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Mary Ellen Evans

BOTH MY GRANDFATHERS-WELSH AND FRENCH Canadian-Irish-were, it seems, men of bookish, speculative, mildly radical temper. My mother could recite the Paigrave Poets backward, and did recite them in the usual direction. And my father was to be found, any evening of my infancy, holding down the tapestry wingchair, with a small boy and a smaller girl (me) planted on either arm as he read aloud from Scribner's children's editions. That is, when he was not on our playroom floor interpreting the book of designs accompanying Richter's Anchor Building Blocks, or penetrating for us the secret of perspective at the library table, or playing on the red mahogany Victrola the latest batch of Red Seal records he had brought home: Caruso or Evan Williams or the symphonic transcriptions of Vessella' s Italian band. We were exposed as well to the good things that came to our town (Dubuque, Iowa, naturally) - and most good things did, from Otis Skinner's Shakespeare to the Sistine Choir. And for spiritual-liturgical exercise, we trotted with mother to Sunday High Mass at the Cathedral, with its tradition of high fidelity to the Motu Proprio on sacred music, whose chief American advocate, Archbishop John J. Keane, founding rector of the Catholic University of America, still hovered in retirement in the rectory next door.

Vistas thus unveiled, an abiding interest in beauty, literary or otherwise, might have been predicted of our parents' children. Much as I fondled the books on our shelves, however, a career in letters was far from my early dreams. From age three on, I said I was going to be a "dejiner" when I grew up; and my image of me is still more that of a frustrated architect or pianist (or at least music critic or disc jockey) than that of a writer. Now that I think of it, my first published effort, appearing in the archdiocesan organ, The Witness, when I was about fifteen and we had just acquired our Orthophonic, was a grief-stricken elegy called something like "Lines Written in Sadness to a Discarded Victrola." But when at the same point I assumed full management of our home and also discovered the Public Library, any architectural or musical ambitions went out the window. From then on, I concluded dimly, my job was to make a home for father and brothers (a second one had meantime arrived); but, on the side, I was going to know as much as possible.

Apparently no one pointed out that I was probably guilty of what Thomas Aquinas called curiositas, though one high school teacher cautioned me to keep to the classics and skip the commentators; and another, in college, alarmed at my growing blue- stockings hip, that "people are living books." In my invincible ignorance, but with an instinct for what was liberalizing and what merely vocational in the curriculum, I read my way through four years at Clarke College, Dubuque, and the summers between, while doing much of the college publicity, covering cultural events for the local papers, blowing a trombone in the college orchestra and civic Symphony, teaching myself some typing, Russian literature, and assorted languages, and running our lively ménage. (Youth-It's Wonderful!)

The summer of my graduation was the first summer of the first Catholic University graduate branch, at Loras College, and for no practical reason I enrolled in the medieval course of Rev. F. A. Mullin (already appointed director of the C.U.A.'s library). This beloved priestscholar was both the object of a fine friendship, and the efficient cause of my first book. During that summer, in the course of a regular Sunday drive to the tune of the New York Philharmonic and Deems Taylor, my father and I made a discovery more momentous for me than that of perspective or the Public Library. We discovered, via an unrestored churchlet atop the leadmine village of New Diggings, Wisconsin, one of the most exciting missionaries of all time, Samuel C. Mazzuchelli, O.P., who had died seventy years before (in 1864) and who had Christianized the Upper Mississippi Valley. When I breathlessly reported to Father Mullin next day, he said, "Well, write a book about him."

I obeyed-but it took some time (more than Father Mullin could wait for) and some doing. I had to get hold of local history, American ecclesiastical history, Dominican history, and technique enough to achieve in my story the form I could more readily sense in another's sonnet or sonata. In this struggle I had the help of Msgr. M. M. Hoffmann's regional researches, and of Dr. Wilbur Schramm's criticism at the State University of Iowa, where, off and on until I had obtained an A.M., I sat at the feet of another great preceptor, the Christian humanist Norman Foerster, whose School of Letters was then at its height. Although tangibly encouraged to go on for the doctorate, I was still persuaded that my first duty was homemaking, and that didn't mix with a scholarly vocation eighty miles away. I felt the deprivation, but Providence made it up to me by giving me another vocation--a Dominican one as a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic. In the Dominican motto Veritas and the Thomistic formula for the mixed hf e-Conteniplare ... et contemplata aliis tradere-I found my rationale for whatever useful I might do with my life. For some years more, I doubled as father's hostess and a kind of ecclesiastical Junior Leaguer, writing up anything that needed writing up, burnishing other people's books, contributing to Catholic reviews, and, with Archbishop Beckman's urging added to Father Mullin's, taking another whirl at the Mazzuchelli story-with time out for some vicarious war-work in Washington as NCCSUSO news editor during 1942-43.

Frank Bruce, on a visit to Dubuque, gave me my next directive: "Go to John Tully." Mr. Tully had recently salvaged a defunct book service in Chicago, renamed it the Thomas More, and launched a little sheet with the hair-raising name, Books on Trial (since renamed The Critic). I went, and for the next five years (1945-49) handled books, authors, publishers and their salesmen, reviewers, printers, and customers-priests, sisters, laymen of every variety, from potential converts to parish matrons in search of ways to stimulate Catholic reading among their constituents. By the time I left, the magazine was respected by publishers; the Thomas More Book Club was flourishing; autographing parties and parish book fairs were routine; I had many new friends (closest being Walter Farrell, O.P.); and Mazzuchelli had a publisher--a new publisher (McMullen Books), whose representative pried it out of me, and subsequently annexed me when he became editor of the newer house, the Henry Regnery Company of Chicago. This man, Philip N. Starbuck, taught me everything I know about publishing, and did it over Bouyer's first work in English, The Paschal Mystery. My debt to him is unpayable, but I introduced him to his wife, which almost evens the score.

After another hitch in Washington setting up a library for the newly activated NCWC Bureau of Information, I was taken on by P. J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, in 1951, under an "old pro," Joseph A. Duffy, and young Tom Kenedy. I had some part in the break-through of the house from traditional Barclay Street colportage to professional publishing. One of my special "babies" was Father Bruckberger's One Sky to Share, whose second half had made the rounds of many major publishers. This book was put together by the author and me, with the blessing of Joe Duffy and Tom Kenedy, and the aid of our old porter who produced "Bruck's" daily breakfast of biere; and the resulting book proved that a Catholic imprint need not automatically disqualify a title from top secular reviewing media, besides discovering the author's possibilities as a latter-day Tocqueville to Life, Time, and the publisher of his Image of America. Another was Dr. F. J. Braceland's Life, Faith, Reason, and Modern Psychiatry, a solid-sending affirmation of the identity of divine truth and scientific truth. Developing properties like these is quite as creative as composing one's own and much easier; but the life of an editor has more months of tedious, unsung slaving over other people's manuscripts than moments of dramatic triumph; and such travail can only be supernaturalized unless one is stimulated by sheer fascination with words or the satisfaction of producing a publishable manuscript where there was none before. I was so stimulated, but could also supernaturalize if necessary-up to a point. A few years later (in 1954), I left Kenedy for Cork, Ireland, and editorship of Mercier Press. Although I had left my father (retired now) in better hands than mine, I grew uneasy about him after a half-year overseas, and set my course America-ward. En route I wandered into Spode House, whose warden, Conrad Pepler, O.P., I knew through his book, Lent, his reviews, Blacbfriars and The Life of the Spirit, and tales of ex-G.L's who had come under his spell when stationed at Oxford. Not only was this one of the memorable encounters with which my life has been blessed, but, just as I turned up, they were sleuthing for someone to assemble an anthology from The Life of the Spirit. I had only begun on this- The Christian Vision (Newman, 1956), as I titled it-when I was summoned home by father's illness. When I wasn't relieving his nurse I kept at it, and got the manuscript into the post one week before he died, good Welsh pagan to the last.

Thereupon I dimly articulated another decision: to take the Our Father at its word, withdraw from the ratrace (or, more patristically, from Augustine's "forum"), travel light, be apostolically expendable-and see what would happen. Plenty did: a number of editing assignments, including the Maryknoll Missal, and then, within three days of each other, two writing commissions: a centennial history for the Cincinnati Sisters of Mercy, and a life of Mary Merrick-in that order (some dear soul in either camp had remembered the Mazzuchelli story).

For the first (published by Newman in 1959 as The Spirit Is Mercy), I crammed about five years' research into one, divided between the New York Public Library and the Cincinnati archives, and burned up another year trying to convert it into a contribution to ecclesiastical Americana which might also be read by others besides the Cincinnati Sisters. The writing of the second engages me now (1960), after two years of documentdevouring under the hot copper roof of the Library of Congress, in the care of the gentlest, kindliest, most efficient people I can think of: the LC staff, colored and white. And I am just at the point, the form refusing to emerge, when I am wondering how anyone in his right mind could choose to be a writer. I assume, of course, that when one counts on Providence, and such commissions fall from the sky, where Providence is presumably headquartered, the fact of being for the moment a writer is more a fiat of Providence than a free choice.

For myself, I could be content "doing the Truth" in any other way, so long as it is creative and my patrimony holds out. I don't expect Providence to keep memerely to keep me in commissions. Actually, at any given moment I am nursing along as I can, and without fiscal contamination, a handful of books besides my own, and "causes" other than myself. It would be a joy for me, even if it were not my Dominican duty, to do so. Along with enough heartbreaks and a few betrayals, I once had time for a bit of reading, thinking, and "gaping," as Henry James termed it. While I am homeless now, and do my traveling by foot, bike, or very common carrier, I have had, on location, so many offbeat but beautiful adventures that the book looks like a by-product or side-effect by the time it is published. Even at my delayed-reaction pace, it has taken me less than forever to confirm the comment of Sister Josephina, B.V.M., "People are living books," and to add my own: "Providence is another."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Her well-received biography of Father Mazzuchelli, O.P., was entitled The Seed and the Glory (McMullen, 1950; since taken over by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy). Miss Evans writes from Rome.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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