NOT LONG AGO I WAS INVITED
TO CONTRIBUTE A CHAPTER TO Frank Sheed's book of non-convert
stories, Born Catholics. I was attracted by the idea of an antidote
to the spate of convert stories we have had-that of my wife,
Josephine Nicholls Hughes, to be found in Gilbert Oddo's These
Came Home, interests me most-but I felt that my own story merited
inclusion only if I wrote of myself as a type: the Irish-American
of New England origin. Thus I wrote my piece in the third person.
It occurs to me now that the problem for the writer, particularly
when he inhabits the academic world, is to be sure to live in
the first person, whether or not he writes in the third.
I have decided, this time,
to try to see myself as "I," and not as "one."
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1914, and I had my early
training there, part of it literally in the shadow of Yale, which
I was later to attend for a time as a graduate student. It was
in New Haven too that
I had my professional start as a writer. A year after graduating
from high school and a year before going to college, I began
writing book reviews for the Journal-Courter, a morning newspaper.
The summer just before college I was what I believe is called
a "relief" reporter for the evening paper. I was not
yet a writer, but I was on my way to becoming one. College, I
hoped, would help.
Attending Providence College
was one of the important influences in my life. I entered college
having read enormously yet not systematically; I had already
written a few hundred book reviews. But for all I had read and
written, I was distressingly ignorant. I had neglected much of
my formal education to read the classics of English literature;
of science and philosophy I had no idea whatever. College perforce
opened my eyes-happily there was no elective system-to fields
I had casually ignored. With the Dominican Fathers I had found
guidance, inspiration, and a living ideal of truth and learning.
Veritas is the college motto, as it has been of the Order of
Preachers for seven centuries, and truth I learned to know and
From my sophomore year I found
myself writing for the Sunday book page of a distinguished newspaper,
the Providence Journal. In my freshman year I had made up a book
of humorous sketches which I had published, and many more I had
not. By my junior year I had the good sense to consign the manuscript-much
worn after rejection by nine publishers-to the flames. I left
college the author of an unpublished and happily destroyed book,
with the odd literary honor of having written a book column for
a race track magazine. I went on to graduate work, first at Yale
and then at Brown. Every summer I pounded the sand of the Connecticut
shoreline as a "shore correspondent" for the New Haven
Register, bringing news of weiner roasts and other stirring events
to a waiting world.
My first full-time position-these
were the late Depression years-was a writing and editing job.
In 1940 I was appointed a state editor in the Connecticut WPA
Writers' Project. Two years later I was head of the Project,
slightly before it was dissolved, as Dr. New Deal lay dying.
My chief writing task on the Project was to do a book on officer
training in the United States Coast Guard. Devin Adair brought
the book out in 1944 under the title Our Coast Guard Academy:
A History and Guide.
By that time I was back at
Providence College, as public relations director and instructor
in English. I had had a year in the English department at Brown;
now I was engaged in teaching again. Fifteen years later I am
teaching still, now as associate professor of English in the
School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
When I take stock now, I have
an enormous quantity of journalistic reviewing to look back on-I
have been writing book reviews constantly for a quarter of a
century-and three books. My first writing for the Catholic press
was in the pages of America, at the kind invitation of Father
Harold Gardiner, S. J. I have written reviews often for The Commonweal,
Best Sellers, Books on Trial (where for some years now I have
had a quarterly column on reprints and new editions), Renascence,
Thought, and other Catholic magazines. I was the second critic
to succeed the famous Brother Leo in Columbia. My reviews have
also appeared in The Saturday Review. Since 1951 I have been
fiction critic of The Catholic World, to which I contribute a
In all my years of book reviewing,
I tried my hand at various literary forms, and I have published
something in every form. For a long time the stern demands of
professional competence I held up for others acted as a brake
on my own literary ambitions. My novel, the first of what I hope
may be not a few, was written more or less as an accident. The
Hills Were Liars existed first as a short story-a short story
no one would publish. Then an editor from Bruce invited me to
dinner one November day; I took along, as conversation pieces,
a short story I had published in Four Quarters (our only Catholic
"little magazine" and a most distinguished publication
edited from La Salle College) and a short story in manuscript.
I came away from a pleasant dinner finding myself pledged to
spin the unpublishable short story into a novel.
This, after some three years
of constant writing, I did. I wrote the book in long hand, in
pencil mostly, in a huge business ledger. For much of the time
I was baby-sitting with our children. Every day I would write
what I could -sometimes only a few lines, never more than a few
pages -stopping to tie a baby's shoe, or to referee a children's
free-for-all. You see, I am what is known in the trade as a "bleeder."
That is, I write with excruciating slowness. I don't write books-I
write words-one long word after another. Fortunately I do not
have the problem of revision most writers have. And I have nothing
to throw away, not more than a paragraph or two for an entire
book. One reviewer of The Hills Were Liars commented on what
he was pleased to consider the polished perfection of my sentences.
He concluded that they were the result of long and careful revision.
In a sense he was right, but the revision was in my mind, not
on paper. Style has always been less of a problem for me than
finding something to say.
In The Hills Were Liars I found
something to say, I think, a way to give voice to the thoughts
and the anxieties of some years. This book is the story of our
world as I imagine it to be one hundred years from now, after
the atomic wars are over. Men live cut o~ from other men in small
islands of humanity. Men live; the Church lives. I wrote The
Hills Were Liars to work out imaginatively what Christ's promise
to the Church might mean in a world almost destroyed. The theme
is from Scripture, in the words of Jeremias: "In every deed
the hills were liars, and the multitude of the mountains; truly
in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel."
The novel came out, published
by Bruce, in 1955, and in the following year P. J. Kenedy published
my anthology of short stories from the American Catholic press
entitled All Manner of Men. I had long hoped to publish a novel,
but for even a longer time it was my ambition to edit a volume
of short stories. I think that my collection is an important
one for the new talent it introduces and for the attention it
calls to the work of quality being published in our Catholic
magazines. The sponsorship of this book by the Catholic Press
Association is a hopeful sign, I think; it shows unmistakably
the vigorous interest of the Catholic press in fiction of literary
merit, professional in its competence, modern in spirit, and
wrought out of our great tradition of Christian art.
At the moment (January, 1957),
and before I can get down to a novel now only a skimpy group
of notes, I am engaged in three book projects. First to be completed
will be an edition of Monsignor Robert Benson's novel By What
Authority?; this for a series of reprints of Benson which P.
J. Kenedy is putting out. I am working on a freshman English
text for Harper, and I have copious notes for a biography of
Bishop Brute, first bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, which I am
to do for the Catholic Treasury series of juveniles being published
I am doing all this in the
midst of normal family chaos. When I was writing the introduction
to my short story anthology workmen were immediately below me
banging together a new main beam in our house. The children can
tie their own shoes now, but I must break off my writing to hear
Winifred read me a story, or to ask Austin his catechism questions.
Dennis and Hildred are not in school yet, but they bring drawings
or "book jackets" which demand instant attention. Much
as the children interrupt my writing schedule, I interrupt it
far more often myself. Writing, even in the midst of one's family,
is a lonely job; one is cut off by a self-constructed wall of
concentration. I break out of the wall now and again, and get
away from my usual round, by going on lecture tours. I was thrown
into lecturing quite by chance. Some years ago I went, as one
of three men in an audience of six hundred women, to hear the
late Theodore Maynard speak on Chesterton. At the last minute,
illness prevented the speaker's appearance, and with fifteen
minutes' preparation-a rough outline on the back of an envelope-I
walked out on the platform to give the talk instead. After that
experience, no audience has had the power to terrify me, and
I have spoken to literary and other groups in twenty-four States,
and at some sixty colleges and universities.
For a quarter of a century
of writing I have, it seems to me, but little to show; I have
begun to feel only recently that I have achieved technical competence,
and have at last found things to say. Next to my personal and
religious heritage, my life has been influenced most by my college,
my wife, and my children. From all of these I have learned, as
more than a notional thing, that reverence for life which is
the stuff of all good writing. As Francis Bacon says, "The
joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears;
they cannot utter the one, nor they will not utter the other."
In The Hills Were Liars I tried to utter the "griefs and
fears" of all parents in this fateful atomic age of ours.
I can only hope that it will be granted me to live purposefully
in the first person and to continue, gathering effectiveness
and skill, to write in the third.