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Riley Hughes

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 love.

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 monthly column.

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 by Bruce.

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.

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