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The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage

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In the middle of the twentieth century, four American Catholics, working independently of one another, came to believe that the best way to explore the quandaries of religious faith was in writing - in works that readers of all kinds could admire. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is their story - a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement and ...

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage

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Overview

In the middle of the twentieth century, four American Catholics, working independently of one another, came to believe that the best way to explore the quandaries of religious faith was in writing - in works that readers of all kinds could admire. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is their story - a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement and its penny newspaper in New York; Flannery O'Connor a "Christ-centered" literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them - the School of the Holy Ghost - and for three decades they exchanged letters, ardently read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a "predicament shared in common."

A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story, and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie tells these four writers' story as a pilgrimage from the God-posessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms their readers could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change - to save - our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In the middle of the last century, a Trappist monk, a Greenwich Village bohemian, a melancholy doctor who abandoned medicine to write, and a young, chronically ill southern woman defined a unique moment in American Catholic intellectual life. Dubbed jokingly "the School of the Holy Ghost," Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor differed in almost every conceivable way but one: They all approached literature as a religious experience, infusing their writing with the struggle for faith in the modern world.

Elie's book may look daunting, but broken down into bite-sized chunks, it promises great rewards as he entwines the lives of these four unique souls. Merton, who spent most of his adult life at a monastery, is best known for The Seven Storey Mountain. Day founded the Catholic Worker movement, lived with the poor, and worked tirelessly for social justice. Percy won the National Book Award for his novel The Moviegoer; and O'Connor, an acclaimed novelist and short story writer, lived with her family until her death at 39.

Individually, they lived outside traditional literary circles, and their interaction was limited. But Elie's research reveals both their awareness of each other's work and their shared concerns, and his considerable talent as a writer and deep affection for his subjects animates the lives of these writer-pilgrims convincingly, breathing new life into their work. (Spring 2003 Selection)

The San Francisco Chronicle
[An] engrossing, smartly conceived and perfectly realized work.—Tom Nolan
The Washington Post
Elie's long, well-documented and informative book weaves together the lives of all four figures into a single continuous chronicle. This is no mean feat, for none of the four actually intersected with the others in any sustained way, although, as was inevitable, they all came to know one another personally or literarily once they became famous. — Charlotte Allen
The New Yorker
This long, unusual book consists of interleaved biographies of four mid-century American writers -- Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor -- who, though they rarely, if ever, met, are connected by the fact that they were all serious Roman Catholics and therefore alone: isolated both from literary circles (anti-religious) and from the Church (anti-literary). Except for O'Connor, they were converts; they "read their way" to religious experience, and then became writers, so that others could pick up the trail. They were very different -- Day was devoted to social service, Percy to philosophy, O'Connor to literature, Merton to the inner journey -- and Elie doesn't love them all equally. O'Connor is his favorite. Merton is the one he struggles with, but, by virtue of his warm, clear writing (better than Merton's), he makes us care about the self-involved friar, too.
Publishers Weekly
Four 20th-century writers whose work was steeped in their shared Catholic faith come together in this masterful interplay of biography and literary criticism. Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where three of the four writers published their work, lays open the lives and writings of the monk Thomas Merton, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, and novelists Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. Drawing comparisons between their backgrounds, temperaments, circumstances and words, he reveals "four like-minded writers" whose work took the shape of a movement. Though they produced no manifesto, Elie writes, they were unified as pilgrims moving toward the same destination while taking different paths. As they sought truth through their writing, he observes, they provided "patterns of experience" that future pilgrims could read into their lives. This volume (the title is taken from a short story of the same name by O'Connor) is an ambitious undertaking and one that could easily have become ponderous, but Elie's presentation of the material is engaging and thoughtful, inspiring reflection and further study. Beginning with four separate figures joined only by their Catholicism and their work as writers, he deftly connects them, using their correspondence, travels, places of residence, their religious experiences and their responses to the tumultuous events of their times. This thoroughly researched and well-sourced work deserves attention from students of history, literature and religion, but it will be of special significance to Catholic readers interested in the expression of faith in the modern world. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In the 1950s, Englishman Evelyn Waugh lamented the lack of a distinctively American Catholic literary tradition, even as one was finding its voice right under his nose. Farrar editor Elie (ed., A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints) uses his considerable gifts as a storyteller to weave together the biographies of four figures who became that "School of the Holy Ghost": Thomas Merton, the celebrity monk whose writing popularized American monasticism; Dorothy Day, the leftist radical who established the Catholic Worker movement; Flannery O'Connor, the Georgian author of "freakish" literary imagination; and Walker Percy, the Southern gentleman who brought faith to modern existential angst. Just what drew these eclectic authors to pre-Vatican II Catholicism and held and nurtured them there remains elusive-elusive enough to keep the reader enthralled up to the epilog. The title (from the O'Connor story of the same name) highlights Elie's motivation in drawing these voices together: their diverse yet intersecting pilgrimages offer food for reflection for Americans concerned about faith, literature, and spiritual experience. Any library that is weak in one of these authors or whose patrons have a strong interest in American spirituality has reason to place this excellent book on its shelves.-Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The lives of four spiritually hungry, sometimes renegade, and now well-known American Catholics meet in a thoughtful study of ideas in action. They were "ordinary people, on the face of it," writes FSG editor Elie (ed., A Tremor of Bliss, 1994)--"but for many of us . . . icons." Each in his or her own way, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, brought intellectual power and activist vigor to a conservative American Catholic Church, courting controversy with their heterodoxical writings and deeds. Merton and Day, writes Elie, came to Christianity through the back door of Marxism. Day, who founded the Catholic Workers movement (and is now a candidate for sainthood), came to the conclusion that "while Communism claimed to represent the masses, the masses ‘accepted the Church’ instead, and put their faith in it," such that it seemed the most revolutionary thing to do was to go where the masses (and Mass) were and reform from within. More withdrawn from the world until the end of his life, when he became an activist against the war in Vietnam, Merton was a contemplative monk whose writings, such as The Seven Storey Mountain, became handbooks for spiritual seekers; ever self-critical, Merton always "worried that he was serving up ‘professional spirituality’ instead of describing what the experience of God was like," an experience that the Georgia-born novelist O’Connor wrestled to put on the page as well, while the Louisiana writer and physician Percy strived ever to balance the sacred and the profane in works such as the roman à clef The Moviegoer. These four, contemporaries all, were only dimly aware of each other at the outset, but as time went on, scattered acrossthe country, they came to form something of a school--a unity, Elie gracefully observes, "will be that of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination, conversing at long distance from time to time." That conversation--and this lucid work--will greatly interest readers on literary and spiritual quests of their own.
From the Publisher
"Paul Elie's book is lucid, humane, poignant, and wise. As a work of the spirit, it is universal and in no way sectarian."

-Harold Bloom

"They make a memorable quartet—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy—in Paul Elie's brilliant new study. Founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day finally emerges as a saintly and heroic figure. Though I thought I knew everything about the other three, who were my close friends in our author-editor rapport, Elie's insights into each member of this highly gifted and complex trio (Merton, O'Connor, Percy) strike me as fresh and original and his discoveries are new. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a remarkable book."

-Robert Giroux

"Paul Elie's book reads like a magnificent novel, with four deeply distinct characters who just happen to have been the best Catholic American writers of the twentieth century."

-Richard Rodriguez

"We are surrounded by many examples of mediocre criticism and not a few of good criticism, but great criticism comes our way but once or twice in a generation. Paul Elie's witty searchlight of a book is great criticism. Shining with insight on the multitesselated mosaic of American literature in the postwar period, it manages miraculously to illuminate the complexities of religious experience in real human lives."

-Thomas Cahill

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374529215
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/10/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 141,884
  • Product dimensions: 5.45 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 1.52 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Elie, an editor at FSG, has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Commonweal. He lives in Manhattan.

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Read an Excerpt

ONE

Experience

The night the earthquake struck San Francisco -- April 18, 1906 -- Dorothy Day was there. Startled awake, she lay alone in bed in the dark in the still-strange house, trying to understand what was happening and what it meant, for she was confident that it had a meaning, a significance beyond itself.

Some years later she described that night in her autobiography. By then she was known as an organizer and agitator, a living saint, the prioress of the Bowery. But she saw herself as a journalist, first of all, and gave a journalist's eyewitness account of the event, which had brought on the most haunting of her early "remembrances of God."

"The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea which rocked our house in a most tumultuous manner. There was a large windmill and water tank in back of the house and I can remember the splashing of the water from the tank on top of our roof."

She was eight years old, the third child of four. Her family had moved from New York to Oakland earlier in the year after her father, a journalist, found work with one of the local papers. Back in Brooklyn she had shared a bedroom with their Irish servant girl. Here she shared a room with her baby sister, who slept in her arms.

"My father took my brothers from their beds and rushed to the front door, where my mother stood with my sister, whom she had snatched from me. I was left in a big brass bed, which rolled back and forth on a polished floor."

Before getting into bed she had knelt at the bedside to say her prayers. Of all her family, she alone was religious: she prayed in school, sang hymns with neighbors, went to church by herself because the others would not go. She was "disgustingly, proudly pious."

In bed, however, she would have nightmares about God, "a great noise that became louder and louder, and approached nearer and nearer to me until I woke up sweating with fear and shrieking for my mother." And that night, alone in the dark on the big rolling bed, shaken by the earth, left behind by her mother and father, she felt God upon her once again, a figure stalking her in the dark.

Or was that night the first time? "Even as I write this I am wondering if I had these nightmares before the San Francisco earthquake or afterward. The very remembrance of the noise, which kept getting louder and louder, and the keen fear of death, makes me think now that it might have been due only to the earthquake . . . They were linked up with my idea of God as a tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love."

The earthquake went on two minutes and twenty seconds. Then it was over. The world returned to normal. She got out of bed and went down the stairs and out to the street and looked around.

She was startled all over again by what she saw: buildings wobbling on their foundations, smoke rising from small fires, parents calming strange children and passing jugs of water back and forth. People were helping one another. For two days refugees from the city came to Oakland in boats across San Francisco Bay, making camp in a nearby park. The people of Oakland helped them -- the men pitching tents and contriving lean-tos, the women cooking and lending their spare clothing. What did Dorothy Day do? She stood on the street, watching, and felt her fear and loneliness drawn out of her by what she saw.

"While the crisis lasted, people loved each other," she wrote in her autobiography. "It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love."

A whole life is prefigured in that episode. In a moment in history-front-page news -- Dorothy Day felt the fear of God and witnessed elemental, biblical charity, the remedy for human loneliness. All her life she would try to recapture the sense of real and spontaneous community she felt then, and would strive to reform the world around her so as to make such community possible.

From the beginning, she had the gift of good timing, a knack for situating herself and her story in a larger story. Her first significant religious experience took place during the first great event of the American century, a cataclysm in the city named for St. Francis, the patron saint of "unjudging pity and love" for one's neighbor. Moreover, it took place at a moment of great change (seismic change, one might say) in religion in America, and also in the interpretation of religion -- changes to which she would spend the rest of her life responding. There is little question that America at the turn of the century was a religious place. The question, then as now, was this: religious how?

At the time, the answer to the question was usually theological, grounded in stock ideas about Catholicism and Protestantism that had been developing since the sixteenth century. Catholics (it was thought) were traditional, communal, submissive to higher authority, taking faith at second hand from pope and clergy, whereas the Protestant was individualistic, improvisatory, devoted to progress, bent on having a direct experience of God, obedient to no authority save the Bible and the individual conscience. From the time of Columbus, according to this scheme, which was accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike, the religious history of America was a running conflict between Catholic missionaries, who saw America as an annex of Catholic Europe, and Protestant pioneers, who saw it as a frontier to be settled according to the directives in the Bible.

In the nineteenth century Protestantism became dominant, and religion in America came to be characterized by the rivalry between different Protestant churches, whose circuit-riding evangelists would travel on horseback from one town to the next, each of them preaching a creed and a way of life that he claimed was more faithful to the Gospel than those his competitors were offering. Thus the country, discovered by Catholics, was settled by Protestants, whose work ethic became the basis of the national character. Around 1900, however, the situation began to change.

Because of immigration from Europe the Roman Catholic Church was suddenly the largest single church in America, with twelve million members. Taken all together, Protestants outnumbered Catholics seven to one, but when they thought of themselves separately, denominationally -- as Baptists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Methodists, and the like -- they were outnumbered by Catholics, more of whom arrived each day.

As Catholics settled in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and other cities, the emphasis in American religion shifted from village and town to the metropolis. The spectacle of poor, dirty, ill-nourished people making camp on the outskirts of the city -- such as the people Dorothy Day saw displaced by the San Francisco earthquake -- became a familiar one, the subject of countless cautionary tales told among Protestants. And because so many of those people were Catholics, immigrant Catholics were the poor in the Protestant mind, and Protestant leaders, to care for them, devised the "social gospel," which sought to apply the New Testament to modern city life.

Competition between different Protestant churches, then, was overlaid by the competition between Protestants and Catholics, each group a majority that felt like a minority. At the same time, conventional notions of Catholicism and Protestantism were being upended by the best and the brightest of the Protestant elite, in ways that challenged the standard account of American religious history and the usual understanding of religion generally.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) William James, who had had a religious experience all alone on a mountaintop after a long hike, defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine." For making the solitary individual the measure of religion, James is generally credited with shifting the study of religion in America away from institutions and toward experience. But his method of jumbling together believers of all sorts was just as important. He assembled his lectures from newspaper clippings about odd religious occurrences, and in his view the familiar distinctions between Protestants and Catholics, poets and saints, self-taught preachers and learned divines, were less telling than those between different religious temperaments: the "sick-souled" and the "healthy-minded," or the "once-born" and the "twice-born."

Meanwhile, James's Harvard colleague Henry Adams was being born again. In France in 1895 Adams, whose chronicle of the history of America ran to nine volumes, had undergone a religious conversion of sorts -- not to God or Christ but to a mystical sense of history grounded in the Middle Ages and epitomized by the order and beauty and fixity, the sheer absoluteness, of the great French cathedrals.

Declaring himself "head of the Conservative Christian Anarchists, a party numbering one member," Adams wrote two books in which he sought to impress his vision of things upon the reader as boldly as possible. First came Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904), which is not so much a work of history as an imaginative pilgrimage, in which Adams slips into the skin of a French peasant who, in his view, saw and felt and understood life more directly than the stereotypical industrial-age American. Three years later came The Education of Henry Adams, Adams's third-person account of himself as a representative American man called Adams -- whose problem, as he sees it, is that he is the descendant of pragmatic Enlightenment Protestants rather than of French Catholics, and so grew up with no knowledge of the religious energy that had inspired the cathedral builders of Europe -- "the highest energy ever known to man."

Adams turned out to be a more representative man than he could have expected. Over the next twenty years, as The Education was read and embraced as a sacred text by the expatriate writers of the Lost Generation, France became, in American writing, a heaven, set in contrast to the hell of capitalist America, and the descent from the age of faith to an era of industry came to be seen as the fall from order to chaos, from civilization to barbarism, from community to an awful alienation.

Copyright © 2003 Paul Elie

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2004

    Moving biographies of great RC writers

    This is one of those books that you want to read again. Paul Elie brings these four writers-- Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton -- to life as he recounts their personal, spiritual, and literary journeys. And the writing is exquisite.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2008

    The Best

    This was an incredible book. Elie's review of these writers, their lives and stories, and how their experience of modern life interacted with their faith and their art was thorough and challenging. It make me think and pray about my own life and story and how I interact with my times. Any book that helps me do that is a gift indeed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2004

    Don't be daunted by the size!

    This was an incredibly interesting account and weaving together of the lives of some of America's most gifted Catholic writers. Completely worth the effort.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2004

    An absolutely necessary book

    Well written, engaging, important. The pilgrims may not be perfect but their progess (and convergences) are fascinating.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2004

    A suprise in more ways than one!

    I honestly thought that I would not be able to finish the book even as I purchased it but gave it a try anyway. Much to my suprise, after having decided I absolutely did not like two of the authors at all within the first third of the book, Elie still pulled me forward to read more about them. I am left wanting to know more about Walker Percy and Flannery O'Conner, whom Elie spends the least amount of time on. For both Merton and Day, I find them to be pitiful and misguided. Their christianity is not my christianity. Their anarchist and pacifist views do not represent my interpretation of the meaning of Christ and are not a role model for a christian life. As far as I am concerned Thomas Merton never found what he was looking for, he only went from one self delusion to another throughout his life. I am stunned that Dorothy Day is being considered for canonization! I am not a catholic but if I were, her canonization would prompt me to leave the church. However, even though two out of the four authors are not enviable, I find Elie's commentary to be well considered and well written. I would certainly read any future text he puts forth.

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    Posted February 8, 2010

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    Posted November 16, 2009

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