This is a remarkable, indeed a staggering book. Each of the four sections, on G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones, taken alone, would have made it worthwhile. Taken together, they offer an illuminating analysis of the vigorous Catholic revival that took place in Britain during the early and middle years of the twentieth century— but which had largely failed by the end of it. This revival was literary and artistic in form, and the four exemplars selected for study were among the best writers of their generation. It was a revival largely led by converts, by men who had rejected the principles of the modernity that they had imbibed with their mothers’ milk and who in adulthood attempted to build a “counter-modernity” under the sheltering mantle of the Catholic Church.
Other books have tackled this subject—notably Patrick Allitt’s Catholic Converts and Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts, both mentioned here. But these have largely been forced to sacrifice depth for breadth of coverage, since the field is a large one. Nearer, perhaps, is Ian Ker’s The Catholic Literary Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, which appeared two years earlier than the book under review but is strangely not mentioned in the otherwise very extensive bibliography. Fr. Ker’s book covers two of the same writers as Mr. Schwartz (Chesterton and Greene), but it also extends back to the period of John Henry Newman and Hopkins and is concerned less with the details of biography than with developing a literary judgment of the works themselves. Father Ker’s starting point is Newman’s assertion that “Catholic literature” is an impossibility within the English culture of his day, an assertion that Fr. Ker rejects and attempts to disprove.
Mr. Schwartz’s book too, of course, begins with Newman. The title is a reference to the famous sermon of 1852, “The Second Spring,” which celebrated with incandescent rhetoric the re-establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales after centuries of suppression, looking forward to an “English spring” of Catholic civilization in years to come. Adam Schwartz takes that prophecy as having been fulfilled in the later nineteenth century, leading him to christen the subsequent twentieth-century revival a “third” spring. (By contrast I have always taken the longer view, for if the first springtime of Christianity in Britain lasted centuries, the second may also take some time to unfold. Certainly we have experienced no summertime as yet.)
Mr. Schwartz’s introductory chapter makes sense of the four biographies he is about to present by explaining the context for this peculiarly modern reaction against modernity. The cultural prestige and influence of traditional or dogmatic Christianity had declined still further than in Newman’s day. The force of secularism had become overwhelming. The certainties of Victorian rationalism began to unravel at the fin de siècle in decadence and spiritualism; they were laid finally to rest in the two World Wars. The distinguished converts found not merely refuge, but an armory, in the resurgent Italianate Catholicism of Cardinal Wiseman and the Thomistic revival promulgated by Pope Leo XIII. It seemed to them—and perhaps it was—the only intellectual and social force strong enough to challenge secularism.
As the book argues, these Roman converts rejected modernity so radically that they rejected even those modern ideologies that offered another kind of certainty: Communism and Fascism. They sought a more profound critique, and found it in a tradition that predated modernity altogether. Yet the fact that this was a living tradition—and not merely living, but vigorous—meant that their retreat was a strategic withdrawal for the purpose not of escaping but ultimately of transforming modern civilization. The Catholic Church contained the power to create culture, the power of continual renaissance. The converts functioned—at times self-consciously—not just as critics but as prophets. And though their Anglican fellow-travellers found enough of the tradition left still in the Church of England to stand against modernity without changing their allegiance, the Roman converts felt that “the Anglican church was finding it increasingly difficult to establish definitive doctrines at a time when they considered such certainty imperative.” Mr. Schwartz adds: “Radical, corporate resistance to secularizing mores was thus a constituent element of Roman Catholic identity in the century’s young years, but was not a necessary facet of the Anglican outlook.”
G. K. Chesterton is the first of the four authors to be examined in detail, and as an account of his trajectory from Unitarianism and Spiritualism to Anglicanism and finally to the Roman Catholic Church, it could hardly be bettered. Mr. Schwartz rightly lays more emphasis than is usual upon Chesterton’s early crisis at the Slade, where he came close to madness (the madness of his age), and on his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, which he interprets as a disguised description and working-out of that crisis. It is a theory that accords well enough with the evidence, and does much to deepen our appreciation of that spirituality of gratitude and confident rejection of pantheism that mark the mature Chesterton.
Where Chesterton’s life was marked by the bold strokes that we find in his own artistic style, from the first encounter with Evil to the eventual discovery of Thomism and complete acceptance of papal authority, Graham Greene’s journey was as complex and ambiguous as his own writing. The criticisms he made of Church leadership and his self-excommunication in later years have led many to consider him hardly a Catholic at all. Yet Catholic he was, and considered himself to be. His admiration for Chesterton and their shared confidence that the Catholic Church alone could stand against the madness of the age make him a suitable candidate for inclusion in this book, and Schwartz’s sympathetic treatment of his struggles is one of its great merits.
Christopher Dawson was received into the Catholic Church in January 1914 from an Anglo-Catholic background, and at the cost of deep divisions in his immediate family. His trajectory is a bit reminiscent of Newman’s, though in his case a reaction against Harnack played a role, and even more important than any set of intellectual or even mystical ideas was the personal example of friends, especially E. I. Watkin. Dr. Dawson remains an historian (and meta-historian) of enormous importance, whose work is currently undergoing a renaissance of interest in the scholarly community. What makes his studies of European history and of other cultures so readable is his Romantic perception that history is not “a flat expanse of time, measured off in dates” but “a series of different worlds and that each of them had its own spirit and form and its own riches of poetic imagination.” Thus Dr. Dawson was able creatively and empathetically to enter into these varied worlds and understand them to a remarkable degree from the inside.
At the same time he did not neglect the exigencies of scholarship, attention to which gave his broad conclusions much greater persuasive power, even if his work could still be ignored by those who found his conclusions unacceptable. A master both of detail and of the big picture, he found the “key to history” in religion—the fact that, as he believed, human beings are naturally religious—and ultimately in the central dogma of Catholicism, in the unique balance of spiritual and material brought about by the Hypostatic Union. Mr. Schwartz places Dr. Dawson squarely in the tradition of Saint Augustine.
Dr. Dawson’s friend David Jones followed a path in some ways more like Chesterton’s, though it was his experiences in the Great War rather than in art school that may have planted the seed of conversion in his heart. An artist, it was the close connection he felt between art and sacrament, and the role of Roman Catholicism as the leading opponent of technocracy (the “utile” or utilitarian mentality characteristic of modernity), confirmed no doubt by his encounter with Eric Gill and the wise guidance of Father John O’Connor, that finally persuaded him of his ecclesial home. There, he located the Mass as the “exemplary work of art,” the highest example of Art, subsuming all others into its cosmic liturgy. This insight, in turn, was reflected and developed, compressed and elaborated, through his poetry and engravings.
As with each of these substantial portraits, the chapter on David Jones contains too much to be summarized here, and it repays very careful reading, for what emerges is much more than a simple arms-length description. What we find instead is a serious engagement with the man, his art, and his ideas, in a way that makes him a permanent “resource for counter-modern rebellion,” despite all that came after—for example, what Jones called the “buggering up of the Mass.”
The analysis Mr. Schwartz presents in the introductory chapter of the sociological reasons for the Third Spring helps to explain why the steam went out of the Catholic literary revival in the 1960s; this story is picked up in more detail at the end of the book. Quite simply, through the reforms and changes associated with the Second Vatican Council, the Church “began to move way from the Italianate paradigm into which the converts had been received.” In many places, the Church appeared to be seeking an accommodation with modernity that undermined the appeal of conversion. “As Roman Catholics exploited ensuing new opportunities and began to enter the post-war middle class and to assume prestigious social and political positions, their previously homogeneous subculture fragmented. With it crumbled the assumption that being a Roman Catholic automatically made one distinct from, and opposed to, dominant British principles and structures.” Not only did the flood of conversions begin to dry up (from 12,490 per year at the end of the 1950s to about 4,000 per year by the 1970s), but writers such as G. K. Chesterton and even Dr. Dawson came soon to be regarded as marginal even among Catholics—representatives of a subculture that had had its day.
There is more to be said, but this book was not the place to say it. Mr. Schwartz ends his brilliant study with a world that has largely turned its back on the Third Spring, though he emphasizes that the converts themselves would hardly have been daunted by this outcome. They, more than anyone, knew the time was out of joint, and that the battle they fought was probably—in the short term—a losing one. It was in the name of a more cosmic optimism and a longer vision of history that they fought, and in the name of truth, which does not age or wither. In the final chapter, Mr. Schwartz notes that the Church herself has been rethinking her entente with modern culture under John Paul II (and Benedict XVI), and that the authors whose prophetic voices resound in this book may be finding a new audience. The days of the Italianate model may have passed, but the need to build on rock remains.
This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2006 edition of Modern Age and appears here by gracious permission. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.