The Call of Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Admirers of Robert Coles were not surprised to find in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review a major review by Coles of Norman Sherry’s biography of Graham Greene (The Life of Graham Green, Vol 1: 1904-1939, reviewed in this volume). But what of readers unfamiliar with Coles? “Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard University,” explained The New York Times, yet Coles’s review does not focus on Sherry’s interpretation of Greene’s boyhood. If anything, Coles is at pains to avoid any hint of psychological reductionism. In a revealing sentence he says of Greene, “I kept wondering whether his accusatory self-arraignments ought not to be regarded as carefully weighted moral and spiritual reflections. He had, after all, joined a church whose saints for centuries have not shirked the toughest kind of self-scrutiny.” A child psychiatrist who can write sensitively about Greene’s literary development in relation to his conversion to Roman Catholicism? Here indeed is an unusual thing. Who then is Robert Coles?

In a world where careers are overinvested with significance, Coles—as if to protest this fact—refuses to be limited by his social title. Bruce Ronda’s insightful study Intellect and Spirit: The Life and Work of Robert Coles (1989) sees Coles as social psychologist, child psychiatrist, literary critic, student of politics and culture, man of faith, and outsider who craves community. Yet a perusal of Coles’s titles (more than forty books, cascades of articles and reviews) only partly confirms Ronda’s list of roles. Coles’s famous five-volume series Children of Crisis (1967-1977) consists largely of penetrating interviews with young people living at the margins of American society: black children in the stresses and confusions of school desegregation; brown and white children of migrant workers and sharecroppers; Eskimo, Chicano, and Native American children; sons and daughters of the rich. In this series, Coles’s questions are certainly informed by his medical training, but his purposes transcend “research” and “therapy.” In other books, he has insisted on letting the oppressed find their own voices, speak for themselves, display their inherent dignity. (Coles’s fondness for tape recorders finds its origin here.) His work is infused with the American quest for reform and social equality. A Boston-reared Protestant whose mother came from Iowa and father from England, his cultural and spiritual roots reach back to Puritanism and abolitionism.

Ronda thus might profitably have linked Coles to the muckraking tradition as well as to social idealists such as Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas. At the same time, as Ronda suggests, Coles is certainly “a man of faith.” Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are major heroes for him; he has written books on such contemporary Christian figures as Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, James Agee, and Dorothy Day. One of Coles’s regular classes at Harvard is “Literature of Christian Reflection”; here writers as diverse as John of the Cross, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, and Blaise Pascal are treated. But where should Coles be placed on the theological map? On the basis of his previous work, one wants to situate him near Social Gospel liberalism—or perhaps down the street in Reinhold Niebuhr’s edifice of “Christian Realism.” Coles’s interest in literature and the powers of narrative, however, would seem to make him part of the post—Niebuhrian trend of narrative theology led by such figures as Hans Frei, James McClendon, and Stanley Hauerwas.

Curiously, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination provides few obvious clues about Coles’s present theological preoccupations, despite the book’s engagement with such God-wrestlers as Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, Percy, O’Connor, and I D. Salinger. Coles’s interest is rather to offer good stories about stories—about the way narratives achieve a dynamism in the lives of readers and communities of readers. The book is less a contribution to moral philosophy or theology than to what Coles calls “the literary documentary tradition.” He speaks of his effort as “a kind of field work,” a “collective exploration of the personal responses of various American students to a particular literary tradition.” Coles is preoccupied with how short stories and novels open avenues of spiritual and moral growth, summon readers to take unfamiliar paths, provide mirrors by which the true self can accurately be glimpsed. Another of Coles’s tape- recorder books, then, The Call of Stories is notably lacking in analytic and theoretical material.

Despite its title, Coles’s first chapter, “Stories and Theories,” displays this very nontheoretical intention. Relating experiences he had as a young psychiatrist, it shows how he was forced to rethink therapeutic situations. Guided by Alfred 0. Ludwig, Coles jettisoned the “symptomological” approach to patients. Healing, he...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, January 15, 1989, p.831.

Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXV, March 8, 1989, p. A 10.

The Georgia Review. XLIII, Summer, 1989, p.395.

Houston Post. March 19, 1989, p. E6.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, December 1, 1988, p. 1713.

Library Journal. CXIV, March 1, 1989, p.70.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 22, 1989, p.1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, February 26, 1989, p.38.

Times-Picayune. February 19, 1989, p. E9.