I knew but had never myself articulated – that the immorality of society did not invalidate a belief in the goodness of man, that in fact the inhumanity of man to man could be made endurable for us only when we manifested in our lives the humility of man to man.

For Paton, this idea became something like a strategy for how to live in apartheid-ridden South Africa — as a novelist rather than a public reformer.  For Niebuhr, in Paton’s account, it was all in a day’s work:

I had never before heard a speaker who spoke with such apparent ease, who moved his argument forward with every sentence that he spoke, who used language that could be understood by any nontheologian, who could be witty and grave in one short sentence, who in fact held his hearers in the hollow of his hand.  

Irish Catholic Rule of Love No. 1

Several of us performed magic tricks on public radio yesterday morning.

No, not really: three writers, guests on The Diane Rehm Show, got to do that rare thing – discuss literature as literature.

The book up for discussion in WAMU’s syndicated “Readers’ Review Book Club” was Someone, by Alice McDermott.  I read the novel in draft nearly two years ago in anticipation of a Faith & Culture conversation with Alice at Georgetown.  But the novel struck me all over again a second time through, and then a third time as novelist Brando Skyhorse and Fresh Air book critic and Georgetown critic-in-residence Maureen Corrigan, along with Diane Rehm herself, offered insights about it during the broadcast.

Here’s Maureen explaining how Alice renders the manners of a whole population through a telling detail, one that captures Alice’s aesthetic as well:

I grew up Irish Catholic in Queens, New York, and I’m about the same age as Alice McDermott. So, I feel, of course, some of my attraction to this book is that shared cultural reference. But the worst thing you could say about anyone, in my neighborhood growing up, is he or she puts on airs. This book doesn’t put on airs. Its main character doesn’t put on airs. But yes, her strength seeps through. I love what Marie says to her own daughters later on, when she’s a middle aged mother in talking about Walter Hartnett, the man who spurned her – the man who dumped her. She advises her own daughters to never get involved with a man who looks over your head as he’s speaking to you. That’s all she says to them about that whole painful love affair. But it’s enough: A man who doesn’t look into your eyes doesn’t love you.

And here’s Brando – writer-in-residence at GW – developing the point:

The first meeting she has with Walter, he says, oh, there’s something wrong with your eye … And immediately, within that one sentence, you know this is a doomed relationship –

–doomed because the first thing Walter does when he meets Marie is identify a flaw in her.  It’s just the wrong thing to do.   

How Alice stored up so much observation about her parents’ generation, I’ll never know.

The full broadcast is here.   

Four Cheers for Deism

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“Jim Holt is writing a book about the puzzle of existence.”  That little tagline of a bio appeared for years under Holt’s book reviews and articles – and then out came Why Does the World Exist?, a book about the answers that different thinkers across history have given to the question of the title.

The history of ideas usually involves some adroit custom-tailoring of the material.  So Louis Menand’s chronicle of American pragmatism was published as The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, with a tattered Civil War-era flag to yoke in the History Channel Crowd.  (It worked, and that very strong book won the Pulitzer Prize.)  And so Matthew Stewart’s new book, Nature’s God, is subtitled The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.  As Stewart explains a few pages in, what he is undertaking in the uncovering of those heretical origins is – publicists, hold your red pens – a revisionist history of deism:

“Deism” in its own day referred not to a superficial theological doctrine but to a comprehensive intellectual tradition that ranged freely across the terrain we now associate with ethics, political theory, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology. It was an astonishingly coherent and systematic body of thought, closer to a way of being than any particular dogma, and it retained its essential elements over a span of centuries, not decades. In origin and substance, deism was neither British nor Christian, as the conventional view supposes, but largely ancient, pagan, and continental, and it spread in America far beyond the educated elite. Although America’s revolutionary deists lavished many sincere expressions of adoration upon their deity, deism is in fact functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call “pantheism”; and pantheism is just a pretty word for atheism. While deism could often be associated with moderation in politics, it served principally do advance a system of thought that was revolutionary in its essence and effects. This essentially atheistic and revolutionary aspect of deism, I further contend, is central to any credible explanation of the revolutionary dimension of the American Revolution. In a word, America’s founders were philosophical radicals.

Probably Stewart is right that America’s founders were philosophical radicals.  But it’s hard to tell from his presentation, because it’s is so larded up with the familiar selling points for the history of ideas circa 2014.  Deism isn’t “just” theological; it is all-encompassing – except that it doesn’t encompass thought that is Christian or British.  It is systematic, but also wide-ranging; it’s coherent, but not dogmatic; it’s revolutionary, yet populist, not limited to any elite.  It retained its character over centuries, yet was central to the American Revolution, which took place in a particular decade.  It’s utterly distinctive and vitally important – and yet it’s essentially indistinguishable from its philosophical second cousins pantheism and atheism, themselves complex and wide-ranging bodies of thought.  In its time, evidently, it was all things to all men – and yet, across 250 years of free thought since then, somehow we haven’t seen it for what it is.

Surely Stewart is overstating the case for deism.  Why?  Either (a) because that’s the royal road in the trade-publishing history of ideas; or (b) because that’s how authors write introductions – by boldfacing arguments that will be developed more subtly in the book proper.  I am hoping the answer is (b).   

The photograph is of a sculpture outside the Northshire Bookstore in Vermont, meant to represent Jefferson’s conception of the separation of church and state.   

Flannery O’Connor, Artist of the Global South

Flannery O’Connor died fifty years ago this month: “Late in July she was taken to Milledgeville hospital with a severe kidney failure, and she died there in a coma on the morning of August 3,” as Robert Fitzgerald put it in the prefatory essay to Everything That Rises Must Converge.

I was in Africa on August 3: driving with family across the border and up into Swaziland en route to the Mkhaya game reserve past Big Bend (where the photograph above was taken).   And as we traveled in South Africa for several weeks, I pondered a conviction about O’Connor and her work that had trailed me the eight thousand or so miles from Brooklyn and Georgetown to Johannesburg and KwaZuluNatal and Cape Town.

Which is this: that these days the distinctive half-fictive region cherished as “Flannery O’Connor’s South” is more contiguous with the global South than with the southern part of the United States, and the aptness of O’Connor’s work to the global South is a crucial reason why it seems to point forward, not back.

In an address in Georgetown’s Faith & Culture series several years ago now – an effort to measure the gap between O’Connor’s time and ours – I wound up putting a point this way:

The genius of Flannery O’Connor was that she left many of the cultural distinctions cherished by Catholics of her age out of her work, recognizing that they were not related to truth. Instead, she made work that crossed borders—between North and South, black and white, Catholic and Protestant, the realistic and the grotesque—in order to dramatize the central human question: the question of “the salvation or loss of the soul,” as she put it. Her work will make sense when the “Protestant South” is the territory of Central and South America. It will make sense when the admirable nihilist, the practitioner of a do-it-yourself Christianity, is an oilworker on a derrick in Nigeria or a “house Christian” in Beijing. It will make sense because she looked forward, not back—looked forward imaginatively through the “realism of distances,” another term for prophecy.

Well, to travel in southern Africa is to know that this is true already – or rather, that it has become more true in this part of the global South while it has become less true in Atlanta and Louisville and New Orleans.  The coexistence of races, and the separation of the races; the busyness and disorganization and drama of public life at streetside and open market; the do-it-yourself churches with their creeds handpainted on the walls outside; the constancy of poverty; the sense that life is precious, because life is dangerous, and one’s own survival is not assured – all these are recognizable in the big cities, the villages, the townships of South Africa.

Flannery O’Connor was a regionalist, yes; but her region – her country – was the place that Pope Francis (with the Community of Sant’Egidio) calls “the periphery.”  The periphery is vast; and to travel on the periphery in South Africa is to recognize that we in America live on the periphery of a world that’s larger and more complicated than we generally realize.    

Whatever You Say, Say It Radiantly

After Seamus Heaney’s death last year I posted several pieces about his stance toward religion – his religious faith, or loss of it, or lack of it, or diffidence about it.

In Image's 25th-anniversary issue, Rowan Williams, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, weighs in:

Image: Recently, in an interview, Thomas Kinsella said that he had been “maturing into disbelief’; and Seamus Heaney said not long before he died that he no longer had any religious belief. These writers emphasize the possibility of “going beyond belief,” reaching a stage that you might almost describe as mystical. Their lives are sufficiently engaged with love, truth, and integrity. Are we to believe, do you think, that these people are actual believers, whether they admit it or not? Or is that merely a way of trying to satisfy our own anxieties?

RW: When people like that say those things about belief, very often what they seem to mean is this: if you put me on the spot and ask me what I believe to be true, in the abstract, I don’t know where I’d begin. But in them you see a use of language going back to what we were saying earlier about poetry: it’s theologically informed in that it is dense, full of radiance, of claritas. Something theological is going on and they know it.

The last thing I’d call Seamus, for instance, is an agnostic, in the sense of somebody who floats uncertainly around; he has a real commitment to the language and all that it means. Very often we tie down the notion of belief to mean having a quick answer to what you think is true out there, rather than, how do you inhabit the world you’re in, the speech you speak, and the vision you see.

And at that level I feel faith goes on, God-relatedness goes on …

I don’t think that’s Christian imperialism. I’m not trying to take away the sincerity of people’s doubts; it is just to say, if you have any religious commitment, you’re bound to believe that some of this miraculous radiance in words will come through.

Seamus Heaney used words precisely.  Myself, I am inclined to take him at his word.       

Image's anniversary issue is thick with art, faith, mystery — the journal's credo — and discussions of same.   It's an essential text in the discussion of — this site's credo —  literature, art, religious belief, current affairs, and the ways they fit together.   

This Is How the Old World Sun Sets

A hundred years on from the August depicted in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August – the August when World War I began – I am devoting a series of posts to this classic book, which I haven’t read before.

Robert K. Massie singles out the book’s opening paragraph as especially remarkable.  Here it is:

SO GORGEOUS WAS THE SPECTACLE on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens— four dowager and three regnant— and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

How does that opening paragraph work, so that it works remarkably?  I see Tuchman using several effects.

She settles on an event slightly to the side of the main story she is telling.  You might expect a book called The Guns of August and focused on the events of August 1914 to open at dawn on the morning of August 1, 1914. That would be too schematic.  Instead, Tuchman evokes a significant moment some years prior to August 1914 – an event that August 1914 will push deep into the past.

She takes advantage of what can be called the processional character of English prose to reproduce the effect it describes. English prose proceeds, or processes, from left to right, one line after another. So the writer, describing a procession, can create a procession of words, as Tuchman does here, moving sovereigns and highnessness and queens and ambassadors through the palace gate in a procession of details which represent the mass.

She begins at the end, opening with an assemblage “of its kind the last.” This handy narrative writer’s device can be used to create foreshadowing, as here, or to produce a narrative that incorporates its own telling, as in A Hundred Years of Solitude.  Tuchman enhances the effect by setting literal and figurative imagery against each other: morning bells against sunset, the “muffled tongue of Big Ben” against the “dying blaze of splendor” that the royal procession represents.

This is old-school historical writing that never gets old, even as our sense of history changes.   

David: What Kind of Man Was He?

Without making any special effort, somehow I have come to possess a short shelf of books about great figures in the Hebrew Bible: David Grossman’s extraordinary Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson, Robert Pinsky’s Life of David, and now The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero, by Yale Divinity School professor Joel Baden.

Baden’s book is revisionist-reconstructionist from top to bottom, devoted to trying to “peel back the layers of literary intepretation and recover the human David.”

We have no first-person reports of David’s life, no personal letters that might shed light on his character. We have only his actions. It is only by what he did that we can assess what kind of man he was.

Sure enough.  But I have to say I wasn’t prepared for the full extent of Baden’s peeling-back:

He was not kind or generous. He was not loving. He was not faithful or fair. He was not honorable or trustworthy. He was not decent by almost any definition. What he was, was ambitious and willing to abandon all of these positive qualities to achieve that ambition. David was a successful monarch, but he was a vile human being.

The book is published by HarperOne, and Baden’s assessment is on page 259, a few pages from the end of the book.  After all, who would read about this vile human being if he was presented as such from the beginning?    

The image is a detail from Rembrandt’s David and Uriah.  

The Guns of August, Forever Ago

“It felt like a hundred years ago when I read it – and that was years and years ago,” the bookseller told me. He meant World War I – the Great War – as recounted by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August; I had pointed out that the August of the title was a hundred Augusts ago.

A hundred years!  A hundred years ago Erik Hobsbawm’s “long nineteenth century” ended and Winston Churchill’s “terrible twentieth” began.

With that in mind, in these weeks I’ll be devoting a number of posts to The Guns of August. Published in 1962, it was Barbara Tuchman’s first best-seller and it remained the strongest seller of her many subsequent books. In an introduction master historian explains why:

Four qualities stand out: a wealth of vivid detail which keeps the reader immersed in events, almost as an eyewitness; a prose style which is transparently clear, intelligent, controlled and witty; a cool detachment of moral judgment— Mrs. Tuchman is never preachy or reproachful; she draws on skepticism, not cynicism, leaving the reader not so much outraged by human villainy as amused and saddened by human folly. These first three qualities are present in all of Barbara Tuchman’s work, but in The Guns of August there is a fourth which makes the book, once taken up, almost impossible to set aside. Remarkably, she persuades the reader to suspend any foreknowledge of what is about to happen.

Namely, that “after the Battle of the Marne, millions of men on both sides will stumble into the trenches to begin their endurance of four years of slaughter.”

To write the book, Massie explains,

She inhabited libraries— the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the British Library and Public Record Office, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Sterling Library at Yale, and the Widener Library at Harvard. (As a student , she recalled the stacks at the Widener had been “my Archimedes bathtub, my burning bush, my dish of mold where I found my personal penicillin … I was blissful as a cow put to graze in a field of fresh clover and would not have cared if I had been locked in for the night.”)

She wrote the book in a dairy barn behind her family’s summer house in Connecticut, working steadily for eight or more hours a day.

One of the paragraphs Barbara Tuchman wrote that summer took her eight hours to complete and became the most famous passage in all her work. It is the opening paragraph … By turning the page, the fortunate person who has not yet encountered this book can begin to read.

I am one of those fortunate people. Now I’ll turn the page – and I’ll devote my next Guns of August post to that eight-hour paragraph.

In July, an End to the Summer

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I took my last nightfall bike ride of the summer the other night – up Willoughby, across Franklin in the still-new bike lane, under the El and up still-bustling Fulton, and back through the brownstone-and-rowhouse acreage of Bedford-Stuyvesant — which has something like 8,800 buildings built before 1900, “perhaps the largest collection of intact and largely untouched Victorian architecture in the country.”

This past week I’ve been doing a lot of things for the last time this summer.  There’s a simple reason.  Tomorrow I am going with family to South Africa for a trip of three and a half weeks.  When we return, the end of summer will be on us: the beginning of school and sports seasons, Labor Day, and so on.

There’s also a more complicated reason.  In South Africa — in the Southern Hemisphere — it is winter.  And although winter is a pleasant time of year in South Africa – dry and temperate in Johannesburg; variable in Cape Town, where morning rain is burned off by sunshine at midday – and although friends in Cape Town say that this winter has been dry and lovely, it is winter there even so, with the sun setting around six p.m.

The knowledge that we’ll be traveling from summer to winter – leaving summer behind — has shaped my anticipation of the trip more than I could have expected and in ways I don’t quite understand.  To the sense of a beginning that is wound into a long trip to a distant place is added the sense of an ending; and this sense of an ending is compounded by the fact – radiant all around – that, weather-wise this has been the loveliest New York summer in memory, with temperatures peaking in the eighties, and by the knowledge that for us, in a few days this particular summer will end abruptly.  I feel we are flying against nature, courting jet lag writ large.

And after nearly a year of posting pieces daily to this site — 400-plus so far — I’ll be posting intermittently, breaking a rhythm I feel I’d only just found.   

Who knows what the New York summer will be like when we return, or what there will be to write about it: but officially, after all, I am telling myself, there will be a month of it left — time for plenty of night biking in Brooklyn.