In 1912 Ralph Adams Cram helped publish Henry Adams’ book Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. Cram, an Anglo-Catholic socialist, did not regard the book as a mere academic monograph. He hoped readers of the book would have an “encounter with the religious past” that would inspire them to “criticize the industrial capitalist order and imagine a better future.” Contemplation of the radicalism of the Middle Ages, he believed, would catalyze a Christian socialism opposed to both modernity and capitalism; a book about a Christian past was meant to be the foundation for a new Christian future.
This story opens that of Jonathan McGregor Communion of Radicals: The Christian Literary Left in Twentieth-Century America. The anecdote situates McGregor’s hopes for his book. If contemplation and criticism can lead to imitation, then writing about the Christian literary left of the last century could help establish a Christian literary left for this century. Whether we meet obscure writers – Vida Scudder, James Dabbs or Cram himself – or well-known figures like Dorothy Day, TS Eliot and WH Auden, we are supposed to see in them possibilities for the future. This is an academic book with a mission.
McGregor sets himself a major challenge: to develop a theory of radical Christian literature, to integrate writers into it and to found a revival of this literature.
McGregor offers something more interesting than another hymn to Catholic literature’s past. It is more interesting because it recovers the radical social critiques of Christian literature. Developing an understanding of Christian literature as an agent of revolutionary love requires arguments that go in different directions. For example, his chapter on TS Eliot and WH Auden argues that these two literary figures were leftist writers. Writing about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, he argues that these two leftists were literary figures. At other times it maintains the general relevance of forgotten characters like John Wheelwright or Scudder. Complex argumentation takes on its full meaning in an academic text. However, this is part of the difficult tension of a book that sometimes cannot choose between being an academic book and a source of political and literary renewal.
McGregor sets himself a major challenge: to develop a theory of radical Christian literature, to integrate writers into it and to found a revival of this literature. He mostly succeeds (although I’m not so sure where John Crowe Ransom fits in the book). His writings on Christian radicals in the South develop an anti-racist tradition of Southern thought. This is particularly compelling in his writings on Walker Percy. It shows how integral anti-racism was to Percy’s Christian humanism. For me, Percy gives hope for the union of anti-racism and pro-life advocacy. McGregor’s interpretation of Percy The Last Gentleman prompted me to remove the novel from my library.
As I read the story of Day and Maurin, I was reminded of the beauty of their writing and the moral force that this beauty conveyed. They showed that writing can sometimes move mountains. These chapters are literary scholarship at its finest; McGregor makes you want to read Day and Maurin again or read them for the first time.
McGregor’s section on Claude McKay is another highlight and an important key to interpreting the text. The poet, novelist and convert to Catholicism developed a commitment to the medieval that exemplifies the radical potential of authentic Christian traditionalism. McGregor writes that McKay developed “an orientation to the past—a traditional radicalism” that set him apart from his literary peers and other leftists. His Catholic Worker poems “brought medievalism to the service of black liberation”.
The writing of medieval for radical social causes is a unifying theme of this book. The medieval becomes a position from which to reject the rapacity of capitalism and the flattening secularism of liberalism and Marxism. The writers deploy the medieval as a counter-possibility to modernity, marked by an egalitarian economy, anti-racist principles and deep religious convictions. Radical medievalism is the kind of political motivation that could help, to quote Maurin, “create a new society in the shell of the old” with “a philosophy so old it feels new”.
If the Christian left is to be reborn, it will need poets, novelists and artists. He will also need a scholarship like Jonathan McGregor’s.
It was not only medievalism that united these thinkers; there was also their religious orthodoxy. Their motivation was the belief that “human equality and human community are achievements won through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who unites all mankind to God in his incarnation,” writes McGregor. As the Christian left seems to wither and the Christian right grows in its commitment to uniformity, inequality and exclusion, encountering the radical potential of the Gospel and the Church in poets, essayists and novelists is encouraging. It’s not that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, as Shelley claims. On the contrary, for McGregor, literature is “a part of the field of cultural conflict”. If the Christian left is to be reborn, it will need poets, novelists and artists. He will also need a scholarship like McGregor’s.
At the end of McGregor’s book, I felt a tension: was this well-written scholarship a source of optimism or pessimism? McGregor is right that if a Christian literary left wants to be part of a revival of truly Christian politics, it will have to cling to an orthodoxy that underpins social change while working with other leftist movements. But the prospects for orthodoxy and Christian social change look bleak as we face a Democratic Party increasingly detached from religion and committed to abortion rights, and a Republican Party whose drift to the right shows few signs of slowing down.
McGregor’s findings on “Weird Christians” and “Tradinists” made me think that there is a future for the Christian left nowhere but in these categories. But McGregor is not promising a political program or claiming an optimistic outlook. It promises a well-researched view of the past – and of tradition and orthodoxy – to help animate a Christian literary left. More importantly, his book promises a little hope, a virtue very different from optimism or pessimism.
Hope does not disappoint; hope engages in the work of God and the works of mercy. We may have to follow Auden’s path by developing dissent suburbs that foment a “monastic revolt against the Empire”. Or perhaps a broader movement can occur through a commitment to justice and Jesus that grounds society in real gospel values. The future is unknown, but books that remind us of past writers like Day, Eliot, Percy and McKay offer the challenge of imagining and building a new and arguably very different future.