Fifty years ago, Edwin O'Connor's novel, The Last Hurrah, was released as a film, coining a popular expression, spotlighting Boston Irish culture, and bringing recognition to one of the most significant of America's Catholic writers.
There are dozens of well-known American authors who might be characterized as Catholic by baptism, by adherence, by theme, or by sensibility. This summary focuses on those who were most prominent in their day and who are widely recognized as Catholic in their beliefs and perspective.
Despite its relative paucity of Catholic population, the South has produced a large share of the faith’s best writers. Father Abram Ryan was a Confederate army chaplain from Virginia who composed the famous poem, “Conquered Banner.” James Ryder Randall, originally of Baltimore, taught in New Orleans, where he wrote verse celebrating the Confederacy, such as “Maryland, My Maryland.” He became known as the “Poet Laureate of the Lost Cause.” Georgian Joel Chandler Harris, author of African-American folk tales featuring Uncle Remus, converted to Catholicism late in life.
The problems of the Old South permeated the pages of later southern writers as well. Allen Tate, a convert-poet, was a figure in the celebrated Southern Agrarians, who struck a critical stance toward the modernizing of American culture. Tate was married for a time to novelist Caroline Gordon, who preceded him into the Church. Later southern Catholic writers displayed less sympathy for the Old South, but struck many of the same themes of faith, race, and rural life. Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the most acclaimed Catholic writer of the twentieth century, produced a series of short stories and novels, and Walker Percy’s Catholic sensibility salted his tales of lust, disillusionment, and death.
Outside the South, Catholic novelists flourished in New England, where Mary Agnes Tincker wrote a series of well-received stories in the 1870s and 1880s; and in the Midwest, where John F. Powers published short stories and novels on Catholic parish life, most notably the 1963 National Book Award winner, Morte d’Urban [Powers taught at St. John's in Collegeville]. John Boyle O’Reilly, editor of the Boston Pilot, also wrote novels; as did the first woman to edit the Pilot, Katherine Conway. Bostonian Edwin O'Connor fictionalized Irish-American life with great success: he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Edge of Sadness (1961)
Another center of Catholic literary activity, unsurprisingly, was New York, where Mary Sadlier hosted salons for the city’s Irish writers in the 1860s, and where Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Phyllis McGinley wrote her verse a hundred years later. Two other Catholic poets were women religious: Carmelite Jessica Powers of Wisconsin and Holy Cross Sister Madeleva Wolff at St. Mary’s College in Indiana.
Another Pulitzer winner was Paul Horgan, who won two for his popular histories of the American Southwest. Philadelphian Agnes Repplier authored historical biographies of significant American Catholics such as Jacques Marquette and Junípero Serra.
As in other areas of intellectual life, converts were major figures in Catholic fiction and non-fiction writing. Besides Tincker, Harris, Tate, and Gordon, there was Anne Dorsey, a novelist in Washington, D.C. Conversion was a subject for Thomas Merton, whose celebrated autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, won both critical acclaim and attention for the Church and its monastic tradition—a way of life strange to most Americans.
Catholic writers have contributed immensely to the richness of American literature by focusing on subjects and by bringing perspectives that were absent or underappreciated. The trend continues to the present—for example in Santa Clara University’s Ron Hansen, whose 1992 bestseller Mariette in Ecstasy creatively explored the inner life of a cloistered French nun. Contemporary American Catholic writers work within a long and distinguished tradition.