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The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage [Hardcover]

By Paul Elie (Author)
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Item Specifications...

Pages   560
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.42" Width: 6.26" Height: 1.78"
Weight:   2.03 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   Apr 30, 2003
Publisher   Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN  0374256802  
EAN  9780374256807  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
The story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God

In the midtwentieth century four American Catholics came to believe that the best way to explore the questions of religious faith was to write about themin works that readers of all kinds could admire. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is their storya vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker in New York; Flannery OConnor a Christ-haunted literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for themthe School of the Holy Ghostand for three decades they exchanged letters, ardently read one anothers books, and grappled with what one of them called a predicament shared in common.

A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story; and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own Paul Elie tells these writers story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms the faithful could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to changeto saveour lives.

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More About Paul Elie

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Paul Elie, an editor at FSG, has written for "The New York Times Magazine," "The New Republic," and "Commonweal." He lives in Manhattan.

Paul Elie currently resides in Manhattan, in the state of New York. Paul Elie was born in 1965.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Recommended for honest searchers  Jan 28, 2008
I bought this book because I am a devotee of Flannery O'Connor, and I have read and been enchanted by both Merton's and Day's autobiographies. The author's approach to the lives of these four Catholic writers is unique and seems at first to be somewhat of a stretch. The connections between most of them are tenuous at best - Merton and Day had a long-running correspondence, but O'Connor only was only ever in direct contact with Percy, for instance. However, the connections they made during their lives, though interesting, are not really the point of this book. What the four really had in common was their writing, religion, and their approach to similar themes during an overlapping era, as well as the enduring influences that they had on each other and on other writers (the author mentions John Kennedy Toole, etc.).

All four sought to define through their work the roll that religion plays in the modern world and in their own lives, and this book gives a particularly insightful and well analyzed overview of how each of them went about this all-important task. The author has clearly done a great deal of research. The contemporary commentary he includes about each author is fascinating.

This book was particularly interesting to me because I am quite familiar with most of Flannery O'Connor's work, and it was wonderful to finally be able to connect her stories to her life and to the time and place she was writing from.

I highly recommend this to all searchers, and to those interested in that which is mysterious in life and religion. This book should be read by all people interested in Catholicism in America, religion in the modern work, and in literature or American History in general.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own  Oct 2, 2007
An excellent read, the livesof Merton,Day,Percy and O Connor beautifully melded and yet distinct. I highly recomend this book for all lovers of literature as well as Christians.
"Predicament shared in common"  May 27, 2007
Inevitably, the attempt to merge four writers into one narrative that reviews their correspondence, books, essays, pronouncements, talks, and travels makes for an ambitious if uneven journey. Percy's Christian existentialism by contrast with his determinedly contrary if congenitally eccentric fellow Southerner O'Connor's keen eye and bitter comedy comes off as aloof, bookish, and not that interesting if by no fault of his own. His novels nearly all pale by comparison with her best fiction, and Elie has difficulty making some of his lesser novels even minimally engaging.

Day, by contrast with Merton, herself suffers from asceticism! While the two converts and one-time near counterparts in NYC progressive political and au courant literati circles in the years between the wars (albeit at some remove from each other's direct influence and circles of friends) share roots in what we'd call the typical avant-garde movements of Modernism and experimentation that generally any bright young thing in an urban East Coast environment has wandered into over our past decades, Day comes across as markedly more inflexible, so as to anchor her pacifist and anarchist commitment to individual choice to live the Gospel as "fools for Christ" must. Merton learns by contrast to adjust whether to his moral shifts before he entered the Trappists, his infatuation with the Abbey of Gethsemani and his sudden fame after he wrote his memoir, his diagnosis by a shrink as a "narcissist hermit," and his love affair with a nurse in the mid-1960s just as so many of his clerical colleagues were reneging on their vows and falling in love themselves with women rather than, or as well as, their calling to separate themselves from the ties that bind most of us, or used to.

Elie makes the best out of the enormous secondary criticism that has accrued around O'Connor, and of the correspondence and previously censored material now available to Merton scholars. He gives instructive close readings of "Wise Blood" and "Everything that Rises Must Converge" as well as contrasting the letters to Elizabeth Hester that show her public manner as preserved for posterity vs. hints of a more combative and much less PC Jim Crow-era attitude in her letters to Maryat Lee. The hints of what happened to Robert Lowell as a result of his manic visions of God and Caroline Gordon's own descent into a rigid form of Catholic scrupulosity needed more detail, however. Percy's life fails to emerge, and his family and career shimmer only vaguely throughout. Also, we have almost no sense of what Flannery did in college or during her MFA years in Iowa City, not to mention her own NYC stint prior to her diagnosis for lupus. I wanted more connection of her own urban flourishing to tie in to Merton's previous trajectory there, and Day's own movement away from the secular boho to the Catholic boho contigent, but perhaps such tracks remain too vague for serious biographers to retrace or imagine.

Well-chosen photos: young Percy strolling a German rustic trail, Day in the Bob Fitch snapshot of her sitting defiantly as two sheriffs loom to arrest her at a UFW rally, O'Connor radiant as she holds a new copy of "Wise Blood," Merton slouching in a straw hat and kicking back against a bench on the day of his ordination. These enliven these writers, too often reduced to small book jacket photos we have seen perhaps too often.

Percy appears genial if gloomy. The loss of much of his correspondence, unlike the stacks of carbons that fill up the enormous epistolary collection "The Habit of Being " for O'Connor and the letters and diaries for Merton posthumously published may explain Percy's diminished presence vs. his other two rivals for literary and spiritual audiences. Day seems not to be much interested in writing even though she dutifully published her memoir, carefully glossed as was Merton's for a more reticent era, "The Long Loneliness." Day early on appears to have chosen a lifestyle and a manner committed to renunciation of her own early fling, her sexual adventurism (although by our standards she and Merton are the norm, more or less, for those raised less religiously at least today), and her flirtation with Marxist and leftist movements. I like Merton's advice around the time of the grandstanding Berrigan Brothers agitprop: "I think the best thing is to belong to a universal anti-movement underground." (qtd. 396)

Elie is at his best in this section, as he shows how Day separated herself from the peacenik hippie priests and those playing to the camera while "the whole world is watching" in the later 60s for revolution that made Jesus a proto-Che. Elie explains that Day took pains to empathize with the other side, always, and not to place any dogma or manifesto between her and her identification with those who may have not wanted war in Vietnam but who could not be led to sympathize with guitar-strumming hippies and angry clerics spilling napalm and blood on shredded draft documents as cameras rolled. Merton, too, as Elie takes great care in documenting, struggled to be a leader of the Catholic reformers and the progressive left from his hermitage on the Abbey grounds where civil rights organizers and leftist luminaries made their own pilgrimages to meet with him and where he attempted to stay in touch from behind the monastery walls with a world that he knew needed his advice even as he vowed to stay faithful, at terrible and necessary personal cost, to his promises to remain a loyal priest and obedient monk. Merton too shrank from the violence that inspired young people to immolate themselves as burnt offerings against the war, and soon enough he too would meet in his sudden death "the Christ of the burnt ones" to whom he ended his memoir "The Seven Story Mountain".

O'Connor, being like Merton the more familiar of the four writers, comes across like him as the one you might like to meet and chat with, although unlike Fr. Louis I would fear reading about myself in her letters after the fact. Day's harder to make appealing, as her severity and devotion to seeing the Lord in the shattered ones kept her focused upon the less prosaic and less easily dramatized side of life that eschews sentimentality and exalts the utterly assured recognition of the Messiah in the poor and the crazed and deluded ones. Her choice, despite the convulsions of the Catholic Worker Movement and the fact that she could rarely find the time alone that Percy, Merton, and O'Connor needed to become speakers to the rest of us, "making oratory out of solitude," does make her active apostolate all the more admirable.

I conclude with a couple of passages. Elie compares O'Connor with Merton, Day, and Percy. Discussing an admittedly unlikely essay anthology in the tumultuous days of '69, "Mystery & Manners," Elie describes how she combined "objectivity and fierce personal conviction," speaking out of "aloneness and absoluteness," and how her Southern allegiance in the North, as "a believer in a disbelieving literary society," as "an artist in a church of philistines," transcends loneliness or alienation. What she and her fellow writers share is what all believers today share: "the aloneness of the religious believer generally." (426) She knows faith, the "substance for things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," as I paraphrase the old Baltimore Catechism (as Elie I recall did much earlier in his book).

If O'Connor derived her power from her inflexibility, Elie continues, Merton by his sudden death escaped the end-time days of rage constant upendings of the 60s. His fluidity enabled him "to represent and call forth the aspirations of others." (427)

Elie finds his appeal in his "radical identification of himself with another" that evoked in his readers a similar identification. Merton was able to mature and recognize that his smarts, his charism, his desire for the spotlight could be used to turn attention from himself as the bestselling contemplative, the talkative monk, the literary talent submitting his work to censors (well, at least most of the time--the love letters he sent his nurse Margie notwithstanding, and showing the humanity that endured and made him ultimately a better monk and a kinder Christian at again what must have been enormous sacrifice and, at fifty-two, having to "grow up" even more). He had the gift of getting us to feel as if we were in his sandals, observing wryly and compassionately and righteously what he could see from beyond the walls around his hermitage, and beneath his own defenses within himself, schooled as he was in all the trends of the literati at the shrink.

A year and a half before his death, Merton in the thick of the antiwar campaigns addressed his brothers outside the monastery. Reading Camus, Merton came to realize the existential predicament for the believer mattered as much as for those like Camus who could not return to believe what they had left behind. Merton reflects in the letter to his superiors that he has moved beyond the "answers" that his early years in the monastery once led him to think that he had gained.

"Can a man make sense of his existence? Can a man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? [. . . .] I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man' s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and which one learns that only experience counts." (qtd. 402)

This journey into the arid regions impels the monk. He leaves the world's distractions to concentrate upon the battle within, and behind the defenses of the cloister he stands vulnerable "to remain open to God wholly and directly." Whether God answers is not up to the monk. Merton finds God must be known, not proven. "To seek to solve the problem of God is to seek to see one's own eyes."

Elie on the last page sums up how these four writers' predicament is now that of any believer, half a century and more now since these four writers thought and argued and prayed. Elie insists that they all knew what any believer or unbeliever today knows: authority lies not on the institutional Church or a social monolith commanding conformity to the Magisterium. Elie imagines a reform of today, for assimilating or uncertain Catholics, or anyone "quasi-religious," might be abandoning the idea of a true faith. Elie tells us now that "clear lines of orthodoxy are made crooked by our experiences and complicated by our lives." (472)

All of us look for signs. Readers, we are trained to and thrive by our own pilgrimage for meaning. Elie notes that "the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs." Now we have the testimony of Day and O'Connor, Merton and Percy, who all had to balance their unwanted label as "Catholic writers" or intellectuals in thrall to the Vatican with their own real tensions and longings and upsets. They imagined their own afflictions and some made poems and fiction out of it, others and other times these became editorials, letters, diaries, and conversations. And, the four new evangelists all witness to us, as evangels, messengers, of the pilgrimages they too stumbled through as their narratives ended.
A Lifeboat for Catholics drowning in the sins of the Church  Jan 5, 2007
What a joy this was to read! My personal thanks to Paul Elie for showing me how these four exemplary literary figures of my generation managed to live out a life of love and creativity within their constant struggle for faith. Such a universal story of people moored by the faith, but beset by the pityful human sinfulness of the institutional Church. Elie shows us how Merton, Flannery O'Connor,Dorothy Day and Walker Percy, renegades all, pursued their art and intellectual/spiritual quests in such different ways. Though I have read almost all of Merton and O'Connor and much of Day and Percy, it was with particular joy that I learned how much these figures overlapped in time and space, knew each other and were often correspondents. Elie's weaving into the text much of their correspondence gave me new perspectives.
A Wearying Pilgrimage  Sep 23, 2006
This attempt to link Day, Merton, O'Connor, and Percy doesn't work. While it's true they were Catholic writers whose lives overlapped to some degree and who read each other's work to some extent, it's also true that their lives were extremely different and that they rarely had contact with one another--a few meetings, some small bits of correspondence.

Also, the Publisher's Weekly reviewer is incorrect: the book is ponderous, and the prose is the very definition of workmanlike. The author was evidently attempting a self-consciously literary style--lofty, philosophical--alas for his readers. The writing reaches a particular crescendo of blandness in the pages when these Catholic writers come to the end of their lives. In fact, I couldn't quite make out how Merton had died from the account here and had to look it up on Wikipedia.

Perhaps because of the detached prose style, I felt that the author had little if any affinity for either the writers or their writings. The New Yorker says O'Connor is his favorite, but Day comes off best in the book, as the author sympathizes with the Catholic Worker movement and with Day's pacifism. He also seems to have found value in Wise Blood and the Moviegoer.

In general I wondered if the author's own pilgrimage in writing this book had left him fatigued and simply glad to be finished with it. I know that's how I felt by the end.

On the positive side, I did find some of the details of these writers' early lives fascinating. If you have not read such details in other biographies or autobiographical writings, you might find it worthwhile to check out the first half of this book.

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