Mary Gordon is best known as a novelist, and more particularly as a Catholic novelist, a writer who has staked out a recognizable fictional territory for herself and explored it with a subtle yet rigorous moral perceptiveness. In Final Payments (1978). The Company of Women(1981), Men and Angels (1985), The Other Side (1989), and the short stories in Temporary Shelter (1987), she has proved a sensitive recorder of the dramas emerging from the problematic collisions of spirit and flesh, of faith, love, sexuality, suffering, and salvation. With the knowing instinct of an insider. Gordon is able to make telling distinctions between Catholic and non-Catholic sensibilities and impulses, to illuminate nuances of religious feeling that often go unremarked. Though her shrewd and tough-minded yet flexible feminism clearly places her outside the line of Catholic novelists extending through Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. she nevertheless bears a family resemblance to these earlier writers in the way she insists on foregrounding the inevitable relation of religious and secular experience and probing the nuggety moral dilemmas created by what can seem to be conflicting realities.
Gordon is not only a writer of fiction, however; she is also a regular and accomplished essayist, having produced an impressive body of critical prose that has appeared over the years in Commonweal, Atlantic Monthly, Salmagundi, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. This present volume of collected essays demonstrates amply that she brings the same intelligence and unflinching sense of moral engagement to bear in these essays that critics and readers have celebrated in her novels. The same craftsmanship and linguistic flair mark this work, and the same sense of values informs it. Divided into three sections on the basis of subject matter (“On Writers and Writing”; “The World, the Church, the Lives of Women”; “Parts of a journal”), the essays address topics as diverse as Edith Wharton’s fiction, the abortion rights controversy, the legacy of Andy Warhol, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s militant traditionalist movement, and the relation of motherhood to author-hood. Yet there is a shaping vision that connects all of Gordon’s writing, and not surprisingly, as the author herself suggests, this particular angle of vision is created out of her early strict Catholic upbringing. Resistant and critical as she now is toward the contemporary church, she is also profoundly influenced by it, and aware of the unexpungible centrality it retains in her intellectual and emotional life.
If the label “Catholic writer” means anything, it must at least mean a writer who largely subscribes to a view of the world taken by the Catholic church, who develops a particular habit of seeing and regarding the physical and nonphysical world. In her autobiographical essay “Getting Here from There: A Writer’s Reflections on a Religious Past,” Gordon most directly speaks to this issue of growing up Catholic and its effect on her view of material reality, her way of perceiving and valuing the world. Expressing a healthy alarm at applying the phrase “spiritual quest” to her own religious history (finding it too otherworldly or too self-aggrandizingly male in its literary connotations), she nevertheless catalogs her progress. Beginning as an amusingly doctrinaire young girl striving to live a pure life and to correct the impurities so clearly visible around her (someone who would brandish a crucifix before her foulmouthed playmates and challenge them, in the manner of Saint Dominic, to “say it in front of Him”—which, to her chagrin, they would gleefully do), she moves into a more confused and rebellious adolescence, seeing herself as an outsider marked by her faith as different from others who seemed more truly American. Finally she reaches adulthood, a woman no longer in thrall to Catholic dogma or nursing the desire to be a nun, but carrying within her a distillation of values and views she cannot and will not shake off. While rejecting the dangers of Catholicism, its tendency toward abstraction (the refusal to admit that one has a physical body and inhabits a physical world) and dualism (the admission of a physical world coupled with the command to shun it as evil), she retrieves from the Catholic vision a valuable sense of life as a serious project, the sense that things do matter, that they do have consequences, and that one can never do enough. Pried loose from an orthodox faith, it is essentially a tragic vision of the human enterprise; and Gordon sees little to mitigate that tragedy, only, as she writes in an essay on German novelist Ingeborg Bachmann, a “brave, frail hope,” some possibility of affirmation that comes from honestly, unsentimentally addressing the terms of existence and from making, in art, a new set of “saving” images. In her rebellion against the church, Gordon has not simply substituted art for religion, making new literary images instead of venerating old religious ones; rather, she has created in her art a point of view that insists on a similar moral scrutiny of implication and motive, the plumbing of the heart’s depths for secrets that may provide the proper grounds for some redemptive act of love.
It should not be surprising, then, if Gordon responds most sympathetically to and writes most persuasively about other writers, Catholic or otherwise, who examine the “real” world uncompromisingly to discover and chart its moral dimensions. In fact, the literary essays of the collection are almost exclusively devoted to writers who turn an unblinking eye on the world, who cock a keen ear to catch the moral resonance of real events. It is a sign of Gordon’s own depth of experience and her commitment to a literature that relates itself unashamedly to life that she understands this sort of writing to be demanding, to demand, above all, real courage. In fact, “courage” is the term most frequently used in the literary essays to signal approval. She recognizes that to look at life in a relentlessly truthful way, without the usual anesthetics of romance or melodrama, to occupy a moral position and express oneself in that position with assurance, power, and yet genuine humanity, certainly requires great strength, but even more a kind of bravery. If the writer is a woman, then the amount of courage needed is only compounded. So, again and again, Gordon will salute, for example, Flannery O’Connor for the admirable courage with which she confronts...
(The entire section is 2676 words.)