The Life You Save May Be Your Own Critical Essay

His book seeks to draw them together into a movement of sorts, a band of pilgrims, a loose coalition of inveterate seekers whose unflagging search for ultimate meaning is an example worthy of our study and our imitation. Although they did not quite form a proper intellectual circle in their actual lives, the similarities between them are complex but genuine.Obviously, for one thing, there were the shared profound religious concerns which informed their lives’ work and caused them to be labeled “the School of the Holy Ghost.” But the similarity goes further.If the influence of religion has been largely elided or submerged in mainstream accounts of American intellectual history, then the role of Roman Catholicism in that history would have to be counted as doubly excluded.

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Underneath it all, one senses, is his own passion for books.

An editor by trade, Elie is clearly a man devoted to the possibilities of the written word, both his own and that of his subjects. One may actually come to know the truth through them, in the thought-haven of their world apart, and indeed one can hardly do so without them.

Perhaps Elie avoided this approach in order to give priority to his subjects’ biographies and avoid any taint of academicism, both of which are commendable aims.

But the choice may have inadvertently had the opposite effect, blurring the subjects together, and sacrificing a searching examination of their psychological peculiarities by blending it all into a larger (if itself ill-defined) story of pilgrimage.

Nineteenth-century American history was, in this view, a “progressive” story of a New Zion set down in the virgin wilderness, a fresh beginning for the human race that would follow its manifest destiny westward toward the earthly realization of God’s kingdom.

As for the notion that Catholic ideas or thinkers might have contributed anything essential to the nation’s meaning”well, that seemed too far-fetched even to require refutation.It presumes something that one has no right to presume, but that right-thinking and “spiritual” people in the Western world now presume every day: that ultimate truth is relative or pluriform, and the “journey” of pilgrimage is more important than the convictions of the pilgrims, or the destination toward which they journey.For all of Elie’s immense sympathetic regard for his subjects, he gently betrays them at the end of his book, with a conclusion that would, I feel sure, have earned him a rap on the knuckles from the blunt and unflappable Flannery O’ Connor.And”a matter very important to Elie”all four placed an extraordinarily high valuation upon the written and printed word as an avenue of spiritual inquiry.They were people who lived in and through books, in a way that is increasingly rare today.But the constant resort to a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” style of exposition can be distracting to the point of exasperation, and most emphatically does not add to the book’s appeal.Such a stylistic choice, moreover, reflects a substantive problem, as stylistic choices so often do.Although no one would mistake for a work of Catholic apologetics, it is an unusually affirmative work, a splendid counter to the cynicism and obscurantism that have brought literary scholarship in present-day America to the point of ruin.It is affirmative of its subjects, affirmative of their bookishness, affirmative of the possibilities of the written word, and affirmative of its subjects’ shared pilgrimage”the endless high-minded seeking that consumed their lives.I did not, for example, find in Elie’s book any account of the early influences that helped make Dorothy Day and Flannery O’ Connor into such strange and formidable personalities; it all seems to emerge from nowhere, forming the “set” with which they make sense of subsequent experience.Ultimately, it is a book about pilgrimage, and as the subtitle suggests, the pilgrimage is somehow the same for all of them.

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