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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).

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