A Catholic Presence

Duke's Wallace Fowlie


For Catholics of any generation, the question of how to remain loyal to the age-old traditions of our faith while also engaging new ideas poses plenty of challenges. For college students squeezed between modernity and Catholicism, the struggle for answers is particularly intense and given to extremes. Some students choose to remain loyal to their faith and shelter themselves from campus activities that threaten their beliefs. Many others can hardly wait to toss their religious upbringing aside entirely-and if that’s what you wanted, Duke University was a thrilling destination in the early 1990s. Being an English major in the department ruled by controversial literary critic Stanley Fish was even better. Longstanding assumptions about the meaning of literature, even about the act of reading itself, were under assault, gaining Duke national notoriety. For many of Fish’s faculty colleagues, truth in literature and the larger world was relative, the notion of God passé. Though Duke had been founded by Methodists, it was by now a playground for postmodernists who had steamrolled much of the university’s spiritual heritage. All of that was fine with me. I felt a lingering attachment to the impressive faith of my mother and her large Italian-Catholic family. But could a church that had relied on twelve years of mediocre CCD classes to win my heart and mind really be onto something? I was caught in a tug of war between wide-open modernity and traditional Catholicism, between glittering new ideas and very old ones. And as when Duke’s dominant basketball teams of my student days suited up, there wasn’t much question about which side was going to win. I went to Mass my first weekend on campus and didn’t go back for a long time. It might have been much longer. But about halfway through college I learned that my strongest urge, where God was concerned, was not to rebel any longer but to reconcile-to make peace as it were between the Bible and Stanley Fish. I didn’t come to this crossroads by accident. I was led there by a professor, a convert to Catholicism, who taught a popular course on Dante’s Inferno and who, like Virgil, guided me out of the maze of my own misconceptions. His name was Wallace Fowlie, and he was unlike any Catholic I’d ever met. A prolific writer and distinguished scholar, he never achieved the renown of Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day, but I’ve always thought he was very much in their class, as a writer, a thinker, and, above all, a pilgrim. Fowlie died in 1998, at the age of eighty-nine, but his influence lives on-in the more than forty books he wrote or translated, among the more than six-thousand students he taught, perhaps most of all in those of us who found a new depth of meaning and adventure in Catholicism through his example. Fowlie was a consummate educator who still has much to teach fellow Catholics about the crucial business of grasping and fulfilling our vocations in an increasingly fractured American church, about not only co-existing with modernity-those ideas and behaviors that characterize the current age-but actually learning from it, rather than fearing or ignoring it as many church leaders seem increasingly prone to do. If the church hopes to influence the modern world, if lay people and religious alike are to honor Pope John Paul II’s insistent calls for the “evangelization of culture,” we must first engage it-and that’s what Fowlie did. At eighty-five, Fowlie published the final book of his career: Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Poet as Rebel (Duke University Press). The book explores parallels between the work of nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the songs Jim Morrison wrote as lead singer of the 1960s American rock band the Doors. Both men died young, becoming cultural icons after brief but spectacular careers defined by vivid art, personal adventure, and the reckless pursuit of self-liberation. (Morrison died of a drug overdose.) In the late 1960s, Fowlie received a note from Morrison praising his groundbreaking bilingual translation of Rimbaud’s poetry. “I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me,” Morrison wrote. Some years later, Fowlie started listening to the Doors and became startlingly conversant on their albums. This was no anomaly, for in literature, art, music, and cinema, Fowlie eagerly engaged contemporary culture. Nothing demonstrated that more powerfully than his enduring friendships with two of the twentieth century’s most celebrated avant-garde writers-Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. While teaching at Yale in the 1940s, Fowlie befriended Miller, hugely controversial at the time for his sexually charged novel Tropic of Cancer. It was a friendship founded on a love of literature, and their voluminous correspondence was later collected in a book, Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie, 1943-1972. Miller introduced Fowlie to Nin, whose diaries later transformed her into a feminist icon. Fowlie makes an appearance in volume 4 of the diaries, with Nin describing her impressions of him upon their first meeting: “When Fowlie came to see me I found a quiet, small man, dressed in a dark suit, with soft hands. Somehow, he seemed muted, self-effacing, impersonal. His love of Henry Miller’s writing did not seem compatible with the first impression I had.” Though he often was self-effacing, Fowlie was also prone to a characteristically modern vice-a preoccupation with the self that sometimes bordered on the obsessive. He was, after all, a man who wrote five memoirs and was at work on a sixth when he died. We might expect such effusions from a world leader, not from a career academic who spent much of his life teaching in Vermont and North Carolina. Without question, though, Fowlie had led a fascinating life. He knew it and didn’t mind having homage paid to him. In fact, he refused to teach the Dante class I was supposed to take my senior year because the university wouldn’t give him the lecture hall he wanted. When he graded our quizzes, no one scored higher than a 98 percent. “I reserve 99 for myself and 100 for God,” he liked to say. Despite his modern sensibilities, he led an impressively countercultural life. Fowlie, who never married, once casually mentioned to me and two friends that he’d practiced celibacy for the previous forty-five years. He felt called to it, he told us, as we sat in stunned silence. And it wasn’t just modern sexual mores that Fowlie rejected-he also eschewed consumer culture. He once wrote: “My home is a rented apartment with furniture that is sparse and simple. All that I own can be seen in literally three minutes, or in ten minutes, if titles of books are examined and if the pictures on my walls are looked at individually....Cleaning my apartment means discarding each week an object, a book, even a notebook that has served its purpose.” Fowlie’s celibacy and minimalism were not simply the eccentricities of an offbeat professor. They were, I believe, the natural expression of his deep and enduring Catholic faith. While modernity energized and challenged him, it was in faith and tradition that he found stability and meaning. Born outside of Boston, Fowlie was raised a Baptist before joining the Episcopal Church during his student years at Harvard. Then in the 1930s, while teaching at Bennington College, he became a Catholic. A chapter from his memoir Aubade explains this progression: “I felt at each of those decisions in my life, as I still feel today, that I was carrying forward all that I had learned and believed, moving into a wider context, understanding more fully historical Christianity, committing myself more firmly to the past as well as to the present and the future.” A serious student of church history, Fowlie found particular inspiration in the large number of saints it had canonized and in the church’s role, as he put it, “as the guardian of the truth.” He also recognized its shortcomings: “It is painful to acknowledge the vulgarity in the church, its lack of scholarship, its lack of intellectual honesty. We are a church of sinners in which Christ is crucified by all of us,” he wrote in the early 1980s. Still, despite spending his life largely at liberal colleges and universities, Fowlie never wavered in his own essentially conservative core of religious beliefs. “For myself,” he writes in Aubade, “I summarized the liberal religious viewpoint which I heard from Protestant and Jewish students, and even some Catholic students, in this way: man has never fallen, man never incurred guilt, man is ultimately perfectible by his own works, by his own efforts....I usually ended up stating my own view, which is the orthodox view: man has fallen and he is perfectible only by God’s grace, and not by his own efforts.” Grace was a central theme for Fowlie. Invited once to deliver a sermon at Duke Chapel, he offered a meditation on Luke 23, in which Jesus is crucified between a scornful thief and a second thief who begs Jesus for remembrance and is promised salvation. This is “the most spectacular story of belief in the Bible,” Fowlie said. “Grace in one instant came to the thief. Not only was he absolved by Christ, he was sanctified, he was canonized. In one moment he moved from alienation to redemption....The thief, in turning to our Lord, quite literally stole Paradise.” Characteristically, Fowlie drew on a modern-day writer, the playwright Samuel Beckett, to drive home a point crucial to his faith: we have the choice to love God or to reject him, and that choice carries serious consequences. He quoted from the conversation between the two tramps in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. As they discuss the events in Luke 23, one tramp appears hopeful, the other pessimistic. Through their dialogue, Fowlie said in his sermon, we are challenged to see the Gospel’s thieves and Beckett’s tramps “as dividing all humanity into two groups, believers and nonbelievers.” To Fowlie, that was among the most critical of distinctions. French philosopher Jacques Maritain, Fowlie’s friend and godfather, urged Christian artists to glorify God by finding and fulfilling their unique vocations. Fowlie responded not with arguments and theories-but with a whole-hearted and concrete commitment to his calling as a teacher, a writer, and, above all, a spiritual seeker. Rather than pitting tradition and modernity against one another, he instead blended them seamlessly in service of a higher pursuit: his vocation. For Fowlie, engagement with the contemporary culture was anything but threatening. Rather, it exposed him to new ideas that challenged his assumptions and ultimately enhanced the scope of his teaching and writing, which ranged gracefully across centuries. It’s not a coincidence that he counted such modern giants as Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin among the writers who influenced him the most as a Catholic. At the same time, he looked back hundreds of years-to St. Augustine, Dante, and Pascal-for wisdom and guidance. “The reading and teaching of Dante,” he wrote, “always restored for me the Catholic sense of history: everything a man does in his life moves him toward his true end in God, or moves him away from it. Everything is ultimately redeemed or lost. Hell and paradise are eternal places and eternal concepts.” Fowlie’s capacity to balance his commitment to tradition with his fascination with contemporary culture had very real consequences-one of the most powerful of which was his ability to connect with and mentor jaded college students as much as sixty years his junior. Once that connection was made, his manner of living was bound to make an impression. I first heard about Fowlie from a friend who was taking his Dante course. I wasn’t really interested in Dante, but when I heard that Jim Morrison had written to Fowlie, I could hardly wait to sign up for his class on Proust the following spring. Within weeks of starting it, I was captivated by Fowlie’s warm demeanor, his scholarship, and his passion for teaching. It wasn’t until halfway through the semester that I learned about the sophisticated spiritual life that underpinned all of this. A small group of my classmates and I were visiting his apartment one night after dinner, and we were peppering him with questions. I was standing in the dim light, half-listening to his soft, baritone answers, more entranced by the Jim Morrison poster on the wall, when I heard him say, “Well, of course, I’m a Catholic.” It was at that moment that I became, in precisely the sense that Pope John Paul II intended, evangelized. Here was a man who had personally known many of the writers I loved-from T. S. Eliot to Robert Penn Warren-a man whose learning and sophistication far exceeded those of anyone else I’d ever met, and he was saying, quite matter of factly, that he was a Catholic, that he, too, accepted all the rewards and demands and bafflements that came with it. I felt an immediate bond-and knew in a flash that I would one day rejoin him in the church. It took another half-dozen years to get there, but I did come back. I don’t plan to leave again.

Published in the 2006-04-07 issue: 

Stephen Martin is a communications manager and freelance writer in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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