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The next great American novel might be written by a Catholic

WRITING

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John Burger - published on 05/27/21

James Matthew Wilson and Joshua Hren bring spiritual dimension to creative writing program at University of St. Thomas.

About 20 years ago, James Matthew Wilson was picking up a University of Notre Dame faculty member at the airport, and as the two drove to campus, the professor asked the young graduate student what he wanted to do in life.

“I don’t know quite why I said this, but I said I think what I’d really like to do is run a distinctive Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing,” Wilson said recently. “It’s been a long time since I thought of that ambition, and I’m still surprised it’s about to come true.”

It’s about to come true in the fall semester this year. Wilson, a poet who has published 10 books, will be giving up his teaching position at Villanova University to become the inaugural director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. 

He and co-founder Joshua Hren, a fiction author and publisher of Wiseblood Books, boast that the new MFA program will be the only one out of over 200 in the United States that is “committed expressly to a renewal of the craft of literature within the cosmic scope, long memory, and expansive vision of the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition.”

Plans have been in the works for the past year, with details being hammered out with University of St. Thomas officials. The co-founders have known one another since the days when Hren was managing editor of Dappled Things, a Catholic literary magazine, and Wilson submitted poems to it. Wiseblood subsequently published Wilson’s first collection of poems. 

“I was really taken aback about a year ago, when [Hren] wrote to me asking if I’d be willing to become the director of a Master of Fine Arts program that didn’t exist,” Wilson said in an interview. “And I said, ‘Well, since all we’re doing is talking, sure, why not?’ And I never believed it was actually going to lead to the founding of a program. On the contrary, I thought this is not the time in which universities are starting new things, so I assumed nothing would come of it. It was only about a month after we announced the program that I realized this actually could work, in fact, that this really should work.”

Restoring the transcendent

Students will need 30 credits to attain the degree — doable in two years — but most of the classes and discussion of one another’s works will be conducted online. This is not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because the program’s founders realize that many writers have jobs and maybe families and it’s rather difficult to uproot oneself. There will be a “residency,” however, in which candidates for the degree can opt to spend 10 days to two weeks each year on the Houston campus in an intensive seminar. 

The important aspect of the program is its goal of restoring a sense of the transcendent to the teaching of the craft of writing and ultimately to American prose and poetry itself.

“What we hope is that our program is going to be one that, like every graduate program in creative writing, will aim to initiate aspiring writers into the craft and the discipline of making a good work,” Wilson said. “We hope also to correct some of the deficiencies that we see in other programs. The main deficiency is one that is not to be found just in grad programs of creative writing but also in contemporary literature in general — a kind of eclipse of the kinds of dimensions to works of art that have any real spiritual or intellectual breadth or depth.”

Wilson said he and Hren tried to conceive a program that’s founded on two insights: “formal excellence and a genuine recovery of the great dimensions and conventions of form that had normally made art worth paying attention to, both in the distant past and the recent past.”

In addition, they want to “restore a sense of literature’s great vocation to reveal reality to us, so that we can live more deeply in the world and live for something beyond the world,” he said.

The MFA curriculum will be a “sort of great books program in the whole Catholic intellectual tradition, including the philosophy of art and beauty and the history of Catholic literature,” he added.

Hren said in an interview that for the University of St. Thomas, the new MFA is “part of a larger trajectory shift or enhancement to bolster the Catholic identity of the university.”

“We’re very intentional about this institution and its trajectory forward to be able to evangelize and to educate, University President Richard Ludwick told Aleteia. “To do that we have been intentionally building different segments of how this university reaches people.”

The new MFA is one of those new “segments,” he said. “It’s one of those programs that we think are emblematic of this Catholic resurgence.”

Beyond campus

Wilson envisions the program as a key component to spreading Catholic culture on campus and beyond.

“What we’re really hoping long-term is that the MFA program will be the core program of a Center for Catholic Culture at the university, and that it will be a way of developing radically the cultural offerings in Houston, to broaden, deepen the Catholic life in the Diocese of Houston.”

In the meantime, the training students will get in the program will, hopefully, have lasting effects on the kind of literature being written in 21st-century America. 

Both men see several problems with the state of literature today, as well as the way it’s taught in academia. Poetry and fiction are used, for example, “to announce one’s identity politics.” Or they “exclude stories with a kind of vertical dimension, a spiritual or intellectual height or depth or breadth,” Wilson commented. 

“We think that literature and the arts in general have an intrinsically spiritual, intrinsically religious dimension,” he said. “It’s one of the ways in which we come to know reality as a whole, both human experience and human action, our life in the world, but also the things that transcend the world, whether it’s the intimations of the divine that are present in everyday experience, or that journey towards the divine that found its great expression in Dante’s Divine Comedy. All these things are things that human beings need and they’re seldom getting.”

Guest lecturers for the program will include Ron Hansen, author of Mariette in Ecstasy; Dana Gioia, former California Poet Laureate and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Sohrab Ahmari, author of From Fire, by Water; Robert Royal, editor of The Catholic Thing, and Rod Dreher, author of Live Not by Lies.

For more information, check out the program’s website or email Joshua Hren: hrenj@stthom.edu

Where is the great Catholic literature today?

Asked for examples of great Catholic writing both from our own time and recent history, the co-founders of the University of St. Thomas MFA program in creative writing offered a few names to check out.
Joshua Hren recommends:
Alice McDermott (Charming Billy) and Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), “who deal with eminently Catholic themes but set their novels in the past, maybe the 19th century or early 20th century, at a time when the world wasn’t so secularized, so the characters can more freely inhabit this Catholic Christian cosmos.”
Phil Klay, Redeployment. “A couple of stories in that collection deal with prayer in the middle of battle. Clay is a former military man, so he’s writing to bridge the divide between civilians and military so we can understand what war is like. He’s also trying to incorporate the role faith plays when one is in battle.”
Christopher R. Beha, editor of Harper’s magazine. His What Happened to Sophie Wilder “deals with a very powerful conversion. Sophie is occupied by God. It’s so clear from that novel that it’s not merely a psychological tick but that God takes over her being.”
Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate, “has published quite a bit of poetry in the last eight years or so, and much of it explicitly Catholic, and the rest of it definitely informed by a Catholic imagination.”
Sohrab Ahmari (From Fire, by Water) and Abigail Favale (Into the Deep), which are “wonderful spiritual memoirs in some ways reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.”
James Matthew Wilson recommends: 
Ryan Wilson, whose collection of poems, The Stranger World, is “probably the best first book I’ve ever seen by a poet.”
Mary Ann Corbett. “Like me, she comes to poetry primarily through the writing of verse, but along the way she’s become one of the great Catholic poets, both in her translations from early modern French poetry and in her own poems.”
Helen Pinkerton, who died in 2017. “She published very few poems in her lifetime. Her collected poems run to only about 140 pages. But she was one of the great masters of the metaphysical lyric in the 20th century.”

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