Things were rather different in 1967, 1968, and 1969, when my English teacher was Father W. Vincent Bechtel: a holy terror, as my classmates and I thought of him then, but a man whose memory I now revere. Why? Because he threw me into the deep end of the pool of Anglo-American literature and told me, in so many words, to start swimming.
Father Bechtel had occasional intellectual quirks. A summer program at the Johns Hopkins University English department got him transiently infatuated with Freudian literary analysis, which, as I recall, led to some odd readings of Herman Melville (who is odd enough in his own right). But even that crotchet of Father Bechtel's was to my ultimate benefit, for the memory of it caused me to laugh out loud years later at Frederick Crews's send-up of the Freudians in his masterful parody of trendy literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex. In the main, though, Father Bechtel was a classicist. He knew, as a matter of self-evident truth, that there was an Anglo-American literary canon. He believed that educated people should have read it, or should at least have read seriously in it. And he somehow planted in me the seed of the conviction that knowing and 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 Bechtel's 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.
Please don't get the impression that Father Bechtel was a stick-in-the-mud, though. He had us read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and the canonical American moderns: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams. At the same time, though, we were baptized by immersion into Jane Austen, the Brontës, Conrad, Dickens, Hardy, Hawthorne, Henry James, the aforementioned Melville, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. All of which leads to the thought, hardly original, that everyone really ought to do high school English twice: the second time, when we're old enough to appreciate it.
In the main, though, Father Bechtel was a classicist. He knew, as a matter of self-evident truth, that there was an Anglo-American literary canon. He believed that educated people should have read it, or should at least have read seriously in it. And he somehow planted in me the seed of the conviction that knowing and learning to appreciate the canon is part of becoming the trustee of a civilization.
Born in Buffalo in 1903, he moved with his Irish-German family in 1915 to New Mexico, where the climate was thought to be better for his father's health. He was a cadet at the New Mexico Military Institute from 1919 to 1921, and then from 1922 to 1923. There, he met his lifelong friend, the prominent Southwestern artist Peter Hurd; and there he would work as librarian until joining the U.S. Army in World War II. The New Mexico years stuck with Paul Horgan in various senses of the term. Thus, insofar as Horgan figures in American literary studies today, it is as a "regional" writer: a literary craftsman who drew his materials from the Southwest and whose writing reflects a certain regional cast of mind. The first part of which is, at least in part, true enough, for many of Horgan's short stories and several of his novels are set in west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and both his histories and his fiction reflect a fascination with the interaction of Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American cultures in that unique, and uniquely beautiful, corner of the United States. Thus the first Horgan novel Father Bechtel had us read was set in Arizona at the end of the U.S. cavalry's struggle to pacify the territory; A Distant Trumpet is a just and fair portrait of the virtues and vices of Apaches, cavalrymen, and settlers, and a moving study of the meaning of manliness and leadership (it's been one of my standard confirmation/bar mitzvah gifts for years).
Paul Horgan did not wear his faith on his literary sleeve, so to speak. But it is impossible to read Things As They Are without quickly recognizing the Catholic sensibility that permeates the book.
Paul Horgan did not wear his faith on his literary sleeve, so to speak. But it is impossible to read Things As They Are without quickly recognizing the Catholic sensibility that permeates the book. At the most obvious level, Richard (the protagonist whose experiences mirror the young Horgan's) and his parents are manifestly Catholic in their belief and practice. Structurally, the book resembles Death Comes for the Archbishop, another "collection" of medieval-type vignettes that still holds together as a coherent novel (call those vignettes "miracle stories," if you’ve a broad understanding of the miraculous). But the Catholicity of Horgan's creation in this exquisitely crafted book is more than a matter of certain characteristics with which he invests his principal characters, or the literary structure of the work. It's a matter of a sensibility, an angle of vision, a way of seeing things of seeing "things as they are," because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary. Seeing "things as they are" is, in other words, the way to detect the divine at work in the human and the mundane.
Horgan's literary style is about as far away from Flannery O'Connor's as can be imagined. Yet much of Horgan's fiction, and especially Things As They Are, is an expression of O'Connor's "habit of being:" that spiritual intuition that allows us to see life, not simply as one damn thing after another, but as a dramatic arena of temptation and fortitude, creation and redemption, sinfulness and grace a cosmic drama being played out here and now, a drama in which God is producer, scriptwriter, director, and, ultimately, protagonist. Like O'Connor (and despite the fact that he grew up in a time of saccharine devotional piety), Paul Horgan knew that there is nothing less sentimental than Catholicism, because Catholicism is realism. And he knew the reason why Catholicism is realism: because it is through the Incarnation, a real event at a real time in a real place, that God's unsentimental, cleansing, and all-powerful love is decisively revealed the divine mercy that is, according to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the defining characteristic of God's interaction with the world. Catholic realism doesn't deny "things as they are." Catholic realism doesn't deny the temptations of what an older generation called "the world, the flesh, and the devil." Catholic realism confronts the world, the flesh, and the devil in the confidence that, as Christ has conquered, so, by the divine mercy and grace, may the people who are Christ's Body in history.
There is nothing sentimental or cloying here. There is, on the contrary, an acute, unsparing, yet sympathetic spiritual excavation of the process of growing up.
In a letter to a friend, Flannery O'Connor once reflected on her own literary experience and that of the Catholic convert and novelist, Carolyn Gordon Tate: "I have never had the sense that being a Catholic is a limit to the freedom of the writer, but just the reverse. Mrs. Tate told me that after she became a Catholic, she felt she could use her eyes and accept what she saw for the first time, [that] she didn't have to make a new universe for each book but could take the one she found." I've no idea whether Paul Horgan knew Carolyn Gordon Tate, but the ten episodes in Things As They Are demonstrate a cradle-Catholic's complete agreement with a convert-Catholic's experience: there is no need to "invent a universe" in fiction, for an invented universe typically becomes an author's sandbox or playpen. The real universe what we see and hear and feel and taste and experience is adventure enough. It was adventure enough for the God who created it, redeemed it, and continually sanctifies it; it should be adventure enough for us, because amid the seemingly quotidian there are cosmic contests underway.
Prior to his death in 1995 at age 93 (he had left the Southwest in 1959 to teach and write at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut), Paul Horgan was never known as a "Catholic writer," in the sense that J.F. Powers (Morte D’Urban) was known as a "Catholic writer" or Chaim Potok (The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev) was thought of as a "Jewish writer." Yet an argument can be made that Paul Horgan was the most accomplished "Catholic man of letters" in mid-twentieth century America. Not because his fiction and his historical studies dealt over and over again with "Catholic" characters and situations (which they didn’t) but because his remarkably wide-ranging corpus of work is shaped, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, by an unmistakably Catholic sensibility: a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama. Paul Horgan was too gifted a writer to beat you over the head with that message. It was almost always there, though, as this gifted, learned, and deeply humane novelist, essayist, and historian kept reminding his readers that seeing things as they are is the index of human maturity and thus of Christian maturity.
Order Things as They Are by Paul Horgan here.
George Weigel. "Introduction to Paul Horgan's Things As They Are." The Catholic Difference (January 30, 2006).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.
George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.
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 © 2006 George Weigel