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July 6th, 2003

Startling Grace

Paul Elie Knits Together the Lives of Four Astounding Writers

 
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Paul Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, takes its title from a short story by Flannery O’Connor.

In the story a tramp named Mr. Shiftlet marries and soon abandons a deaf and mute woman. Driving off, Shiftlet comes upon a hitchhiker and a highway sign that reads: “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own.” For O’Connor the title is literal, then ironic, and ultimately mysterious, indicative of her gothic sensibility and self-proclaimed “working knowledge of the devil.”

Lives of startling grace
Elie uses the title earnestly as he traces the pilgrim’s progress of four Catholic American writers of the last century: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Thomas Merton. Each figure lived a life of startling grace. The way their lives were saved is as central to Elie’s story as is the way they came to write. In the prologue, Elie argues that all four writers were students of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Hopkins and Henry James; writers who preceded them in time the way that this quartet precedes us. We’d do well, he argues, to know their words and lives better.

Rich unions
Flannery O’Connor was a “cradle Catholic” with a barbed tongue who spent her adult life on a Georgia farm with a collection of peacocks and her mother. Her art is full of grotesque characters and the awful grace of a God who allows maiming and murders.

Dorothy Day was an anarchist, a pacifist, a journalist and a recent Catholic convert and single mother when she met Peter Maurin, the French peasant who indoctrinated her in the radical social teachings of the Church. Dorothy and Peter founded the Catholic Worker movement, which seeks to live out the Sermon on the Mount by offering hospitality, living with and as the poor, performing the works of mercy, bringing scholars and workers together for “the clarification of thought,” sustaining farming communes and witnessing prophetically through activism and civil disobedience.

Dorothy’s own life was one of rich unions—love affairs gave way to life in community, and Marxist-Leninist philosophy was joined with papal encyclicals to call for a world where it is “easier for people to be good.”

Converts gone south
Walker Percy, like O’Connor, was rooted in the South. Percy studied medicine and practiced in New York before contracting tuberculosis, the disease that would put him flat on his back for five years, at the end of which he’d rise up a novelist and a Catholic.

Thomas Merton was a Columbia-trained academic and restless epicurean when his conversion led him to a Trappist Monastery in the hills of Kentucky. It was there that he would intercede for the life of the world through praying the Liturgy of the Hours and through his prolific writing.

The school of the Holy Ghost
Taken together, these writers constitute a “school of the Holy Ghost.” Each character is extraordinary and Elie weaves their biographies together like a novel. He need not invent, though, for the happening truth is story enough—how O’Connor’s lupus brought her to the cross, how Day maintained her complete pacifism during the Spanish-American War, how Merton moved from misplaced misanthropy to Eastern mysticism, and how Percy overcame a long-line of suicide to die a joyful death.

Throughout the biography, Elie quotes extensively from their writings, which are various.

Painfully awake
Elie is, by his own account, not a scholar or a writer so much as he is an editor. The book, though finely written, is not art, nor does it uncover rare manuscripts, liaisons, or letters. For those who have already read biography of these writers, much of The Life You Save May Be Your Own will be familiar.

But even in its familiarity there are many surprises. Elie’s great accomplishment is the architecture of the work which allows him to join disparate writers in time and across theme. He follows their meetings: when Percy visited Merton and used his life as inspiration for a fictional character; when Day wrote Merton; and the time O’Connor scolded Day for her visit to the South.

He follows their shared struggles: with doubt and alienation, orthodoxy, lost love and the work of writing lines that ring true and remain. In tracing their own vocations as writers and their charisms of art, charity, philosophy and prayer, Elie begs the reader to consider their lives. Reading this book is as comforting as entering a room full of old friends. It is deeply discomforting, too, for these writers were painfully, wholly awake, and many of us, even when reading, are mostly asleep.

 
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The Author : Mia Nussbaum
Mia Nussbaum writes from New York City.
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