Spring was trying to emerge. Lent was just under way; war remained, theoretically, only a possibility. Although the air had March's whip to it, there was a sense of hope. It was a Friday afternoon and the sunlight seemed content to linger a while.
From Paul Elie's office at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a small cubicle with a big window looking south from 19 Union Square West in Manhattan, any New Yorker would notice, beyond the tangle of chimney-potted roofscapes, what was not there—the twin towers, which used to stand about two miles away. If the sky seemed empty, it could still seem benign.
"I was home that day," Elie tells PW, here to reconnoiter a moment before heading to a downtown eatery to talk about Elie's new book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. "But everyone came in here to look."
As we make our way out, wandering through the warren of cramped hallways tightened by insistent shelves of books—titles by Heaney, Sontag, Brodsky, Wolfe, all four Franzens—Elie quips that one author has suggested that the uncommodiousness of FSG's quarters are an elaborate front "for keeping advances low." In truth, it is more a monument to the most significant and enduring postwar publishing in America. For Elie, at least, it is not only an atmosphere that nurtured, and now has published, his eloquent group portrait of four mid-century Catholic American writers—Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day—but common crossroad for all four, who in one way or another walked through these halls of influence.
Elie has been an editor at FSG for 10 years. As a teenager, he was wild about the work of two (at the time) unorthodox nonfiction writers, Tom Wolfe and John McPhee. He now counts them among the writers he has helped edit at FSG. "I'm lucky," he says, still amazed.
Seated at a Lower East Side restaurant, Elie has a gentle yet intense presence. Thoughts seem to well up viscerally—he nearly swallows the words back to stem the rush, and to edit, even as we talk about the gentrification of the neighborhood or that Norah Jones used to sing in the place across the street. A certain passion ekes out through an elaborate process that must owe something to the editorial prerogatives he has absorbed and made his own.
Born in 1965, Elie grew up as a Roman Catholic with three siblings near Albany, N.Y. His parents worked in state government jobs and he attended the superb Shaker Heights High School—"really, it was college-level courses," he says—and went to Fordham. "I had a total-immersion Jesuit education there. I was an English major, but I took a lot of theology and philosophy, even an art course, which was religious art, Chartres and so forth, and I got really into how this stuff all fits together."
Like most young people, what he was trying to figure out and fit together was his own experience—what was inherited tradition, what was him. Specifically, Elie was interested in how faith, belief and knowledge interrelated in one's life. "To figure things out, I turned to books, and I turned to the books of the four people I ended up writing about."
Flannery O'Connor came first. "I took that white book of her complete stories and tried to read it, and I just didn't get her work at the beginning. I thought she was a man until I got the book. It was at least a year before I really understood why these were really good stories." Merton came next: "There was a very big shelf of his works in the Fordham library. I sat up there Indian-style on the top floor of the library and just monkishly read my way through them." For Elie, Merton captured "the Catholic religious experience the way it actually feels, the experience of yearning for an encounter with the Divine and really going after it. I was just knocked out by it."
An M.F.A. at Columbia was the next step, where Elie studied with Robert Towers, Richard Locke and Joyce Johnson. The place was hot at that moment, he says—"Mona Simpson's book had just come out, Tama Janowitz's." But he is quick to preempt any general disparagement of the M.F.A. industry as trendy places for wannabe writers looking to make connections. "Writing programs are unfairly maligned," he says. "It was really rigorous teaching, very traditional. You got a clear sense of literary history and how to apply it to your own work."
Elie supported himself with a mixture of copyediting jobs and magazine assignments—Spy, New Republic, Lingua Franca, Double-Take —until a position as assistant to Jonathan Galassi at FSG opened up.
While carrying a heavy load at FSG (he is now a senior editor there), his writing on the outside became dispiriting to him. "I had a number of pieces killed, and a lot of the pieces required a negative edge—you had to look for trouble somewhere. It made me really unhappy." He realized he was really "a book person, not a magazine person." Being at FSG—"a great place to work"—confirmed that. Early on, conversations with another young editor, Alane Mason, then with Harcourt, led to Elie's first book project of his own, A Tremor of Bliss, a collection of essays by contemporary writers on the lives of saints. Elie contributed his own essay, on Saint Thomas. "In writing about Doubting Thomas, the one who wants to see and touch Jesus' wounds for himself rather than trust the testimony of others, I came upon what turned out to be the theme of The Life You Save"—reading as pilgrimage.
"In a pilgrimage," Elie says, "you take a path that someone else has taken to see something that someone else has seen, but to see it for yourself. That's different from being an explorer, where you want to see something that nobody's seen, or from being a tourist, which is to see something that somebody else has seen and see it just the way everybody else has seen it. I was trying to figure out why these books affect me and so many other people so much."
At the FSG offices, Elie was able to indulge his curiosity in a very privileged way. The stacks of books that squeeze a visitor in the hallways contain many books by Percy, O'Connor and Merton, all with the FSG fish logo on their spines. And the man most responsible for bringing those writers to 19 Union Square West was Robert Giroux, now 89 years old. And Elie knows the story well:
"Robert Giroux was a Columbia graduate who went to work at Harcourt Brace after World War II and very quickly became the top editor there. One day he received in the mail a long memoir about becoming a Trappist monk from a guy he'd known in college—Thomas Merton. He read it and published it, and it became a huge bestseller, it sold 600,000 copies—a phenomenal success. He also worked with Robert Lowell, and Lowell, who was just getting back into the Catholic Church at the time, met O'Connor at Yaddo. He came to New York to visit Giroux and brought O'Connor with him. Giroux ended up publishing Wise Blood at Harcourt Brace and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and then he came over here, in 1958, when it was Farrar, Straus and Co., and became the editor-in-chief. He brought at least 16 great authors with him—among them Lowell, Berryman, Eliot, Malamud, O'Connor, Merton."
Walker Percy's first novel was published at Knopf and edited by Stanley Kauffmann, now the film critic at the New Republic. Knopf had two National Book Award nominees for the fiction award in 1962—William Maxwell for The Chateau and Percy for The Moviegoer. When Percy won, "it was not sufficiently appreciated over at Knopf, or so the story goes," says Elie, giving the FSG version. "So when he had a chance to find a new publisher for his second book, he knew of this place through O'Connor, not personally, but through her work." Henry Robbins, a young top editor at FSG, edited Percy at first, before Giroux took him on.
"Working here," says Elie, "I started reading deeply again in these writers and seeing the connections between them. It all started with Giroux's introduction to the O'Connor stories. He compares her to Thomas Merton. Then I started noticing other likenesses, and I read Martin Stannard's two-volume biography of Evelyn Waugh, which made all sorts of interesting connections. He describes Waugh's visit to America where he visited Dorothy Day"—the radical Catholic pacifist and founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper—"and Merton. But Stannard also describes mid-century Catholic literary culture over there—Waugh, Graham Greene and various publisher types in England—and I started looking for their American counterparts."
It was now a book idea, and Elie talked it over with Lydia Wills, a literary agent who had contacted Elie after seeing a magazine piece he'd written. He worked up a proposal, and Wills sent it out to Alane Mason, who had moved to Norton. She turned it down "none too gracefully," says Elie. Then Giroux, who was coming in once a week or so, read the proposal and made some notes. Galassi read it, too, and made the crucial suggestion that Elie go deeper; it was too journalistic. "So I went and rewrote it, and tried to figure out what was going on with this kind of writing, and that's where the ideas of pilgrimage and of books that we read with our lives came from." When the revised proposal went out, there was interest at Scribner, Harcourt and HarperCollins. Elie went to Sicily and proposed marriage to Lenora Todaro, now his wife. When they returned, FSG made "a really good offer. It made sense. It was about their authors. I put my life in their hands."
The result is a 560-page, beautifully paced quartet of life stories, each about a Catholic writer—three of them converts—who came to an understanding of personal faith through reading. "It's a process I try to depict again and again with these writers. They identified with the protagonists of Dostoyevski or Hopkins or Hawthorne or with Camus's Mersault or with Kierkegaard, and then they tried to write work that had that same effect of pointing the reader back to his or her life and take the measure of it through a book that is a challenge to the whole self." That is the experience Elie captures and passed on to his readers.
The lives themselves are vital, committed, intensely dramatic. Percy, who studied to be a doctor, contracts TB, turns to writing, and returns to his native Louisiana. O'Connor, the only "cradle-Catholic" among them, eccentrically wondrous in Protestant Georgia, mines the depths of her belief while struggling with lupus, which led to her death at 39. Day, with a vow of poverty and a mission to spread pacifism in the face of America at war, argues weekly in the pages of her penny-a-copy newspaper for an ethic of charity. Merton, who sought wisdom through the stations of the monastic life, dies tragically on a Buddhist retreat.
Elie wends through these stories and offers engaged, insightful readings of the authors' works. But does it amount to a history of a "Catholic" moment in American writing that is now passed? Elie thinks not.
"There is more 'Catholic' writing coming. Let me tell you why. One reason is that, today, if you've been raised in the Catholic tradition, you have to figure it out for yourself. It doesn't come with mother's milk the way it did in the parochial school era, so you have to put the pieces together more yourself. And the natural place to do that is through books. And two, the problem of Catholic writing is analogous to what a lot of younger writers are trying to do anyway—consolidate the gains of postwar experimental writing and make them work in books that have the satisfaction of traditional narrative."
As this is written, it is April; spring has arrived, and so has the war. In the media, on the streets, in homes, talk of religious identity, faith and tradition threads through talk of military strategies. Elie is aware of this.
"It has struck me often that here is a big book, essentially sympathetic to religion, at a time when it seems that nothing but bad things are being done in religion's name. At present, religion is being presented as a mass phenomenon, wholly public, closely overlapping with notions of state and nation. I like to think that my book gives an account of the aspects of religion that might be overlooked—inwardness, the sense of individual personal calling, the constant putting of faith to the test through the encounter with the unbeliever within.
"The thing about a book," he adds, "is that you can read it in private, you can take it or leave it, you can make up your own mind."