Study Guide

"The Fall"

by Joseph Bottum

"The Fall" Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, former books and arts editor of The Weekly Standard, and host of Book Talk, a syndicated radio program, has published articles and poetry in numerous leading newspapers and magazines. “The Fall” was first published in First Things, a journal of religion, culture, and public life, in 1998. It is a lyrical poem of ninety-nine lines, unrhymed but structured. Each line varies from seven to ten syllables. The meter is mostly pronounced and regular, at times suggesting rhythms of iambic tetrameter or pentameter. Pervasive use of alliteration and assonance give the poem a classic character.

“The Fall” is divided into three sections, each named for an autumn month. The first section, September, begins with a powerful evocation of fall in New England, “New England comes to flower dying.” It is ironic that New England’s most colorful, attractive season is made not by the budding but the dying of leaves. From the first line, Bottum suggests an analogy to the life of Christian believers who by dying are born to immortal life. The first section continues with images of autumnal New England expressed most vividly in metaphors of fire, as “kindling trees” are set ablaze, each falling leaf “a spit of flame” to make “New England burning.”

In the second section, October, the images of fire are replaced by those of roots, as the leaves fall to the ground and are intermixed with the New England earth. “The twisted roots begin to stir,” Bottum writes, and the desolation wrought by the mid-autumn month is heightened by images of human remains lying amid the tree roots: bones of deceased new-born children, chambermaids, and banker’s nieces and the graves of college boys and Atlantic sailors, farmers and Native American hunters, blacksmiths, Minute Men soldiers, harpooners, and aristocrats, all “drained of life” as the ubiquitous roots, “twisted roots . . . fat roots . . ....

(The entire section is 811 words.)

"The Fall" Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bottum, Joseph. The Catholic Awakening: How Catholicism Became America’s National Church and How That Church Came to Dominate American Politics. New York: Doubleday, 2007. The author of “The Fall” identifies the increasing importance of the Catholic Church as the central church in the American political and imaginative realm.

Linker, Damon. The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. New York: Doubleday, 2006. Controversial description of the rising influence of religion in American culture and politics, which focuses on the journal First Things and features a lengthy quote from Bottum on public religiosity.

Olson, Ray. Review of The Fall, and Other Poems. The Booklist 98, no. 3 (October 1, 2001): 278. A short, favorable review of the book that mentions its religious overtones.

Wilson, John. The Best Christian Writing 2004. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. This collection of recent Christian writing includes Bottum’s well-reviewed “Dakota Christmas,” a holiday memoir in evocative prose.