The University Bookman

 
 

Fall 2016

Taking Things as They Are

book cover imageMr. Blue
by Myles Connolly
with an introduction by Stephen Mirarchi.
Cluny Media, 2015.
Paper, 198+xiv pages, $18.

Lee Oser

This new edition of Myles Connolly’s 1928 Catholic novella Mr. Blue invites comment on the state of relations between Roman Catholicism and American literary culture. Early last year, Pope Francis surprised many of us by recommending a neglected novel called Lord of the World, by an English convert, Robert Hugh Benson. Lord of the World is a well-crafted work of the Edwardian period, featuring mystical passages of a surreal intensity. It is also anti-democratic, dystopian, humorless, apocalyptic—and compelling as prophecy. Benson’s crystal ball has proven more accurate than Orwell’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four, because Benson, unlike Orwell, knew that religion (in one form or another) is what ultimately drives society and culture. American Catholics have been purchasing Lord of the World in significant quantities.

The reissue of Mr. Blue as a “Cluny Classic” has Catholics again looking to the past for the pleasures of fiction. By coincidence, one can detect the impact of Benson’s apocalyptic novel on Mr. Blue. In chapter three, J. Blue, the young Bostonian who is the main character, relates his “story for a motion picture” about the dystopian effort by the “International Government of the World” to exterminate Christianity. So we may deduce that Roman Catholic readers, alienated by cosmopolitan progressivism, find themselves in an apocalyptic mood. They are bidding farewell to a culture that has become toxically anti-Catholic. Something of this same kind of apocalyptic brooding lay behind Lord of the World.

Myles Connolly was, however, more upbeat than Benson about Catholicism’s power to engage modern life. Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1897, Connolly graduated in 1918 from Boston College, where he ran the college literary magazine, Stylus. In 1929, Joseph Kennedy Sr. persuaded the young novelist to undertake a career as a Hollywood screenwriter. By the time of his death in 1964, Connolly had written and produced over forty films, as well as three additional novels. Not only does Blue, a fervent Catholic, talk enthusiastically about the future of the arts in America, but Connolly is rich in intertextual dialogue with prominent American authors, chiefly the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, but also Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel West, T. S. Eliot (compare “J. Blue” and “J. Alfred Prufrock”), and, rather tellingly, the Melville of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The template of the spiritual sojourner encountered by the practical American businessman is Melville’s invention, not Connolly’s. We can appreciate Connolly, though, for seeing Catholic possibilities in dissenting from the Gnosticism of Melville and the pessimism of Fitzgerald. Originality in the arts is overvalued by Americans; Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not value it so highly. In any case, Connolly tasted freely of the wild fruits of American culture. He writes his book in dialogue with his fellow citizens, not in retreat from them.

If Mr. Blue is a Catholic “classic,” it begs an important question: how does a Catholic literary classic compare to other literary classics? Is the bar lower, or just different? Connolly is of two minds. In one of his letters, Blue writes, “‘a Christian should have Christian customs and manners, Christian poetry and pleasures, should live, indeed, in that fragrant and lively flowering of the Christian life that is called Christian culture.’” Yet it must have been clear to Connolly that, without the rival influences of Melville and Fitzgerald, Mr. Blue would never have existed. It is to Connolly’s credit that he sets himself up to be judged not by Catholic standards, whatever they may be, but by the best literary standards of his day.

It does not follow, however, that Connolly’s novel can claim the status of a classic without indirectly calling into question our appreciation of much greater works of art. Mr. Blue remains a breath of fresh air, and that is no small praise. It is worth reading and it will harm no one who reads it. It is distinctly interesting as a serious Catholic intervention on the American literary scene. But the young man who is intrigued by David Foster Wallace—no soulless hack—is unlikely to be smitten by Mr. Blue. More than the superficies of life have changed; so have “customs and manners,” and so has the spiritual atmosphere. It is not so easy to determine whether the United States is still a Christian nation; first we must determine whether it is still a nation. But where Melville and Fitzgerald continue to find their way to us on their own merits, Connolly requires special handling. So long as we can maintain an accurate sense of his real literary value, he can very deservedly claim the affection of Catholic readers—a kind of tribal affection that has many parallels in today’s multicultural society. But, for some of us, it is discouraging to begin to contemplate two sets of standards, one for the tribe of American Catholics, and one for the American literary canon.

This tendency toward two sets of standards is, very likely, not in keeping with Connolly’s intention, nor is it directly ascribable to his love of Chesterton. It possibly has something to do with the charming appeal of Blue, a modern-day Saint Francis armed with distinctly Chestertonian joie de vivre, insofar as Chesterton has been aggressively praised, packaged, and sold by the champions of reaction: this does not refer to the editors of the excellent Chesterton Review or to ordinary Chesterton enthusiasts. Rather, this refers to those intelligent men and women—authors, editors, bloggers—who view the contemporary world with too much suspicion and contempt to feel any creative affinity for it. By contrast, Connolly and Chesterton were engaged and stimulated by their contemporaries in the field of literature. They were not so purely reactionary. Reaction, like apocalyptic brooding, is a legitimate but incomplete response to any cultural crisis.

What should really alarm serious Catholic thinkers is that the tendency toward two standards goes against the entire grain of John Henry Newman’s understanding, and it is really Newman who offers the most valuable philosophical remarks about Catholicism and literature: “We must take things as they are, if we take them at all.… we Catholics, without consciousness and without offense, are ever repeating the half sentences of dissolute playwrights and heretical partisans and preachers. So tyrannous is the literature of a nation; it is too much for us.” There is no stronger warning voice against the tendency toward dual or double standards than Newman’s in his lecture “English Catholic Literature.” Newman grasped the crucial relation between history and consciousness. So too did Chesterton. The author of Mr. Blue was no fool, but he knowingly sidestepped the most difficult problems facing Catholic authors by setting up his protagonist as a highly idealistic young man. When it comes to the deeper problems of Catholicism and literary culture, Connolly must yield to his greater Catholic contemporaries, preeminently Evelyn Waugh, but also, in some considerable respects, Fitzgerald. But that is a discussion for another day.

The Cluny Classics edition of Mr. Blue features an expert introduction and voluminous notes by Stephen Mirarchi. A recent, cheaply produced edition by Loyola Classics, despite its classic pretensions, has already gone out of print.  

Lee Oser’s third novel, Oregon Confetti, will be published by Wiseblood Books in 2017.

Posted: December 1, 2016

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