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Catholic writers you might not know

JORIS KARL HUYSMANS
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A few of these scribes were devout or close to it, while others had a streakier relationship with the Catholic faith.

Most bookish Catholics have heard of Flannery O’Connor, and there’s a good chance the names Graham Greene and Walker Percy would ring at least a distant bell. Below is a list of accomplished Catholic scribes you might not have read. A few of these scribes were devout or close to it, while others had a streakier relationship with the Catholic faith.

William X. Kienzle

Born in 1928, Detroit native William X. Kienzle was ordained as a priest in 1954. Twenty years later, he quit the priesthood, married a Detroit Free Press journalist named Javan Andrews, and launched his career as a crime novelist. He ultimately would pen 24 novels, which involved the semi-autobiographical protagonist Fr. Robert Koesler, a priest in the Motor City. His debut novel, The Rosary Murders, remained his most successful work. Three years after his 2001 death, Kienzle’s widow, Javan (d. 2015), released a biography of her husband.

J.F. Powers

Born in Illinois in 1917, Powers began writing soon after serving 14 months in prison for being a conscientious objector during World War II. He later contributed nonfiction pieces to Catholic publications but became known primarily for his fiction. The most notable of these works was his debut novel, Morte d’Urban, about a smooth-talking but spiritually-conflicted priest, Fr. Urban Roche, whose talents are continually devoted to fundraising. This novel earned Powers the 1963 National Book Award. Because he wrote at a slow, careful pace, his corpus of work is relatively small. Though critically acclaimed, he never achieved commercial popularity. He died in 1999 at age 81.

Honoré de Balzac

Born in 1799, this French writer was astoundingly prolific, composing fiction at a pace faster than many persons can type. His magnum opus, known as The Human Comedy, consists of almost 100 finished volumes and a few-dozen unfinished volumes. Earlier in his career, he was hostile toward Catholicism. But he ultimately welcomed the faith back into his life and even began lauding it in his fiction. Though healthy spiritually, his body was crumbling: Overworked, overweight, and over-caffeinated, he died of “gangrene associated with congestive heart failure” at age 51.

In his lifetime he was as prominent as Charles Dickens, but posthumously that has not been the case. The likely reason is that, despite Balzac’s many well-received works, he never wrote anything that critics tend to regard as an enduring masterpiece.

Joris-Karl Huysmans

Born in Paris in 1848, he spent more than three decades as a French civil servant, but moonlighted as a writer of remarkably eccentric fiction. His 1884 novel, Against Nature, became his most prominent, largely because it was referenced, though not explicitly mentioned, as a strange and spiritually-dangerous work in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Indeed, some felt that Huysmans was a danger to himself: One reviewer of Against Nature said that, “After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.”

Having chosen the latter option, Huysmans proceeded to write a trilogy of novels – The DamnedEn Route, and The Cathedral – that not only chart the spiritual journey of his protagonist and alter-ego but also mirror the author’s own return to Catholicism.

Because he was the author of Against Nature, some had pictured Huysmans as a depraved aristocrat, like his protagonist. In reality, he was a mild-mannered man of modest means who, subsequent to his retirement from the French civil service, became a Benedictine oblate. He died in 1907 at age 59.

Ernest Dowson

The legacy of Ernest Dowson, born in London in 1867, rests in large part on one 24-line poem from which emerged the legendary phrases “gone with the wind” and “days of wine and roses.” On a less influential but more religious note, he composed such poems as “Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration.” He converted to Catholicism in the early 1890s but remained a haunted soul: Both of his parents committed suicide, and the poet – upon learning that he was consumptive – intensified his alcohol intake and reckless behavior. He died of tuberculosis in 1900 at age 32.

Additional Mention: Jack Kerouac

Of course you’ve heard of Kerouac, but people typically don’t think of him in a Catholic context. In fact, thanks to such works as The Dharma Bums, people are probably more inclined to regard him as a Zen Buddhist.

Arguably the poster boy of the Beat Generation, Kerouac himself once sought to define the term in an essay: “It was as a Catholic I had a vision of what I must have really meant with ‘Beat’ … the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific.” Not every beatnik is a fan of Kerouac’s definition. Indeed, he had a streak of Catholic religiosity and political conservatism that put him at ideological odds with most in his bohemian social circle, not to mention many readers, most of whom likely had scant idea that this hard-living counterculture icon still possessed such “square” beliefs.

Ambiguous Mention: Oscar Wilde

And you’ve probably heard of this Anglo-Irish scribe whose wit made him the toast of high society, until scandal cost him his reputation, assets, family, and freedom. Three years after his release from prison, he died of meningitis at age 46. Having made a deathbed conversion, he was Catholic for one day.

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