(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Leibowitz of this novel’s title was, the reader is told, a technician engaged in weapons development at the time of the nuclear war which destroyed all civilization in America and in the rest of the world. A natural reaction of the survivors of this holocaust was to turn on all scientists, on all fragments of science, and to destroy them for being in some degree responsible for the devastation that had taken place. Leibowitz, however, though repentant of his past, received permission from the pope to form a new monastic order of Albertus Magnus, whose role would be to save books and manuscripts from the “simpleton” mobs. The order’s formation was successful, but Leibowitz himself was caught in the act of “booklegging” and was martyred by simultaneous strangulation and burning.

Leibowitz himself never appears in the novel, but its three separate parts follow the affairs of his order at roughly six-century intervals into the future. In “Fiat Homo,” relics of the Blessed Leibowitz are discovered by chance in a fallout shelter and are skillfully used by the abbot of his monastery to have the order’s founder elevated to sainthood. In “Fiat Lux,” the books so carefully preserved by Leibowitz’s followers are at last read by a man capable of making some sense of them, as a scientific civilization begins once more to develop and North America takes a few steps toward reunification. In “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” scientific progress makes a...

(The entire section is 540 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A Canticle for Leibowitz relates that about six hundred years earlier, a nuclear holocaust occurred, and the only organization to survive, at least in North America, was the Catholic Church. When the war began, Isaac Albert Leibowitz was a Jewish electrical engineer in the defense industry. He survived the war, converted to Catholicism, became a priest, and founded a monastery dedicated to the preservation of knowledge. He based the rules of the monastery on the Benedictines and established it near the remains of a highway that ran between Salt Lake City and El Paso. He named the order after Saint Albert the Great, teacher of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the patron saint of scientists. In the first years following the war, the surviving population hunted down and killed the remaining scientists and engineers because they blamed them for the disaster. They also burned all the books they could find. Leibowitz organized “bookleggers,” who smuggled books, and memorizers, who memorized the contents of books. However, he was eventually betrayed by a member of his order, and a mob hanged then burned him. He was later beatified and had become a candidate for sainthood by the time the novel begins.

Part 1, “Fiat Homo” (let there be man), opens with Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, a not-too-bright novice at Leibowitz Abbey, fasting alone in the desert during Lent. He meets a pilgrim, whom the reader eventually learns is Lazarus of the Bible. Lazarus shows Francis the entrance to a fallout shelter, where Francis discovers several artifacts and a corpse that investigators determine to be Leibowitz’s wife, Emily. These artifacts include a grocery list that scholars conclude to be in Leibowitz’s handwriting and a blueprint signed by Leibowitz. The discovery of the shelter becomes a key event in the canonization of Leibowitz, and several priests interview and interrogate Francis. After seven years, which is an...

(The entire section is 790 words.)