Saturday, October 22, 2011


Joseph Pearce's Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (Ignatius Press: 2000), is one of those books which I intended to read but has wound up sitting around on the shelf unread for several years. During a brief vacation to the beach a couple of weeks ago, I finally sat down and read it.

My general reaction is that in comparison with the literary intellectuals of the early and mid twentieth century, we live in a world populated by intellectual pygmies.  Like I previously noted with respect to Pearce's book Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, all the usual suspects are here: Oscar Wilde and his death bed conversion, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Eric Gill, Siegfried Sassoon, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Roy Campbell, Malcolm Muggeridge and others. Pearce does not confine his book to converts to the Roman Catholic Church however, and also includes those atheists or agnostics who became High Church Anglicans like T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers.

The intellectual level of these folks was so high that I wonder if there is anybody today of this stature. It seems that although we live in "the information age" we are really dumber than ever. Some of it was the product of the early twentieth century education that these folks received in the British "public schools" (which are really what Americans would call exclusive private schools).   Back then students received instruction in Greek and Latin and read the classics in the original languages. This education laid the foundation for lives of intellectual inquiry.  These people did things which astound us today.  C.S. Lewis corresponded for years with a monk in Italy in Latin which was their only shared language. Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers spent the last fifteen years of her life studying Dante and translating The Divine Comedy into English. Monsignor Ronald Knox translated the entire Latin Vulgate Bible into English.

Almost all of the literary converts who survived into the nineteen sixties and seventies were appalled at the changes in the Church following the Second Vatican Council. They were especially upset at what they felt was the banal translation of the sacred liturgy from Latin into the vernacular. Many, like Evelyn Waugh, also prophesied that the watering down of the liturgy would lead inexorably to the decay of the faith and moral life of the faithful. There are many who believe that this was a correct assessment.

Literary Converts is a great read and a great intellectual tour de force. The breadth and depth of Professor Pearce's knowledge of twentieth century literature and the history of the Church is truly impressive. Highly recommended.

Professor Joseph Pearce

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