Arts and Culture

Author Alice McDermott Set to Discuss Faith and Literature

by Father Robert Lauder

IT WAS NOT until I began to teach at St. John’s University that I realized how important endowed chairs are at a university. I was part of a committee to have an endowed chair in theology established in honor of my friend and teacher, Father Paul McKeever, shortly after his death. Endowed chairs are good for a university and for the person who occupies the chair. They bring into the world of the university an outstanding specialist who is not a regular member of the faculty, and those who occupy a chair for a semester or two have an opportunity to spend time at a university with which they may not be familiar.
Endowed chairs have been on my mind lately because this spring semester the D’Angelo Chair in Humanities, established by alumni Peter and Peg D’Angelo, once more has an occupant. Three years ago the chair was occupied by John Haught, a theologian whom I greatly admire. Haught may be the foremost Catholic authority on evolution and on the relationship between theology and science. I have read all his books and have been impressed and educated by each of them.
Years ago when I was preparing to teach a course, “The Problem of God,” for the first time, I needed to choose a book for the course. Seeing an ad in the Jesuit weekly America for Haught’s book, “What Is God? Some New Ways to Think about God,” I did something that a professor should never do. I ordered the book for the course before I had read it. I lucked out. The book is excellent. In fact, it changed my life. It changed my understanding of God, prayer, and priesthood. Haught was a wonderful presence on St. John’s campus, teaching a course, giving public lectures and having discussions with faculty and students.
This spring semester the D’Angelo chair is occupied by Brooklyn-born author Alice McDermott. For years I have been an enthusiastic reader of her novels. I think the first one I read was Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award. I eventually read her other five novels: A Bigamist’s Daughter, That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, Child of My Heart and After This.

A Fascinating Question
While all of her books are exceptionally good, the one I like the most is Charming Billy. The plot centers around an alcoholic, who is really charming but who never gets his illness under control. The novel may be my favorite because one of the characters in the novel makes a statement that raises a question that fascinates me. The character claims that Billy is holy. I confess that “holy” is not one of the words I would have used to describe Billy when I was reading the novel but after reflecting on Billy’s story, I suspect that he was holy.
I had a strange experience reading After This. For more than 20 years I have been conducting an adult education course on the Catholic novel. During that 20-year period, the students and I have read more than 150 Catholic novels. We’ve read novels by Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Ralph McInerney, Mary Gordon, Andrew Greeley, Flannery O’Connor, Edwin O’Connor, G.K. Chesterton and others. All of these authors somehow incorporated the mysterious presence of God in their stories.
The first time I read After This I didn’t think there was anything Catholic about the novel. I didn’t even catch that the title is from the prayer “Hail Holy Queen.” In a review of the book, novelist Peter Quinn wrote of McDermott that “her greatest gift is to make her Catholic sensibility indistinguishable from the catholicity of her literary imagination…”
His insight was profoundly true. When I re-read After This, it seemed that the Catholic dimension was present throughout the story.
On Monday, April 2, McDermott will be giving a public lecture at St. John’s starting at 7 p.m. The title of her presentation is “Faith and Literature.” The topic fascinates me.
One of the courses that I teach at St. John’s is “Philosophy of the Catholic Novel.” If I were teaching it this spring, I would insist that all my students attend McDermott’s lecture. I will be interested to hear how she sees her own faith influencing what she writes.
Of course a novel should not be used to proselitize but I believe that every author has some kind of faith, even if the author is an atheist, and that his or her faith will somehow influence what he or she writes. I have no idea how McDermott would articulate what she thinks Catholic faith is but I think that Charming Billy and After This are deeply Catholic.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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3 thoughts on “Author Alice McDermott Set to Discuss Faith and Literature

  1. I didn’t realize my request would show up here. Well, I went to the lecture. I was interested in Alice McDermott because that is also my oldest daughter’s name, a coincidence. I was very surprised at the size of the audience, and we were all there because we read Father Lauder’s Tablet column. The evening was a pleasure, even though there was no ice cream at the ice cream social. Alice has a gift for writing and a warm personality which she generously shared with us.