Certain Criticisms of Certain Tales
Certain Criticisms of Certain Tales.
HUME'S rule of never replying to a critic was a good one, and it might have answered in the case of certain attacks which of late have been made upon me by Catholic newspapers for writing "The White Cowl" and "Sister Dolorosa." It has been urged, however, that these criticisms ought to be met—hence publicity here given to very private affairs. But if I have to say anything I will say everything. To be silent under misrepresentation does no great harm; to make a poor defense—that is another matter. So that I am not to throw a ray of light upon my actions; I am to make the sun shine as at noonday.
It is charged, then, that I was admitted to the interior of the Trappist monastery, treated with every courtesy as a favored guest, allowed to learn much more than ordinary visitors do about the manners of life, rules, labors, fasts, and penances of the community; that afterward I repaid this confiding hospitality by "the ungentlemanly trick" of writing an extravagant, foolish romance, in which I distorted and misrepresented the Trappist monk and the Trappist rule.
It is charged, secondly, that I went to the convent of Loretto, was received with hospitality, unreserved kindness, and confiding charity; and for these I made the poor return of writing a tale which is fixed as a caricature and a stigma upon the Sisters.
My conduct is otherwise described as a very serious moral delinquency, a social offense, an impertinence, and a bearing of false witness against my neighbor.
The truth is this. Requested by The Century Magazine to write an article on the Trappist monastery, I went to it and at once made known to the abbot the purpose of my coming. I staid several days; and upon leaving paid for my lodgment and entertainment a sum small indeed, but larger than the prior was at first willing to accept. Soon afterward I wrote the article which was published in The Century for August, 1888. A copy of this was sent to the abbot, was read aloud to the assembled community, and was said by the abbot to be the best article that had ever been written on the Order. I received from him a special invitation to revisit the place. I received again and again from Catholics, known and unknown, words and letters of congratulations and thanks. It was even strongly hinted that I would turn Catholic. This is the way in which I discharged my obligation to The Century Magazine and to the monastery. But of course all this need not be remembered by my Catholic critics at this time.
My obligation thus discharged, I was again in possession of my natural liberty and my imagination; and several weeks later, being still under the influence of the impressions received during my stay, I conceived for the first time the idea of attempting a short tale of Trappist life. "The White Cowl" was the result. But I want it distinctly understood that in this tale there is not a shred of knowledge touching the rules of the Order that I did not myself get, or may not this moment be gotten by any one, from writings to be found in public libraries, and from books on sale in Catholic shops. Such works are "The Rule of St. Benedict," a copy of which the abbot gave me, and which is still in my possession; "The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky"; "The Life of the Rev. Charles Nerinckx"; Chateaubriand's "Vie de Rancé"; and articles on the Trappists in old magazines—discoverable through "Poole's Index." If, then, any one wishes really to know the truth, he can thus find it out for himself. So far as knowledge of Trappist rule goes, the tale could have been written without my ever having visited the place; and I fail to see how my having visited it placed me under obligation not to use material which is the common public property of the reading world. Besides, it is idle to suppose that a person admitted to the abbey for the purpose of publishing an account of its life would have been told things that he should not tell.
After having written "The White Cowl," I heard through friends of the convent of Loretto; and it was suggested that I write a descriptive article of it also. With this view I began the study of the Order and of early Catholic missions in Kentucky in two of the books named above—"The Life of the Rev. Father Nerinckx," and "The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky." While thus engaged I conceived the idea of the tale of "Sister Dolorosa"; and from these two books I drew what slight knowledge I possess of early Catholic life in Kentucky and of the foundation, history, dress, and rules of the Order of Loretto. Thus this second tale was framed and the material for it gotten long before I ever visited the convent; and it would have been written had I never gone thither. What my visit to the convent actually gave me was the impression of local color, and this I could have gotten merely by walking across the fields in that region and by looking at the convent buildings half a mile away.
But the facts of my visit are these. Presenting myself in company with a friend, I stated that I had written an article on the Trappist monastery, and that, if material existed, I wished to write an article on Loretto. To determine whether this material existed I asked permission to see the buildings and the grounds. We—my friend and I—were both promptly and politely conducted by two Sisters through the church and the school building and to certain parts of the grounds. In less than an hour we were gone.
This is the beginning, extent, and end of my visit, of the courtesy shown, of the obligation incurred. During my conversation with the Sisters, if anything worth remembering was said, it is forgotten now. Not an item of information was given that could have been used for them or against them. The next day—their Commencement—we returned and sat in the chapel among an invited public, listening to exercises; or we strolled over the grounds. No one so much as spoke to us, with none spoke we; dinner was served to a throng of guests, and we were not noticed; we tried to buy dinner, but could not, and went away.
The material for a descriptive illustrated article did not exist at Loretto, and the idea of writing it was dropped. Otherwise I should have written it, and should have done my utmost to make it as sympathetic as was the study of Gethsemane. But I went on with the writing of my tale; and I am still unable to see how my having thus visited the convent placed me under obligation not to write a story, the idea of which was already fixed, the material for which was already gathered. I am glad to say that my visit had this result—it enabled me to speak of the Sisters in a tone of more intelligent respect.
As to the charge that I gave Sister Dolorosa to the public as though I had drawn her from life, it can only be said that in the same way Mr. Haggard gives "She" to the public as though he had drawn her from life, and Mother Goose gives "Old King Cole" to the public as though she had drawn him from life.
But really this is little to the purpose. For, at bottom, my offense is not in having visited these places and then written the stories: it is the stories themselves. The question then arises, May the American writer avail himself of conventual and monastic life in America as material for his art? If so, his tales must be located somewhere; and if thus located, will they not give offense?
Perhaps this question has never yet been forced into prominence during the development of the national literature; but prominent sooner or later it will become, and it is not too soon to form and to agitate convictions on the subject. Certainly not now and here may such a discussion be opened. But it is well, meanwhile, to remember that every form of Protestant belief in this country has been freely used, and without bringing upon the writer overcharged denunciations of a sympathetic religious press. Puritans, Quakers, Shakers, Dunkards, shouting Methodists, Hard-Shell Baptists—all have been freely used, neither for attack nor defense, but merely as furnishing material for tales. But the Quakers have never cried, "False witness"; the Methodists have never shouted, "Impertinence!" And the use that has been made of Protestant life in America has for hundreds and hundreds of years been made of Catholic life in every country of Europe. Balzac treats the character of a nun who lies to the Mother Superior that she may have an interview with her lover. She dies of love in the convent, and her body is carried off from the convent by her lover. But Balzac, himself a devoted Catholic, was not charged with wishing to fix a stigma on the Carmelites. Valera portrays in "Pepita Ximenes" a Catholic libertine studying for the priesthood; and yet Valera declares that the most orthodox Jesuit is pleased with his novel. M. Daudet represents a community as forcing a brother of the Order to continue the manufacture of the wine which is the source of its wealth, although he declares that he is drinking his soul to damnation because he cannot possibly make it without tasting it. So that every evening while they are praying for Father Gaucher's benefit at one end of the monastery Father Gaucher is going to the devil at the other. But M. Daudet was never charged with grave social and moral delinquency, nor with fixing a caricature on the White Fathers. Nobody ever supposed that Dumas meant to ridicule Cardinal Richelieu in "The Three Musketeers." And what of Von Scheffel's "Ekkehard"?
It has been understood in Europe for a thousand years that the writer is after tales, not sermons; but if a good tale makes a good sermon, so much the better. It was on the traditional privilege granted to the European writer that I based my own action in writing my own tales. But suppose that they were deliberately directed against these Kentucky institutions, as embodiments of the Catholic idea; what then? Is it not my right to oppose the Catholic idea in any form? For does not the Catholic consider it his right and his duty to attack the Protestant idea in any form? Has any Protestant ever denied to him the exercise of that right? And the right that he enjoys, will he not grant?
James Lane Allen.