The Greats Make a Comeback


Although my high school years coincided with the Age of Aquarius, I was spared the kind of reading lists that now imagine Dan (DaVinci Code) Brown to be a serious writer, or that ignore the great twentieth-century authors whose fiction reflects the Catholic sacramental imagination: Graham Greene, Flannery OíConnor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh, to name just the all-stars.

Itís virtually impossible to escape high school today without having to read Kurt Vonnegutís vastly-overrated Slaughterhouse-Five; itís entirely possible to spend four years studying English in a Catholic high school without ever having heard of Death Comes for the Archbishop (and yes, I know Willa Cather wasnít a Catholic, but the Catholic imagination permeates her fiction).

My English teacher from 1967 through 1969 was Father W. Vincent Bechtel: a holy terror, as we thought of him then, but a man I now revere for having thrown me into the deep end of the pool of Anglo-American literature. Father Bechtel had his intellectual quirks; a summer program at Johns Hopkins got him transiently infatuated with Freudian literary analysis, which led to some odd readings of Herman Melville (but later caused me to laugh out loud at the send-up of the Freudians in Fred Crewesí masterful parody of trendy literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex). In the main, though, Father Bechtel was a classicist: there is a literary canon; educated people have read it, or at least read seriously in it; learning to appreciate the canon is part of becoming the trustee of a civilization. These days, kids may read two or three novels over the summer and another one or two during the school year. Under Father Bechtelís tutelage (as I remember it now) or reign of terror (as I thought of it then), we read five or six novels during the summer and at least another half-dozen during the school year (not to mention plays, poetry, and short stories).

Shouldnít everyone do high school English twice — the second time, when weíre old enough to appreciate it? My dog-eared copy of Paul Horganís Things As They Are — arguably the best novel ever written about boys growing up — testifies to the number of times Iíve returned to a masterpiece to which Father Bechtel first introduced me when I was fourteen or fifteen. Each time, I find a new insight; but would I have gone back to the book a second (much less tenth) time if Father Bechtel hadnít planted the seed early? And please donít get the impression that Father Bechtel was a stick-in-the-mud. He had us read Salingerís Catcher in the Rye and the canonical American moderns: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson. At the same time, though, we were baptized by immersion into the Brontes, Conrad, Dickens, Hardy, Hawthorne, Henry James, the aforementioned Melville, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain.

I mention all this, not to skip down memory lane or repeat what Adam reportedly said to Eve on their way out of the garden ("Things just arenít the way they used to be."). Rather, I want to salute Chicagoís Loyola Press for its new series, "Loyola Classics," which is bringing great novels forged by the Catholic imagination back into print. The first in the series, Myles Connollyís Mr. Blue, took me back to a book Iíd found saccharine in high school — but which I now found more intriguing. Others include Rumer Goddenís marvelous novel of vocation, In This House of Brede; Evelyn Waughís Helena (for which I had the honor of providing an introduction); Morris Westís The Devilís Advocate (written two decades before the author sadly slipped into a terminal case of liberal bitterness); Nikos Kazantzakisís St. Francis (demonstrating how catholic the Loyola Classics consider the "Catholic novel"); and John R. Powers neatly named Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? The plan is to do eight books a year — which, over time, will introduce a lot of great books to a new generation of readers.

So: Catholic educators, take notice! Dan Brown certainly isnít all there is, and neither is Kurt Vonnegut. And remember — from the other side, Father Bechtel is watching.


George Weigel "The Greats Make a Comeback." The Catholic Difference. May 18, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of George Weigel and the Denver Catholic Register.


George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of sixteen books, including The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005), Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring (2004), The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church (2002), and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored (2001).

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

Copyright © 2005 George Weigel

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