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Reverend Harold Charles Gardiner, S.J.

MY FIRST REALLY LITERARY MEMORY (APART from being called in from play to learn to read at my mother's side before formal schooling began) goes back to when I was in early high school. The daily Washington (D.C.) Star used to carry a column of poetry and I remember that one fine day I ran across a poem that literally bowled me over, that haunted my memory for weeks, that seemed to open up vistas mysterious and immeasurable of other worlds and existences. I was so overwhelmed that I began to keep a scrapbook of poems, under the impression that these were contemporary works by some geniuses living in my time and who knew?, perhaps in my very town. It wasn't until some time later (for the poems in the Star were slyly without authors' names) that I got to know that the poem that had so shaken me up was none other than Grey's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." A period of mild disillusionment set in when I realized that I had not been the first to recognize the beauty of the poem.

Well, that's about how things started, in a literary way at least, in the Washington, D.C., of the early century. People always express surprise when I say I was born in the nation's Capital, for apparently the impression has got around that only Senators and Government workers live there, and they, of course, are brought in afresh with every change of administration. But not sosome people are born in D.C., and I was one of them, the son of I. Gwynn and Lilian (Bechtel) Gardiner. The event took place on February 6, 1904, and it was the last time my mother was to add to the population of the native-born, for I was the last of six, two girls and four boys. I followed my brothers into Gonzaga High School, after having finished grammar school at St. Aloysius parish school, and would have undoubtedly followed them through Georgetown University (two became lawyers and one a doctor), had I not entered the Society of Jesus upon graduation in 1922. St. Andrew-on-Hudson was my home for the next four years, during the period of my noviceship and juniorate (classical studies), and then I went to the famous Jesuit house of studies at Woodstock, Maryland, for three years of philosophy and science. There followed the usual teaching period that is one of the finest formative experiences in a young Jesuit's life; this took me to Canisius College in Buffalo, where for three years (1929-32) I taught Latin, Greek, and English, and filled in my spare time with directing dramatics, moderating the literary quarterly and the Glee Club (I have always been a barber-shop harmony bug). The return to Woodstock for the four-year theology course culminated in ordination in 1935. In 1936 I was sent for a year's ascetical study in Belgium and in 1937 entered Downing College, Cambridge, England, for graduate studies in English. The outbreak of the war in 1939 caused me to be recalled a year ahead of schedule, but I had completed enough academic requirements at Cambridge to be able to take my Ph.D. degree in absentia in 1940.

But way back in the dear dead days almost beyond recall I had been bitten by the bug--I had submitted an article to America. Or perhaps I ought to say that the bug-bite (which had occurred some time earlier) then broke into alarming external symptoms. I had had some success in the writing of poems during my classical studies, though I must admit that the poems were probably pretty pallid stuff, but I had never had the urge to send any of my immortal work out for consideration in the editorial offices of the land. I had, to be sure, had one poem published in the Messenger of the Sacred Heart, but the six complimentary copies I got for that had not been enough incentive to impell me to look ahead to publishing--and, anyway, what did I have to publish?

But around 1926 I did feel that I really had latched on to something that the world was waiting for. I have not kept a copy of this masterpiece and I do not recall much about it, but I do know that it had something to do with "literature" and "beauty" and "art" and I do remember most vividly my amazement and chagrin when the manuscript was returned to me by the then literary editor of America, Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J. Now that I have succeeded to that position, I know full well why Father Talbot was forced to nip the budding artist in the bud, for even though the work was without a doubt a master stroke, it ran up to about thirty typed pages, about six times the length of articles that then could be handled by America, or indeed, can be handled now, some thirty-five years later.

All this is -not very important, but it does illustrate a fact that many aspiring young writers might well keep in mind, namely, that it's a good idea to know the requirements and character of the medium to which work is submitted. If I had only been as familiar with the character of America as I should have been, I would never have burdened poor Father Talbot with the job of plowing through such an opus, however dazzled he may have been at the genius evident in those thronging pages. He never said that he was dazzled, but the work must have made some impression on him, for, lo and behold! -along came 1940 and Father Talbot, then Editor-in-Chief of America, welcomed me with his unique charm as his successor as literary editor.

The appointment came as a great surprise to me. As I have said, I had finished the usual courses in the Society-classics, a period of teaching, philosophy, and theology-when superiors had been daring enough to send me to Cambridge to do graduate work in English. That work was concentrated on the medieval period, and especially on the medieval religious stage, and I was anticipating a long life in the classroom. But when the appointments of the province were posted on the bulletin board at Georgetown University (where I was living after having finished the work in England), I was listed on the faculty of no college, university, or high school. I scanned the roster, but apparently the powers that be had forgotten my very existence--but wait! What was this? Was that my name under Campion House: Domus Sc riptorum (the "House of Writers" domiciles the editorial staff of America)? What in the world would I write about? Did all those Olympian characters (Fathers Talbot, Blakely, LaFarge, et al.) just sit and write all day? What would one do in a domus scribtorum?

Well, I soon found out. As literary editor, I did by no means just sit and write all day. I began to handle all the books that came in for review, and that is a job of no small proportions, when you consider that America handled about 3,000 books a year. There were manuscripts to be read (some of them no more modest in size than the thirty pages I had sent gaily along years before). There were scads of poems to be scanned; there was proofreading to do, and letters to be answered, and, as time went on, lectures to be given.

But, after all, it was a domus scritorum, and so, write I did-a book review here, an article there, comment and editorials. But there was still not much direction in what I was doing; there was no real focus; what I managed to grind out were really what the Victorians used to call "fugitive pieces."

In 1942, however, Betty Smith did me a great service, though she had never heard of me and did not know that she was doing me a favor. She published A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I reviewed the book favorably in the columns of America and almost overnight began to see what has turned out to be my main concern in all my writings since. What happened was that the heavens descended on my head because of the kind words I had said about this novel. How could I, a priest, recommend that "filthy" book? Was I not doing a dastardly disservice to letters, and especially to Catholic letters, and so on and so on.

I conceived that it was high time that some principles on the reading and criticism of literature be got into order, and I embarked on a series of articles in America, titled "Tenets for Reviewers." After the fourth of these had appeared, the late Mother Grace Dammann, R.S.C.J., the great lady who was then president of Manhattanville College of New York, phoned me and urged me to put the articles in booklet form. With the hearty approval of Father Talbot, the booklet appeared, and I was really embarked on writing to a degree I had never dreamed of. Whatever the merits of the principles I was trying to establish, the little booklet was eaten upproof of the fact of how much an attempt at sane evaluation of literature against the narrowness of the Catholic Philistines was needed and wanted. "Tenets for Reviewers" was expanded, was put through about ten different printings (it still is reprinted regularly), was further expanded into book form as Norms for the Novel (America Press, 1953), and has recently come out in a second and again enlarged edition (Hanover House, 1960).

What I tried to do in "Tenets" is a key to what I have been trying to do in all my other writing. A truly Catholic attitude is what is of the essence-not only with regard to literature, but with regard to all the multitudinous facets of contemporary life-an attitude that really faces reality and endeavors to leaven that reality with the spirit of Christ and His Church. And in my work in this I have had truly magnificent support and inspiration from my colleagues on America, each of whom is trying to do the same job in his particular field, Father LaFarge in race relations, Father Masse in industrial relations, Father McCluskey in education, and so on.

Such a Catholic evaluation was what suggested books I have edited, such as Fifty Years of the American Novel (Scribner, 1951), The Great Books: A Christian Appraisal (4 vols., Devin-Adair, 1949-53), and American Classics Reconsidered (Scribner, 1958). It was what got me into the field of censorship and resulted in the Catholic Viewpoint on Censorship (Hanover House, 1958). It is also the motive force that animates the work of the Catholic Book Club, of which I am chairman of the board of directors.

In a very true sense and with no false modesty, I can say that happenstances have pushed me into production. It just so happened that a stimulating editor was at the helm of America when I was appointed to the staff; it just so happened that a Mother Dammann urged me to the first attempt outside the columns of the magazine; it just so happened that an editor fertile in ideas, Mr. John J. Delaney of Hanover House, recognized the need for such a book as the one on censorship; it has just so happened that the ever-rising standards in American Catholic education began to make imperative a more considered approach to the study and criticism of literature. If none of these circumstances or people had happened, I might well still be submitting thirty-page articles to groaning editors. The best fortune I could wish for any Catholic who aspires to write is to happen to meet equally felicitous circumstances and equally wonderful, stimulating people.

The first book I published was called Mysteries' End (it was the result of my work at Cambridge). The mystery of circumstance and people that have surrounded my efforts to write has not yet ended.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Father Gardiner also wrote Edmund Campion (1957) for Farrar's Vision Books, and in All Conscience (Hanover House, 1959), reflections on books and culture. And he edited a modern edition of Richard Whitford's sixteenth century version of The Imitation of Christ (Hanover House, 1955; reprinted in Image Books). The trade edition of his Cambridge thesis, an investigation of the last days of the medieval religious stage, Mysteries' End (Yale University Press, 1946) Is volume 103 of the Yale Studies in English.

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


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