Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief. By Joseph Pearce, Ignatius Press, 1999.
Joseph Pearce has become famous for writing biographies of Christian literary figures, focusing on how their faith impacts their work. Literary Converts is a collection of essays on numerous Christian authors from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many authors who are the subjects of Pearce’s full-length biographies, such as G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, appear in this work.
In his introduction, Pearce writes:
“In 1905, the young G.K. Chesterton published Heretics, a volume of essays in which he precociously criticized many of his contemporaries, including, most notably, both Shaw and Wells. One critic responded to Heretics by stating that Chesterton should not have condemned other people’s ‘heresies’ until he had stated his own ‘orthodoxy.’ Chesterton accepted the criticism and rose to the challenge. In 1908 his Orthodoxy was published. Its central premise was that the most profound mysteries of life and human existence were best explained in the light of the Apostles’ Creed.
Chesterton’s ‘coming out’ as a Christian had a profound effect, similar in its influence to Newman’s equally candid confession of orthodoxy more than fifty years earlier. In many ways it heralded a Christian literary revival which, throughout the twentieth century, represented an evocative artistic and intellectual response to the prevailing agnosticism of the age. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, the Dante scholar and friend and biographer of Dorothy L. Sayers, described this literary revival as ‘a network of minds energizing each other.’ Besides Chesterton, its leading protagonists included T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Siegfried Sassoon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, Charles Williams, R.H. Benson, Ronald Knox, Edith Sitwell, Roy Campbell, Maurice Baring, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Dorothy L. Sayers, Christopher Dawson, Malcolm Muggeridge, R.S. Thomas, and George Mackay Brown. Its influence spread beyond the sphere of literature. Alec Guinness, Ernest Milton and Robert Speaight were among the thespians whose lives were interwoven with those of their Christian literary contemporaries...
Taken as a whole, this network of minds represented a potent Christian response to the age of unbelief. It produced some of the century’s great literary masterpieces and stands as a lasting testament to the creative power of faith. The story of how these giants of literature exerted a profound influence on each other and on the age in which they lived represents more than merely a study of one important aspect of twentieth-century literature. It is an adventure story in which belief and unbelief clash in creative collision.”
Most of the authors receive a very brief mini-biography, followed by a more extensive look at their spiritual lives, and an overview of some of their most prominent works on religious themes. Pearce opens his book with the unlikely conversion of Oscar Wilde. Contrary to the widespread popular belief that Wilde was more concerned with wit and decadence than spiritual matters, Pearce relates evidence that shows that for most of his life, Wilde was fascinated by Catholicism, although his eventual conversion occurred right before his death. Pearce writes:
“However, there appeared little sign of Wilde showing any real inclination to join the Church himself until the final months of his life. Shortly after his release from prison, having completed the two years’ hard labour imposed upon him in the wake of his ill-advised and abortive libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry, he had stated that ‘the Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do.’”
Notably, some of the best and most interesting chapters focus on authors where Pearce has written a full-length book on the subject. Authors like Chesterton and Belloc are very close to Pearce’s heart, and his second chapter, “Belloc, Baring and Chesterton,” reads as if he is describing dear friends. Pearce writes:
“When Sir James Gunn exhibited his famous painting, ‘The Conversation Piece,’ depicting G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Maurice Baring assembled round a table, Chesterton, which characteristic humour, labeled the three figures ‘Baring, over-bearing and past-bearing.’ Yet Gunn’s group portrait, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery, represented much more than a mere assemblage of friends. The three literary figures were considered by the reading public to be inseparable in many respects. They shared not only a common friendship, but a common philosophy and a common faith. If not as indivisible as the Holy Trinity they were at least as indomitable as the Three Musketeers! In the case of the Belloc-Baring-Chesterton chimera, the battle-cry of all for one and one for all is not inappropriate.”
Nearly all of the chapters are interesting, though the essays on obscure writers are less compelling, partially due to the subjects’ lack of prominence. It is easier to get immersed in chapters where one is already a fan of the central figure. One of the best chapters is on the actor Alec Guinness. One of the few figures in the book who is not primarily a writer, Guinness’s chapter is a particularly lively read, and it makes one hope that Pearce will some day write a biography on Guinness with an emphasis on his movies with Catholic themes. Another gem of a chapter is the one on Dorothy L. Sayers, which shows the author’s Christian apologetic work, for which she eventually abandoned mystery writing.
The big question that arises from reading Literary Converts is “why aren’t these writers more popular?” I submit that many of these writers are just as, if not even more talented than many of the leading modernist writers. It seems to me that there are two main reasons why the subjects of Literary Converts occupy a niche status in twentieth century literary history. The first is that there is a strong anti-religious strain amongst many influential critics and scholars which intentionally and unfairly marginalizes Christian writers. The second is that there has not been a sufficiently powerful critical defense of the authors found in Literary Converts.
There is no reason why the subjects of Literary Converts need to remain relegated to niche status. Throughout the early twentieth century, many of the leading authors, including some Nobel Prize winners, were Christian writers whose faith featured heavily in their work. Many of these authors fell into obscurity because of a critical backlash against them. It is true that many of the most celebrated modern writers are not traditionally religious, and it is certainly true that there is a strong secular bent to much of modern culture, but the reasons why these authors occupy such a high place in the literary pantheon is because influential critics and scholars put and keep them there. The selection of canonical authors is largely subjective– the fans and supporters of the leading modernist authors promoted the authors they liked, and denigrated those that they didn’t. The subjects of Literary Converts can receive more widespread appreciation through the creation of critical arguments explaining why these authors can be appreciated by everybody– not only Christians.
Literary Converts is a wonderful celebration of some marvelous writers, but it helps to reinforce the challenging restrictions of the “Catholic ghetto,” which makes talented writers of faith second-tier authors through no fault of the writers. If Christian authors are going to receive more widespread respect, the whole “age of unbelief” needs to be met head-on, and attempts have to be made to expand the pantheon of “great” writers. The subjects of Literary Converts should not be viewed as simply the best of the religious authors– they ought to be viewed as among the best of all the authors from their times. The only way to break the unjust strictures of literary criticism is to create a strong and eloquent critical rebuttal, emphasizing that figures like Chesterton, Tolkien, Belloc, Lewis, Sayers, and more deserve a higher level of critical respect, and that perhaps some of the celebrated modernists need to be taken down a notch or two.