Hillbilly Elegy

 Accolades for books whose authors breathe the same air as their readers should be treated with more circumspection than ones whose authors are deceased. When that air is thick with the fog of politics, well, then outright skepticism is called for. As anyone who lived through last year can attest, there was plenty of fog. The admiration for Hillbilly Elegy, then, is understandable. It is not, in my view, merited. 

J.D. Vance grew up in rural Appalachia. His memoir details his childhood there, the instability of his teenage years, and his exit—as a Marine. Throughout, Vance tells the story of his community. The writing is fine and the stories are interesting enough, but neither are particularly revelatory. It’s when Vance splices in sociology that he gets into trouble. The seams—between Vance’s story and Appalachia’s—obtrude. The narrative begins to feel patchwork. In a year in which American attention was forced to turn, briefly, to the hinterlands of the nation, it is easy to see why Vance’s story was seized upon. He made it out of an environment of social instability, into Yale Law School, and then through the doors of a prestigious consulting firm. His story bridges worlds drifting apart. But it does not possess the secret reason for our recent political catastrophe and I very much doubt whether it will be remembered once that crisis has passed. 

An Is Implies An Ought

When the City of New York seized one of the houses of hospitality from The Catholic Worker and recompensed them for the value of the house plus the interest that had accrued, Dorothy Day wrote the following letter in response: 

Dear Sir,

We are returning the interest on the money we have recently received because we do not believe in “money lending” at interest. . . . We do not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. . . . Please be assured we are not judging individuals, but are trying to make a judgment on the system under which we live and with which we admit that we ourselves compromise daily in many small ways, but which we try and wish to withdraw from as much as possible. 

Sincerely yours,
Dorothy Day, Editor

“We do not believe in the profit system” is something one hears frequently enough. “We cannot take profit or interest on our money” is not. The second makes the first credible. And the union of the two—with the humility that animates the lines that follow—is what made Day’s work a credible witness to Christ. May we learn from her example. 

Beneath the Trees

 

I’ve been thinking about Burundi lately. I took this photo up-country, outside of Bujumbura, the capital and only major city in the country. In a blog post I wrote when I was there I said these trees had “no North American correlate.” Now, that probably wasn’t true, but the architecture of these trees–and the total effect when they’re taken together–is alien to the Midwest. And so, after four years spent in Chicago’s familiar landscape, I find myself thinking back to what it felt like to be beneath the trees. One day, perhaps, I will know again.

In Praise of Fine Writing

When most modern writers come in for our praise, it is because of their little tricks or little twists. When Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot or Checkhov are recalled, it is as if tidal waves are washing over us. We cannot catch our breath. If I have taught you only to write so that your contemporaries may say nice things to you, I have failed you. I should have been teaching you that the one goal you must aim for is the stunned, silent gratitude of history

— Roger Rosenblatt

This quote comes at the end of Rosenblatt’s otherwise excellent Unless It Moves the Human Heart. Like the writing he favors, Rosenblatt’s advice is brief, direct, and unpretentious. The characters he conjures are amiable and their conversation–the substance of the book–is insightful without feeling contrived. One almost forgets one is reading A Book About Writing. Until this quote. Yes, yes–writers today will be forgotten tomorrow. But to suppose that the stature of a Homer or a Milton is the one goal to which writers should aspire is silly. The world needs fine writers, writers who can craft a sentence without embarrassing themselves or the English language. To ask for all writers to aspire to greatness is to ask them not to examine their abilities honestly or to ask most to excuse themselves from the endeavor. There is–it is true–a certain motive force to grand aspirations but it is also true that grand disappointments tend to arrest motion. It would be a pity if, judging themselves unequal to writing worthy of “the silent gratitude of history,” fine writers were to fall silent. 

The Duty of Delight

Since January I’ve been working my way through the diaries of Dorothy Day, the founder of The Catholic Worker. The diaries are entitled The Duty of Delight. The entries chronicle the day-to-day trials of living in one of the houses of hospitality Day set up with residents that, on the whole, were not easy to live with: most were transients, many were alcoholics, and a few were mentally ill. Though she’s better known for her public opposition to the American state—in the pages of The Catholic Worker and protests—what’s most distinctive about The Duty of Delight is the difficulty of following Christ in the quotidian. Over and over she writes of the necessity of being forbearing and forgiving, ready to find her own faults before judging those of her often irksome fellow residents. Reading these entries before bed has been a good daily reminder that the difficulty of discipleship consists in its ordinariness. Only when one is obedient in ordinary circumstances, Day’s life suggests, can one pursue truly Christian public action. 

 

 

 

Les Innocentes

 About halfway through Les Innocentes there’s a scene in which Mathilde, a French Red Cross student serving a convent of nuns who have been raped by Russian soldiers, is suddenly surrounded by the nuns. Amid the sea of the nuns’ white habits is Mathilde’s face, radiant with the joy of being embraced by these women. In a film as harrowing as Les Innocentes, its a poignant reprieve. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth comes to mind. Mary, surprisingly, is not mentioned in the film and that omission is mildly disappointing, since the story is so directly concerned with gender and faith. Still, this is a considered treatment of a serious subject. The theologian Robert Farrar Capon once wrote that “When you’ve got two truths that you can’t hold in harmony, you don’t solve the problem by letting one of them go. You hang on tight and hold them both in paradox.” Les Innocentes, to its credit, is mostly content to do this, holding before the audience the horrific act of violence of its premise and the Christianity of its characters. The result is a tense and difficult story that feels all the more real for its contradictions. For those with the eyes to see, there is much to see here.

An Uncle and A Cousin

Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas / 1876

Unfortunately the subtleties of this piece aren’t obvious on a screen, but each surface in the picture has its own texture. Also, a reminder that you can see this and every other painting in the Art Institute for free if you are an Illinois resident on Thursday evenings. Or you can tag along with me since, thanks to my parents, I have a membership.

The Most Memorable Thing I Read Last Year

So opens Herbert McCabe’s sermon ‘Forgiveness.’ The rest is just as measured and memorable as this first paragraph. It’s the best treatment of the parable of the prodigal son that I have read and, two months into this new year, the piece of writing that’s stuck with me most since reading it last year. 

Perhaps I’ll write about it more later but for now an exhortation: Read the rest.