Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jon Hassler, Last Catholic Novelist?

Jon Hassler was a novelist who lived and worked in this area for his whole career, and whose novels are more or less set in this area (fictionalized) and the other places he lived-- Brainerd and Bemidji. He died in March of this year after a long illness. I never met him, but my father-in-law was his classmate at St. John's University (MN), and he taught for a long time at the college. One of the things I've been doing these past two years as I've contemplated what it means to be a writer in Central Minnesota, to cast my lot with this place and this people, has been reading his major novels, considering what they have to say about this place, about Catholicism, and about the Catholic imagination and Catholic writers.

A wonderful appreciation considering this question by Andrew Greeley appears in the current issue of America. In it is the following paragraph:

"It may occur to the reader how many of the authors I have mentioned are products of the (German) Catholicism of Minnesota centered in St. John’s Abbey (which includes such Celts as Coleman Barry and Eugene McCarthy). The Jesuit sociologist Joseph Fichter once remarked that the centers of creativity in American Catholicism seemed to be concentrated in a triangle that reached from St. John’s to Chicago to Notre Dame. St. John’s pervasive and unique influence on the church in this country, in particular, demands more intense study. The environs and culture of Staggerford, Rookery College, the Abbey Press, Bad Battle River, Pluto, Ostrogothinburg (St. Cloud?) the Clementine Fathers, Godfrey Diekmann and Lake Wobegon seem to demand more coordinated and more intense investigation. Perhaps they are also a challenge to Minnesota Catholicism to understand itself while there is still time. I have suggested on occasion to the monks of St. John’s that they are far more important and indeed far better than they think they are."

Many of the names referenced will mean nothing to people outside this culture and place, but like my crash course in S. Thomas Carey, I've had crash courses in Godfrey Diekmann (by his biographer, Kathleen Hughes, RSJ, who was a scholar at the Collegeville Institute with me) and many of the other topics. I live more or less in Staggerford, work at Rookery College, and for the past two years worked at the Abbey Press. This is the heart of Garrison Keillor country, and Keillor often references nearby high schools like Avon and Albany in his monologues. My favorite restaurant is Fisher's Club, an old set-up club of which he is part-owner. You can get very good Beebop a Reebop Rhubarb Pie there, and Powdermilk Biscuits with ice cream. Not to mention the best ribs and walleye in the county.

Eugene McCarthy was a novice at St. John's Abbey for 9 months, and graduated from the prep school and the University. His legacy here is large. I heard Mondale eulogize him at St. John's abbey at a memorial service after his death last year. He was remembered at that service not just as a statesman but as a poet. I believe it was his son who read several of his poems.

In this place, it is sometimes difficult to think about what is yet to be. Especially in the context of the monastery. Three Sisters died this past week, including S. Glenore Riedner who was 106 years old. We are expecting two more deaths by Christmas. Also, Brother Dietrich Reinhardt, until recently the president of Saint John's University, was in the past few weeks diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma-- in his lungs but also in his brain. On Sunday I went to Mass at the Abbey, after a discussion about being an oblate the night before with friends. I found myself in tears, seeing Brother Dietrich up in the choir stalls, gray and fading, but also for the other amazing people I know, Brothers and Sisters, and who I will face losing in the coming years. I don't have much experience with old people-- all my grandparents lived far away. To have bonded with this many people over 70 this quickly and significantly-- adds a certain complexity.

It is hard to think about what is yet to be, but it is also hard even to think about what IS NOW. I know that there are artists in the area, and I know that I myself am reaching toward something. I know that this place feeds artists and writers, still. I am a writer who for the past few years has been transitioning to a place that is much larger than myself. In some ways it is larger than the other places I've lived-- including Chicago, Southern California, New York. In those places, one could get caught up with a "scene," or strive to belong to a group that was "making it" in the arts. There was a lot in the way of social interaction and development based on shared ideas. It was certainly easier to build a community of artist and intellectual friends. But this place shapes people. This place rushes up to meet you, and then takes a very long time to absorb and get to know. There is something more going on here. I'm afraid sometimes that I've come too late to live deeply into it, to find the stories I want to tell in my writing and become the person who can tell them.

I can't tell you the number of astonishing things that happen to me around here. One I have yet to write about is an encounter I had last week at the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the new school. That is what I had planned for my next essay, but then this essay in America appeared. Jon Hassler.

My own impression of Hassler's novels is that they are really enjoyable, very readable, but ultimately they don't rise to the level of greatness. They're episodic, character-driven, solid regional literature. They don't have the depth or brilliance of a Flannery O'Connor or James Joyce, or even the significance of Graham Greene's work. It surprises me that people who are not Catholics, or not Minnesotans, would take much interest in them. I admire greatly his ability to find and develop characters like Agatha McGee and Father Frank Healey. There are things about the books that have stayed with me. I think I most admire that he was able to write novels rooted in place and his Catholic identity, assemble a body of work that is consistent. I think it was that he was able to accomplish his life-- get published, have confidence in these characters and his own writing, keep doing it-- that I'm interested in most. The fact that Loyola University Press has brought out two of his large novels in their Loyola Classics series, claiming they rise to the level of "masterpieces of Catholic fiction from some of the greatest authors of the twentieth century" strikes me as hyperbolic, especially in the case of Hassler (yes, I know it's marketing text, but still). I'm even surprised that Greeley would put him in the company he does or make such great claims for him.

I spent a large part of my year at the Collegeville Institute trying to get people to explain the "Catholic imagination" to me. Reading Catholic authors, poets, essays, criticism, the famous work by David Tracey that Greeley mentions on "the analogical imagination." Catholicism, he claims, is special because it is embodied, and it is image-based. It shapes the imagination by action of ritual, by association with all the religious imagery. Well yes, ok.

Hassler is dead. And McCarthy. And B. Godfrey Diekmann. S. Thomas Carey. And Sister Mariella Gable, a poet I never heard about until Greeley's article but now have to go find. And in a way an entire way of life is coming to an end before my eyes. I have a strong symbol of it in the new public elementary school behind our house. (About which, more later.) The challenge, though, is to be part of what is now, even if it is an autumn of sorts. And to be a part of what is to come. Because there are still a lot of us artists left out here. Some of us Catholics. I'm paying attention.

You can read the whole article about Jon Hassler by Andrew Greeley in America online here.

No comments: