In this first book, Paul Elie, an editor at the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, tells the intertwined life stories of Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. O’Connor was the daughter of a well- to-do Irish Catholic in heavily Protestant Georgia. Merton, the most cosmopolitan of the four, spent part of his childhood with his artist father in a village in France and later studied at Cambridge and Columbia. Day was a non-conformist, Bohemian, left-wing journalist. Percy was a child of the Old South, who grew up with a sense of melancholy and decline in the home of an aristocratic, literary uncle after being left an orphan.
All four discovered the Catholic faith and became voices for Catholicism. O’Connor, a Catholic by birth, may have had the most gradual discovery. After she returned to her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, after studies in Iowa, she used her writings to explore the spirituality of the lives of those around her. Merton’s conversion and his entry into a Trappist monastery became the subject of a well-known autobiography. After Day’s conversion, she founded the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin, and is today better known as a nearly-saintly activist than a writer. Percy, a physician by training, became a philosophical novelist after his conversion.
Elie offers a fascinating view of the similarities in the pilgrimages of these four individuals. His technique of continually shifting from one to the other is a bit jarring at times, but for the most part he manages to bring four lives together into a single coherent biography. At the same time, he places them in American history and shows how they confronted World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the war in Vietnam.