OFFHAND, IT SOUNDED LIKE AN
ENCHANTING PROPOSAL. IT wasn't every day, I told myself, that
a writer was given a free hand in writing up his own charms and
virtues- especially in a reference book of this sort-and so why,
pray, not make the most of it? With only your conscience. as
your guide, and taking the sweet privilege of quoting only from
the good reviews, would not it be possible to build yourself
up as a literary figure, beloved by all, who . . .
And then, as with most enchanting
proposals, came the sobering thought that this was not for the
likes of me. That is, had I not already set down in cold print,
in essay after essay, and in fulsome detail, an only too candid
and thorough picture of myself? Was it not a little late in the
day, then, to try to present a more glorified Lucile Hasley?
Or, for that matter, why bother
to write up even an old Hasley ?
Surely, the simplest way to
introduce myself-if not the most delicate-was just to point out,
quite reasonably: "Look. Why don't you just read my books
? Heaven knows they contain no plot, and heaven knows they will
never capture a Pulitzer prize, but they certainly expose me.
In fact, it's practically like reading a private diary."
Few writers can make this claim.
And few writers, let us face it, would even want to. The personal
essayist (that's me) is a breed apart: the writer who is willing
to stick out his neck, for better or worse, in order to reach
through-in a most personal way-to his audience. Reader identification,
I think you call it: based on the tried and true dogma of Original
Sin that links us all together.
For instance, one has only
to flip to page 22 of Reproachfully Yours to get a rough idea
of my besetting sin-a slight tendency toward exaggeration-that
is offset only by my beautiful (if Utopian) faith in my readers'
ability, and willingness, to take it in full stride. I quote:
"The real sore spot for
me, however, is that an accepted manuscript calls for 'biographical
data' about the author. I gaze with chartreuse envy at that lucky
author who can start out: 'Born on a river barge on the Ganges,
I grew up alone, untamed, unlettered.' Or 'I wrote the outline
for this story on the back of a soap wrapper while in a concentration
camp. After three years as prisoner (during which time they never
discovered my name was really Countess Amerila von Steuppenguard),
I finally escaped to Lapland . . .' "
This is what is commonly known
as dangerous writing (indeed, it frightens even my husband sometimes),
because some literal-minded if careless reader-somewhere in the
world-is sure to say thoughtfully: "Lapland? Countess Amerila
von Steuppenguard? But I always thought Mrs. Hasley was just
a South Bend housewife."
As indeed she is. That careless
reader has only to move on to the next Lyrical paragraph:
"Who, I wonder, is going
to be entranced with my biographical data? I start out, in forthright,
deadly fashion: 'I have spent my entire life in South Bend, Indiana.
At the age of six I broke my leg while roller skating. In high
school, I made the second string volley ball team and...' No,
no, I can't go on. It's so dull that I'm sorely tempted to toss
in a couple of divorces and illegitimate children and just show
those editors what an interesting contributor they've snared."
But enough nonsense. Actually,
I'm quite content with my lot (Notre Dame faculty wife, mother
of three, convert) but you can see for your self that I-at least
in the beginning-had no choice but to write about the everyday
things that happened right in my own back yard. Not for me could
there be any high-flung essays on the grandeur of the Alps, life
behind the Iron Curtain, the joys of solitude, or my last interview
with Winston Churchill. Not for me, either, could there be any
ladylike essays on raising African violets or the joys of liturgical
cooking or cleaning Venetian blinds . . . for I am not passionately
addicted to any of these pursuits.
No, I had no choice but to
write about that sterling character, Myself, and all the people
around me . . . especially the clerical friends who were polishing
my little soul to a fare-thee-well . . . and, naturally, a certain
amount of Catholic atmosphere was bound to creep in. (Creep in?
What am I saying! The essays were fairly leaping with Catholicism.
The only creeping was done by me: the inquisitive convert, creeping
around . . . and sniffing . . . and exploring her new Home.)
Anyhow, as I was saying, my
essays were so very personal that I prudently wrote the following
inscription for Reproachfully Yours: "Dedicated to my children-Susan,
Janet, and Danny-with the high hope that they won't sue me for
libel when they grow up." Then, to handle my mother, I lovingly
dedicated my next book, The Mouse Hunter, to her. (It seemed
only decent, considering that the lead-off essay entitled "Charlotte
Mary Josephine" had not left a stone unturned in presenting
her to the world.) Then, quickly running out of any more books
to dedicate, I could only hope for the best as regards the other
possible law suits-such as from my non-Catholic relatives (who
appeared in "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot") and my longsuffering
husband. I figured, though, that my non-Catholic relatives wouldn't
be caught dead reading the Catholic press, and as for my friend
Louis . . . well, heavens, didn't I hand over all my royalty
checks to him? Believe me, it wasn't every professor of English
who had a wife toiling over a hot typewriter from dawn to dusk...
(Oh, all right, Louis . . .
I'll change that last sentence, only I don't see why you have
to proofread everything I write. You talk about poetic license
but you never let me . . . look, why don't you just take care
of the punctuation?)
What my upstanding Born Catholic
husband wants me to admit, you see, is that I'm a very lazy writer
. . . and with practically no ambition worth mentioning. . .
and that I waste time writing hundreds and hundreds of personal
letters that, in themselves would be saleable essays... maybe
even novels. What's worse, it's the ugly truth. But can I help
it if the mailman dumps bushels of fan mail (and vice versa)
from all over the world on my doorstep? Don't I prefer a live
audience, that responds with either yelps of pain or yelps of
delight, rather than a faceless numerical blob, as indicated
on a sales report? Yes. Too, there is a very special delight
in the letters from fallenaways . . . interested Protestants
. . . grateful but bewildered converts . . . and the keep-it-up-girl
clergy: all saying "Thanks."
Thanks for what ? Well, one
version comes from Ed Fischer, the TV columnist, who once did
a "Toast of the Month" magazine feature on me. I quote,
with pleasure unconfined:
"The scribblings on the
note propped up against the sugar bowl on the kitchen table read:
'Dear Mother, I'm being baptized a Catholic tomorrow. Hope you
don't mind. Love, Lucile.' In fourteen words Lucile Hasley told
her family of her conversion. Then in thousands of words she
told the world how it feels to be a convert. And every word about
her life in the Catholic Church has the simplicity, directness,
and explosiveness of those first fourteen. Her sentences, although
carrying heavy bundles, dance along on tip-toe. She has the ability
to make theology as exciting as a detective story. She knows
how to fit big truths into little words."
This is high praise . . . "big
truths into little words" . . . and I try to remember it
whenever I'm tempted to show off with a three-syllable word I've
picked up from playing Scrabble. But there I go! Actually, I'm
a prolific reader and love to play around with words. Too, I
will spend hours lovingly revising a manuscript and whittling
it down to the bone so as to live up to my famous remark, that
I fear will follow me to the grave: "If I have any literary
standard at all, it is this. I consider it a mortal sin to bore
I try, too, to carry this slogan
into the lecturing field. Hence, I positively refuse to be saddled
with edifying topics ("The Dignity of Woman" . . .
"Bringing Christ into the Home") and wing merrily around
the country with exactly one speech in my repertoire. Of course
I conscientiously change the title ever so often, to mislead
people, but my favorite choice, and the one that appears most
often on programs, is The Joyful Christian. (There are moments,
though, when The Petrified Christian would be more apt, for I
suffer, most frightfully, from chronic stage fright. For instance,
how do I know . . . for sure . . . that the Bishop, sitting at
my right, will not interrupt me with hoarse cries of "Heresy!")
Anyhow, me and my speech (and
I surely hold the national championship for getting the most
mileage out of
my limited talents) have traveled from Spokane to Boston to Dallas
to Mobile to . . . well, you name it.
Now if you will kindly translate
my lecturing career onto the printed page, that is, see the close
parallel between the writing and the talking, you'll discover
the same theme: namely, a thin talent that has been spread far
and wide, and greeted with a response that is awkward to explain.
(Indeed, the worthwhile writers and speakers of this world have
every good reason to hate me passionately. It's getting away
with murder, that's what. . . especially my fantastic book sales.
Bitterest of all is the fact that I never wanted, or intended,
to become a writer. It just happened. I just started to write-out
of sheer stark boredom-when I was put to bed for four months
with a heart ailment. Moreover, I never even collected a decent
quota of rejection slips. Moreover, I was approached by the publishers,
not vice versa, and had to be literally coaxed into letting them
collect my essays in book form.)
Let it be said, though, that
Sheed & Ward appear to be just as puzzled as I am about the
popular response. For instance, they once put on a contest (requiring
no box tops) and invited their customers to write in and explain,
if possible, the secret of my success. Frankly, I think things
have come to a pretty pass when even your own publishers can't
figure out why anyone would buy your books . . . but let it pass.
Let me just quote from the winning entry by Mrs. Mary Reed Newland
of Massachusetts who, incidentally, got fifty dollars worth of
free merchandise for her efforts:
"The secret is that Lucile
Hasley is to the Catholic reading public, both the initiate and
the still-to-be-initiated, what used to be known as duck soup
for poppa. She is the All-American Roman Catholic Wedge. She
is the gal you can hand to anyone-any size, shape, color, class,
and intellect-and get them softened up and ready for the kill.
She's the lethal lollypop that the doctor hands little kids with
one hand while he goes at them with a hypodermic in the other.
For instance, she got the first faint smile I'd seen in over
a year out of a woman afflicted with one of the most nearly fatal
cases of scruples in the history of the Church. Lucile the Wonder
Worker, she was known as in our parish after that. I'm putting
in a bid for a small case of first-class relics if her next plane
trip should prove disastrous."
I suspect that this last eerie
note sums up my status quite neatly. That is, you can see for
yourself that some readers would like my bones for holy relics.
Others... just my bones.