Faith, fatherhood, and fiction: Exploring Myles Connolly and Dan England

Faith, fatherhood, and fiction: Exploring Myles Connolly and Dan England

Faith, fatherhood, and fiction: Exploring Myles Connolly and Dan England

The cover of 'Dan England and the Noonday Devil.' (Credit: Cluny Media.)

Catholic author Myles Connolly (1897-1964) thought that fatherhood could be a path to holiness. His daughter, in a preface to a new edition of his 1951 novel ‘Dan England and the Noonday Devil,’ said a “father is called upon to model heroic love for his family.”

“Being a father is always a difficult and important calling,” Mary Connolly Breiner writes in tribute to her own father, Myles Connolly, in the preface of a new reprint of his novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil.

“In a culture where the Self can be regarded as supreme and God as irrelevant, the father is called upon to model heroic love for his family. His children watch, listen, and learn as he shows them his love for the Lord and for those who are lost. They grow in spirit and in grace as they see him live his faith, serving those in need with reverence and warm welcome.”

Stephen Mirarchi, a professor of literature at Benedictine College in Kansas, write the introduction and annotation in the Cluny Media edition of the book. He speaks to Kathryn Jean Lopez about Connolly and faith and fatherhood.

Lopez: What’s so special about Myles Connolly’s novels?

Mirarchi: Connolly said in an interview that he was interested in writing novels only of religious experience. He succeeded hand over fist in Hollywood, producing and/or writing 40 films, so money wasn’t a problem.

He was convinced that you could tell a good story and walk that Emmaus path at the same time without descending into allegory, though he never put it in exactly those words.

His novels are filled with so many kinds of historical, literary, theological, regional, philosophical, and cultural allusions that the joy of discovery for the reader is right there on every page. It makes the annotator’s job all the more fun, I can tell you.

Why does anyone need Dan England in his life when there’s so much to read already?

The novel of religious experience is a very specific subset, a tiny niche, really, of faith-informed fiction, and it’s extremely difficult to do well. Most of the time it lapses into allegory, propaganda, a retelling of a catechism, a reworked theology manual, or what have you.

We can all think of books like that, and we may even like some of them. But a novel that actually brings you through a religious experience with the art and skill of storytelling as the vehicle that occasions the dilation of the soul? That’s rare, and Connolly does it.

The novel of religious experience isn’t easy to find in our culture. There’s been an ongoing and somewhat fractious discussion about this going on for at least six years now, blossoming with Paul Elie’s New York Times piece “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”

Dana Gioia weighed in, Image Journal got involved, Dappled Things ran interviews, and it’s been a firestorm since. I’m hoping this edition of Dan England will remind some folks of what the novel of religious experience can do well.

Who is Mr. Blue and what does he have to do with Dorothy Day?

Connolly’s most famous and bestselling novel was 1928’s Mr. Blue, about a young man of great joy and firm principles who inherits a fortune, gives it all away, and then ministers to the poorest of the poor in Boston by becoming one of them.

His friend the narrator finds much of Blue’s activity strange but is undeniably attracted to his way of life and thus tells his story.

The novel was a flop at first, but as Servant of God Dorothy Day got the Catholic Worker Movement going, Americans started to see that there really were people like Blue in the world; he wasn’t just some fanciful ideal.

And the book started to sell, so much so that by the early 1950s Connolly was asked to write a new introduction for the book’s 25th anniversary. Over half a million copies of Mr. Blue were in print in 1954, and it was required reading in many Catholic schools.

Why did Connolly value fatherhood as a “potentially heroic pathway to sanctity”?

He saw it being underemphasized, if not downright forgotten, and wanted to retrieve it.

Sure, a holy priest could be a Saint, and mothers with all they do are primed for great sanctity, but what about the layman, the ordinary biological father?

Through his fiction, Connolly wanted to recover and re-present that vocation as a genuine path to sainthood.

Is this acedia what Pope Francis talks about when he warns against lukewarmness?

A precise theologian will surely give you a better answer, but my impression is that they’re related but distinct. After all, such spirits roam in packs, right (Mt 12:45)?

Acedia is the longstanding name for spiritual sloth, which can actually be worldly restlessness, over-activity, or a bunch of other unholy things that Dom Nault addresses beautifully in his recent book, The Noonday Devil (2013).

Lukewarmness seems to be one of the many horrible effects of acedia that result from not keeping up one’s end of the friendship that God is always freely extending to each of us.

What does “lay spiritual fatherhood” look like?

It’s the godparent who takes a moment each day to pray for his godchildren, and who marks the anniversary of their baptisms on his calendar so he can celebrate it with them each year.

It’s the uncle whose brotherly love with your father actually helps you understand your own love of God and neighbor better.

It’s the teacher who treats his students as not just learners but also as souls to shepherd. It’s the wise friend who is not merely fun to be around, nor merely useful, but a model of virtue who calls you out and keeps you accountable, and ultimately brings out the best in you—and expects you to bring out the best in him.

Such friends are exceedingly rare and highly to be prized. Dan England is many of these things.

How does one novel cover Franciscan, Jesuit, and Carmelite spirituality ground and why is that all needed right now?

Connolly lived deep in the spiritual life. He was a daily Mass-goer, and he maintained close relationships with priests and religious.

He knew his spirituality well enough to mention in Mr. Blue the now-Venerable Matt Talbot only three years after Talbot’s death, though his Apostolic Process wouldn’t begin for another nineteen years.

And in Dan England there is a nearly five-page answer to an ecclesiological question that showcases not only Connolly’s vast knowledge of and love for the global Catholic faith, but also shows his foresight in anticipating one of the chief concerns of Vatican II, which wouldn’t open for another eleven years after the publication of Dan England.

Our culture, which seems to be pushing the limits of monism more and more, tends to level things out, to make things interchangeable.

Even many Catholics can be social monists of a sort: love is love, etc. What Dan England is very good at is illustrating spiritual distinctions: a Jesuit’s path of holiness is quite different from a Carmelite’s, and yet both are potentially heroic.

Connolly is no syncretist, however; he boldly shows how some paths lead to a fate worse than death, even portraying secular humanism as little more than a soothing lie.

There’s your opiate for the masses, Connolly seems to say.

What is Cluny Classics and why did you want to see this book reprinted this way?

Cluny Classics is an edited series within Cluny Media, a publisher based out of Tacoma, Washington. The idea was to bring back excellent books that were out of print and put them in context with scholarly introductions and annotations that would help modern readers appreciate the author’s accomplishment.

With Connolly’s superb command of vocabulary, theology, history, and the literary world, I ended up writing more than 250 annotations for Dan England to do Connolly justice.

We put them at the back of the book so you can read freely without them if you prefer. There’s also a lovely preface by Mary Connolly Breiner, the author’s surviving daughter.

Earlier this year we released a new edition of François Mauriac’s Vipers’ Tangle, with the introduction and notes by Notre Dame’s Timothy O’Malley. Our next release will be a new edition of George Bernanos’s Joy, with the introduction and notes by Catholic Pacific’s Andrew TJ Kaethler.

We’re hoping that Cluny Classics will re-present the great treasures of the past to a new generation ready to throw off the stultifying cultural coil of our age.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.

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