Thomas P. Neill
IF BIRTH AND EARLY CHILDHOOD
HAVE A DETERMINING INfluence on one's later life-as it is popularly
held-then I should have been born a writer of Western fiction.
For I was born in 1915 in a mining town on the continental divide
in Colorado. Not much later the prohibition amendment became
part of the law of the land, but apparently not in Telluride,
Colorado, because my earliest memories are of busy places on
Main Street which, I was told, were "saloons," and
of our neighbors having truckloads of grapes delivered "to
make jelly." These same neighbors, I remember, had the only
effective remedy for the flu- mysterious ingredients dissolved
in a tall glass of hot wine.
I was the oldest of four children,
and by the time I was in the fourth grade, my parents decided
to move to a more "civilized" community where we could
grow up in the Faith. From Telluride I took certain impressions
that have never been erased-a rough, pagan society where charity
abounded, although the word was probably unknown, a society I
have always contrasted to more sophisticated communities to underscore
the advantages and the shortcomings of the latter. Through the
next four years we moved frequently. I attended something like
a dozen grade schools, public and parochial, and cannot remember
any great differences among them except that in some you stood
up to recite and in others you sat down. But I did learn some
geography, and I came to know that the Irish in South Chicago
were quite different from the Mormons in Utah.
Eventually our family settled
in St. Louis, where I attended high school and college. These
eight years were the period of the Great Depression, which turned
young people's minds to social thought and inclined them to believe
that the industrialists who had built America had somehow pulled
a great hoax on the people. St. Louis was-and is-a conservative
city, not aggressive like Detroit or hurried like Chicago. St.
Louisans find time to read and to cultivate the vanishing art
of conversation. I therefore spent my years of study in a society
that is quietly cultured, where young people gather in each other's
homes rather than in clubs, where I frequently found myself discussing
Plato with a friend's lawyer-father or St. Thomas with a banker.
In such surroundings it is natural for a young man to turn to
things academic and to want to stay with them as long as. possible
before taking up some pedestrian occupation.
Sometimes, I think, it is good
to drift for a while. Rushing to a destination is never good
if the destination is wrong, for one either ends up in the wrong
place or else spends several years retracing his steps. At any
rate I kept open all the avenues I might follow-lavv, journalism,
civil service, personnel work, and I forget what others. A scholarship
to do master's work at Notre Dame presented itself, and then
a fellowship for doctoral work at St. Louis University. In each
case the work was its own reward, and eventually I found myself
an instructor in modern European history with the opportunity
of exploring with graduate students whatever realms of intellectual,
cultural, and' social history deserved exploration. I had drifted
into the profession of reading, teaching, and writing.
A man is supposed to know what
influences, in the form of books and men, whetted his appetite,
formed his attitudes, and shaped his mind when he was growing
up. I know the books I read, the men who taught me, and the fellow-students
who influenced me one way or the other. But to isolate the contribution
of each is impossible. "The Catholic Revival" was much
talked about in those days; students almost had to read Chesterton,
Belloc, Hollis, Gill,
and the others, and then they had to wonder why there were not
comparable American Catholic writers. I shall never know whether
the teachers who stimulated me or those who repelled me were
the more influential. As a whole, though, they opened up for
me a centuries-old tradition of learning, the intellectual and
cultural past of Christendom. It was natural for me to undertake
independent explorations of this rich tradition and on occasion,
as a citizen, to apply this wisdom to contemporary problems.
It was also natural, in time, for me to make a few small contributions
of my own to this stream of thought.
Somewhere along the line, I
began to write for publication. Just when or how I do not remember.
But I do remember writing small bits of high school news for
the local newspapers. In college, ambitious students can write
longer bits for the student newspaper-which I did-and even editorials
when one has somehow acquired a reputation among undergraduates
as a critical thinker. St. Louis University had a respectable
literary quarterly when 1 was a student. It served as a vehicle
for undergraduate literary effort, a testing ground for style,
and an experimental plant for daring ideas. It also served to
discover and develop the writing talents of several undergraduates.
Here I published articles on various subjects and in varying
veins. Here, too, I learned not to write satire unless the label
"Satire" is put under the title. Some of these articles
showed up as reprints, and each such occasion confirmed my suspicion
that I might have that mysterious thing referred to in the writers'
school advertisements as "talent."
These were lean but good years.
Sitting around with fellow-students, arguing, discussing, settling
world problems, ignoring the passage of time, this is the closest
approach we Americans have to the academy of Athens and the scholars'
club of more recent times. Wit sharpens in clash with other wits,
thinking is refined, generalizations are qualified, and each
disputant is driven to read the ancient masters and the modern
experts in order to bring more ammunition to the next verbal
battle. Out of such groups, I suspect, writers do emerge~ But
teaching and scholarly pursuits precluded any serious thought
on my part of a writing career. Almost every article and book
I have had published since 1939 was born in the classroom or
on the lecture platform. They are all written versions of previously
given lectures. This has its advantages and disadvantages. It
makes for colloquial style, for a wordiness and looseness foreign
to fine writing. But it helps one achieve what I consider the
purpose of writing: the communication of one's knowledge and
judgments to the reader, just as the speaker communicates to
his listeners if he is a good speaker. It centers the writer's
attention on the reader and the message rather than on style.
Writing, then, has been for
me another form of teaching and of academic conversation. It
is not a hobby because it is hard work and it is not rewarded,
as oral communication is, by seeing how the reader is affected.
It is not a hobby, moreover, because it is so closely connected
with my professional work as a teacher that it can never be done
"on the side" or in my spare time. I see only two reasons
for enduring the drudgery of writing. The first is to communicate
one's convictions to a wider audience than one can assemble in
a classroom. The second is to make money. A professor in a Catholic
university obviously writes for both reasons.
Professors can write three
kinds of books or articles (excluding literature in the technical
sense): scholarly works, popular works, and textbooks. All three
are legitimate, I submit; and all three are necessary. Scholarly
work is easy to do and it is absorbingly interesting. Popularization
is difficult, and it is generally badly done, because it requires
of the author both the knowledge of the scholar and the human
sensitivity of the politician. Good textbooks are the hardest
of all to do well, and they are the most poorly done because
there are so few men or women who combine scholarly knowledge
and pedagogical skill with the ability to write accurately and
interestingly. I have tried all three kinds of writing-and only
the reader knows with what degree of success or failure.
In 1941 I married Agnes Weber,
of Denver, Colorado. Few of my colleagues have been so fortunate
in having a wife who understands what a professor-writer must
do to make a mark in his profession, who are willing to give
so generously and ask nothing in return. We have nine children,
seven boys and two girls, who at this moment are in five different
schools. The modern world seems to have conspired against large
families and, despite their teaching to the contrary, Catholic
organizations are a party to the conspiracy. If my wife and I
had one or two children, we could perhaps meet the demands made
upon us by fathers' and mothers' clubs, parish associations,
Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Young Ladies Sodalities, and a host of
other organizations, insistently demanding our presence seven
or more evenings each week. We find that with nine children we
must restrict ourselves to maintaining a single organization,
our family, which is in session twenty-four hours a day, run
democratically on one occasion and dictatorially on another,
but where we like to think that charity abounds and good fruit
will be produced.
We consider ourselves fortunate
to live in the years when the Church in America is achieving
maturity. It was formerly the Church of the immigrants and it
tried to minister to these foreign Americans and to see that
they kept the Faith. It succeeded in this task because of the
heroic work of our grandfathers, but in the process it developed
an unhealthy minority complex which we of this generation must
dissolve. The Church in America has moved from the social apostolate
to the intellectual and spiritual apostolates, and my wife and
I consider ourselves privileged to play a small role in developing
these new apostolates. This, we think, will be done by the providential
concomitance of many things: by dedicating to God and by raising
in the Faith a large family;`by prayer and by playing a part
in directing parish activity in the right direction; by seeking
the truth in one's professional work and by disseminating it,
which in some small way leads to ultimate Truth and to the glory
of God; and by doing what we can to spread through American society
the Light which enkindles the world and is the sole source of
hope that our children can honestly thank us for having brought
them into the world and having done something to make it a habitable
place for. the children of God.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Neill's
books include Weapons for Peace (Bruce, 1945), Makers of the
Modern Mind (id., 1949), They Lived the Faith (id., 1951), Religion
and Culture (id., 1952), The Rise and Decline of Liberalism (id.,
1953), and, in collaboration with Dr. Raymond Sehmandt, History
of the Church (id., 1957).