Rev. Alexander J. Cody, S.J.
IT IS HARD for me to go back
to the first time when I started writing, but I can quite vividly
recall a thick red-covered composition book. I was somewhere
about the age of ten. The pages of that book were filled with
my big, boyish, vertical, and not always vertical, penmanship
that ran on in a series of Western episodes that threatened to
be endless. All vestiges of any plot have long since been forgotten,
but the heroine, I remember, was always given the name of my
favorite aunt, and the villains, unblushingly, were given the
names of my boyhood enemies. The number of villains waxed and
waned according to the neighborhood sessions of peace or war.
Most generally there were sessions of war.
A long interval comes after
this until my entrance into freshman class at Santa Clara College.
There I learned the art of composition and literary appreciation
by the hard way of analysis and imitation. It was drudgery, as
any apprenticeship to a worthwhile perfected achievement must
be, and a drudgery long drawn out, with so many revisions and
so many re-writings laid upon my original text that the craftiest
of literary sleuths could not ferret the original out. Some of
those multi-corrected papers I have used in the earlier days
of my own teaching, that the would-be writers of my own English
classes would know that their final clarity of thought and their
final filing of phrases had not yet been reached. One or two
of those authors from my college freshman days I have not dared
to look in the face since, not so much for what they did to me
as for what I did to them. However, Addison and I still meet,
via the Roger de Coverly papers, in an annual friendly ceremony
for auld lang syne. And Milton, also, in his L'Allegro and Il
Penseroso and his masque of Comus. These poems gave joy, then
as now, in their matchless cameos and their rich tapestry of
the Renaissance. Though I wrote a little at verses, almost lisping
in numbers for the numbers came, I toted about with me for a
long time a college imitation of Comus as my first ambitious
attempt at authorship. At this late date, I can admit, unabashed
and quite understandingly, that nothing came of it.
Aside from random verses in
college magazines the first publication came in a series of short
essays on the American poets that appeared in the Northwest
Progress. They were very copycattish in their criticism,
had but a transitory value, and. died an early literary death.
The one personal gain was a cherished first acquaintanceship
with Madison Cawein.
The real impetus came later
with the encouragement and aid of four persons in particular.
To these four, any later literary success that may be mine, is
mostly due. First, Father Edward Garesche, S.]. At the time he
was busy with a little Sodality Bulletin in nowise as
pretentious as the Queen's Work and he invited me to make
contribution. Twelve five-hundred-word articles were contributed
in all, which taught me economy and value of words and stern
selection of salient details. Father John Corbett, S.]., comes
next. At that time he was editor of the Messenger of the Sacred
Heart and when his tenure of office ceased he graciously
handed my cause on to his successor Father Charles Mullaly, S.J.
The kindly interviews of one summer expanded into a gracious
correspondence over many years that resulted in a series of stories
appearing in the Messenger under his editorship and the
editorship of Father Mullaly. The stories evidently pleased,
for appreciative letters came to me from all parts of the country,
mostly from the rank-and-file Catholic homes, with questions
on description that fitted bits of their own neighborhood, and
questions on character delineation that (flatteringly) could
have been patterned on themselves or on the person next door.
With the arrival of these letters came the further compliment
of syndication through the various Catholic newspapers of the
United States. One story even found its way into a book on practical
aids for Catholic teachers. All of this was but a verification
of what Father Mullaly had written in one of his many notes of
commendation, "You have the touch that will please."
I found a great joy in the
writing of those stories. They sharpened my observation of persons
and scenes, made me in some instances almost photographic though
ever with the saving grace of light dispelling shadows and silhouettes
of spirit above the too, too solid flesh. They held the joy,
too, of my first imaginative character walking off an independent
old man. Roscrans in those stories began as a mere type, a marionette
where I pulled all the strings and, as ventriloquist, did all
the talking. There came the story where he walked out on me,
slammed the door in my face, took the street turning of his own
choosing and said as he went what he wanted to say. It
was my great moment of storydom. Dickens, I recalled in my brief
exultation, used to slink down the London streets shadowed by
his literary progeny. Some of those Mssenger stories I
later salvaged in a slim volume entitled The City Dusk.
During this same period, too,
I branched out into other types of writing. Some articles on
the religious brotherhood having run serially in Our Sunday
Visitor were gathered into a brochure under the original
title They Also Serve. The brochure filled an evident
and nationwide need, for sincere appreciation came from the reverend
Provincials of the various Orders, but the most flattering appreciation
came from Europe in authorized Flemish and French versions. Articles
on American Indian themes, too, began to appear in the Indian
Sentinel whose managing editor, Miss Inno McGill came forward
as another sponsor for my literary advance. For a number of years
many letters passed between us with helpful criticism, tidbits
of literary lore and much enthusiasm for my verse that appeared
over my own name and over a nom de plume in many of the Catholic
It was my poems that brought
me the fourth person to help me forward in my literary quest.
That person was Sister M. Ignatia of the Sisters of Mercy at
Manchester, N. H., the editor of the Magnificat. Sister
M. Ignatia was not only a constructive critic but far more a
fairy and a cloistered godmother to myself and to many others
more known than I in the realms of American Catholic letters.
Most of these poems have since been gathered together and put
out in book form. Children of a writer's brain just as children
of a parent's flesh have their own individualities and endearments.
So have these four books. Our Lady Courtesy contains the
prize winning poem in the Fourth Marian Poetry Contest sponsored
by the Queen's Work in 1920, and a sonnet on Sergeant
Joyce Kilmer that in its first printing elicited a letter from
the soldier poet's mother. "There have been almost countless
poems. . . to his memory, but none have touched me as yours has
done, and from the depths of a sad but proud heart I thank you
again." With that prized letter began a long friendship
with the elder Kilmer household. God's Loohing-Glass brought
contacts with Ednah Aitkens and Charles D. South. Enchanted
Casements took care of other contacts and garnered a veritable
sheaf of magazine and newspaper appreciation so laudatory that
I was embarrassed at the high names of those mentioned as my
literary kin. It was all very nice and I was very thankful, but
I knew that blood relationship was out and adoption questionable.
Peddler of Beauty found further appreciation and much
encomium in the poetry magazine Spririt, particularly
for a section of a Rondeau sequence. This fourth book, too, furthered
a literary, and much more than a literary friendship, with Brother
Leo, F.S.C., of. St. Mary's College, Sister M. Madeleva, C.S.C.,
Mr. Frank Spearman and that fine Catholic actress of the cinema,
Una O'Connor. The poems in some shape or other have continued
to find favor down a decade of years, for hardly an anthology
season goes by but some letter arrives with a request to re-print.
The last in a growing procession of anthologies is that by Rev.
James M. Hayes, In Praise of Nuns. It is a glorious company
to be in and compensates for the occasional less glorious company
in the literary caravan, where, at times, I have unwittingly
But sister M. Ignatia gave
me other valued assistance beside the valued first assistance
to my verse. She admitted into her magazine three of my one-act
plays and a whole phalanx of familiar essays. The essays ultimately
found their way into two volumes entitled Gardens and
Grottos and Tarts and Cheese Cake. Sister M. Madeleva,
at the time stationed at St-Mary-on-the-Wasatch, near Salt Lake
City, hastily wrote that she brought them to her English classes
"with a particular first hand pride," and later in
a letter concluded, "I want God to make your soul daring
to think, your heart dauntless to experience, and your pen strong
for superlative work in His Name." Brother Leo commented
in a note to a mutual friend: "Tarts and Cheese Cake
affords me perfect diet; thereon I laugh and grow fat: and
perhaps, even, I shall grow wise. It's a bully little book and
I don't mean maybe." That title of Tarts and Cheese Cake
(a phrase taken from one of Dryden's plays) has always provoked
gales of refreshing laughter from the very first day when the
heavy burdened expressman arrived at the University of San Francisco
and looked in vain for a large and very pretentious kitchen to
dispose of his load of cook books. Reviews uniformly were most
favorable, as of essays 'in the fine tradition of English letters.'
I began to feel, that, perhaps, I could-distantly-bow to Charles
Lamb, and-momentarily, and tentatively, and dubiously-hobnob
with E. V. Lucas.
Later writings of a more religious
nature took place in the shape of three volumes, one of occasional
sermons, the other two of occasional conferences. At present
the editing of Sodality pamphlets, now stretched into seven bound
volumes and given over in great part to the American high school
boy's literary and, principally spiritual self-expression, consumes
much of the leisure that could otherwise go into one's own literary
creation. However, all writing on a strictly belle letters basis
has not been given over entirely: one or other manuscript is
in formation and awaiting the propitious hour of a reading public's
serenity and a printer. For Father Talbot, S.]., has been so
gracious as to put my name on his list of American Catholic Authors,
and I am holding on tenaciously, even if it be in a lower place.
Writing for Catholic magazines
is an excellent training for the aspiring Catholic author. Whatever
it may have been in our grandfathers' time, the writing for Catholic
magazines today will not pickle to piety. A high standard of
technique, clear thinking and elevated thinking are required,
that, in a like proportion, or even in any proportion at all,
will not be demanded anywhere else.
Father Cody's books include (poems) Enchanted Casements, God's
Looking Glass, and Our Lady Courtesy; (prose) Gardens
and Grottos, Paths of Peace, and Vessels of Election.
Originally published by
Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three,