The Life You Save May Be Your Own An American Pilgrimage

Paul Elie

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

576 Pages



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Winner of the Christopher Award
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
A Chicago Tribune Best Book
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book
An Atlantic Monthly Book of the Year
Winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction
Awarded First Prize in History/Biography from the Catholic Press Association
Beliefnet's Best Spiritual Book of the Year

In the middle of the twentieth century, four American Catholics, working independently of one another, came to believe that the best way to explore the quandaries of religious faith was in writing—in works that readers of all kinds could admire. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is their story—a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement and its penny newspaper in New York; Flannery O'Connor a "Christ-centered" literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in Louisiana who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them—the School of the Holy Ghost—and for three decades they exchanged letters, ardently read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a "predicament shared in common."

A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story, and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie tells these four writers' story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms their readers could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change—to save—our lives.


Praise for The Life You Save May Be Your Own

"The riveting inside history of literary America's first, and so far only, Catholic moment."—Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek

"An ingeniously woven literary tapestry that tells the stories of four great American Catholic writers of the 20th century—[Walker] Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day . . . In Elie's deeply moving study, imperfection is both the starting point of spiritual journeys and the stuff of which wisdom literature is made. [Elie] uses the four authors' lives and work—their pilgrimages, as he says—to explore 'a larger story of the convergence of literature and religion in the 20th century' and to learn from their complicated struggles toward God in a country that is at the same time abnormally religious and unusually devoted to Mammon . . . Inspiring and deeply intelligent."—Lance Morrow, Time

"[The Life You Save May Be Your Own] is a pilgrimage through four lives transfigured by faith and creativity."—Patrick Giles, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"The four writers featured in Elie's deft biography are American Catholics, and Elie focuses his study on the spiritual and aesthetic development of each, tracing not only their early struggles with faith and doctrine, but how their belief systems fused with their lives and their creative and public works. The book itself is an unconventionally structured biography, presenting the chronologies of the subjects' lives not in disparate chapters but in fugue-like vignettes that alternate from writer to writer every three of four pages, making for a dramatic read . . . A splendid look at the largely ignored link between spirituality and American art."—Eric Miles Williamson, The Christian Science Monitor

"Fluently written and well-constructed . . . Readers who take seriously the struggle of prophets and writers to 'pass it on' will be rewarded by Paul Elie's pilgrimage."—Tara Fitzpatrick, Chicago Tribune

"In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie weaves the lives of four American Catholic writers—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy—into a story of literary endeavor fueled by religious conviction. This is one of those rare works of criticism that bend and refract the light of other books into a pure, shining beam of insight all its own . . . Elie carefully sets the writers against the background of changes in American society: the postwar years, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam era. He describes Percy wrestling with segregation, O'Connor's racism, Day's peace activism, and Merton's tug-of-war between involvement in the world and retreat. Their first books—Merton's Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Day's The Long Loneliness and O'Connor's Wise Blood (both 1952), and Percy's The Moviegoer (1961)—were greeted as major arrivals. What Elie provides for us is the intense effort that led up to those books—the life lived, the distillation of experience, the long hours spent alone, the risky moments of exposure and hope. Then he traces the trajectories to the end of their careers. With power and grace, Elie imagines himself into their worlds. He goes seamlessly from life to life, chronologically, making connections, establishing road signs. His prose is both elegant and dramatic, and his sense of pace impeccable . . . Best of all, Elie makes us want to renew our acquaintance with these writers' works for the purposes of our own quests . . . Whatever your spiritual orientation, whatever the destination of your pilgrimage, this is a book that will take you someplace new. More than anything else, The Life You Save My Be Your Own is a love story of books and readers and writers. Graceful and intelligent, it demonstrates how books can imprint themselves on our hearts and lead us toward light."—Susan Larson, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"A labor of love, and Elie's craftsmanship and affection for his subjects are evident on every page . . . [His] fine study is a freeze frame from another era of the perennial search for truth in a world that lacks self-evident truths, and of four idiosyncratic searchers who sought their own ways to pass it on."—Charles R. Morris, The New York Times Book Review

"Redemptive . . . What always comes through [in this book] is the serious purpose, muscular intellect, and warm humanity of the subjects at hand."—Christopher Willcox, The Wall Street Journal

"[This] beautifully braided four-person biography is a book I've been handing out to friends all year . . . [It] reminds us of what it means to live authentically in a world that seems determined to dull our senses and our intellect and our spirits with doublespeak, nonsense, meaningless distraction. Wrap up Paul Elie's book with a work by each of his subjects, and remind someone of the great good gift of language."—Alice McDermott, Commonweal

"So fine, so moving, and so elegantly written . . . Elie writes with a lucid grace that is likely born of his admiration for these four good authors."—J. Robert Baker, Fairmont State College, Christianity and Literature

"I had never heard of Paul Elie before I read his book. Now, quite suddenly, he's perched near the top of my favorite-writers pantheon . . . How often, after all, does a book come along that you deeply admire? Once every two or three years? Elie's The Life Your Save May Be Your Own was one for me. Balanced perfectly atop the crossed beams of literary criticism and spiritual biography, it traces the inner and outer lives of four of America's great 20th-century writers, all of whom professed the Roman Catholic faith . . . Each life is presented completely, thoroughly, insightfully. There is no need to take on faith what Elie says about the ways their four life stories entwine. He examines their soul-searchings, their beliefs, and their responses to the calamities of wars, family tragedies, and political movements, leading 0us, more or less chronologically, through their births, days, and deaths . . . What makes Elie's work such a triumph is the skill with which he weaves their life stories together, chronologically and spiritually, with the 20th century as his loom."—Judith Newman Beck, San Jose Mercury News (A Top Book of 2003)

"Stylish . . . This is not a book about four writers, but a book about their work, their vocation, a vocation they shared . . . [The book] succeeds as intellectual history . . . In recounting their pilgrimage, The Life You Save May Be Your Own does for its four subjects what they have done for the church. And so, in Paul Elie, Day, Merton, O'Connor, and Percy have not only found a worthy chronicler. They have also found a worthy heir."—Lauren F. Winner, Christianity Today

"Eminently readable . . . Elie is scrupulous in acknowledging his scholarly sources . . . Perhaps what makes [this] such an absorbing book is that it succeeds in recreating the era of insular but invigorating American Catholic intellectual life that reached its peak in the Fifties—the era when everyone read Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene—the era that instilled in young Catholics 'the belief that their way of life was separate from, and superior to, the Protestants.'"—Sonia Gernes, Commonweal

"Elegant, extraordinary . . . A cohesive group biography of four diverse members of the Catholic community of modern literary saints . . . Finely written . . . [An] engrossing, smartly conceived, and perfectly realized work."—Tom Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle

"An elegant mix of elegy and hopefulness . . . informs much of the book . . . The Life You Save May Be Your Own is successful—intelligently written, with all the visual grace and sensibility of a good novel. In attempting to render a literary movement built upon the mysteries of faith, Elie has written an important book that reads like an ordinary one, plainly stated, with a shimmer of greatness."—The Missouri Review

"[Elie has] written an extraordinary book, and I hope he won't stop here."—Wilfred M. McClay, First Things

"The smoothness of Elie's literary voice . . . confidently integrates information from countless sources, both published and archival."—Scott McLemee, Newsday

"This group biography of four mid-20th century Roman Catholic writers—Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy—explores an era when American Catholicism enjoyed an intellectual high tide. Far from portraying his protagonists as avatars of some vaunted Catholic golden age, however, Elie shows how they worked out their ideas and exemplary lives in a context no less daunting than our own. Elie's vivid group portrait is a serious work of criticism that can also serve as an introduction to the four writers' work and lives."—From the citation for Beliefnet's Best Spiritual Book of the Year

"[An] astonishing and thoroughly accomplished book . . . Elie is at once an engaging biographer and a discerning critic. The genius of his book lies in the way he interweaves these four writers' wayfaring lives, showing the turning points at which they found their separate paths to a Christian understanding of their individual callings. What's new here is not the biographical material as such but the way Elie allows the trajectory of each life to illuminate the others . . . Together, these four [authors] provided American letters with a Catholic moment that seems all the richer for Elie's telling."—Wilson Quarterly

"An elegant, intelligent blend of biography and literary criticism . . . [A] landmark, doorstop book on American Catholic writers."—Ben Lytal, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"In short and deftly-crafted episodes, Elie interweaves his subjects' lives with each other and with the larger story of the century their lives spanned . . . Elie's presentation of the life stories of these four extraordinary people is sure-footed and compelling. His account nearly always strikes the right balance between sympathy and distance, between admiration and assessment. Reading this book was, for me, like spending sustained time with people I know quite well but haven't seen in years—I got to hear some old stories I hadn't thought about for ages, and remembered with great fondness how much it meant to me when we first all got to know each other."—Una M. Cadegan, American Catholic Studies

"A deft and ambitious four-part biography [that is] always reliable, often insightful . . . [Elie] writes with superb and easygoing clarity, and brings to the book a sense [of] extraordinary breadth and intellectual openness . . . For the Catholic intellectual, he is a gentle, perhaps too-polite guide, but an essential one, back to the sources of an irreplaceable inspiration."—Vince Passaro, The Nation

"These writers were staunchly independent, but Elie deftly weaves their lives together through favorite books, correspondence, and places they visited. They rarely met, but they had what Percy called 'a predicament shared in common.' Their faiths, rather than sites of self-abnegation, were quests for spiritual solitude which they transcribed in memoirs, fiction, and articles. Only O'Connor is assured a place in the canon; Percy is best remembered for The Moviegoer. But Elie's story is less about literary status than the process of belief. For these writers, Catholicism was 'a measure of man'—as much a testing ground for an artistic imperative as it was a personal pilgrimage."—Darren Reidy, The Village Voice

"A truly enlightening study of the ideas, beliefs, and values found in the lives and writings of Merton, Day, O'Connor, and Percy. [This book] demonstrates the power of the pen as a source of faith and meaning, and as a means to bringing Catholic identity into dialogue with modernity. Reading about the correspondence [these writers] shared adds a further dimension to their published works. In his own right, Elie is a master of both literary criticism and engaging prose."—From the citation awarded by the Catholic Press Association

"By continually moving back and forth among the writers, [Elie] is able to highlight various patterns, similarities, and contrasts in their lives and their writing . . . By the end of the book, Elie's balancing of the details of four lives has the cumulative effect of connecting writers in new and engaging ways."—Mary Ellen Bork, The New Criterion

"Elie writes perceptively and eloquently . . . The Life You Save May Be Your Own is an ambitious, thoughtful, comprehensive, and mostly satisfying mosaic of at least three, arguably four, major cultural influences on the middle and late 20th century. And in light of the recent success of such books as Po Bronson's bestseller, What Should I Do With My Life?, the theme of secular and spiritual pilgrimage resounds with a large audience these days . . . It is also not very fashionable and certainly socially risky for a New York intellectual to write what is, in more than one respect, a very large book on the ways that four significant mid-20th-century Catholic writers wrote their way to personal salvation. Free of irony, closer to earnestness (though too sophisticated for that sin), The Life You Save is an often compelling, intriguing, at moments glorious marriage of literature, religion, and celebrity."—Laura Claridge, The Boston Globe

"We are surrounded by many examples of mediocre criticism and not a few of good criticism, but great criticism comes our way but once or twice in a generation. Paul Elie's witty searchlight of a book is great criticism. Shining with insight on the multitesselated mosaic of American literature in the postwar period, it manages miraculously to illuminate the complexities of religious experience in real human lives."—Thomas Cahill

"Mr. Elie helps to explain why these four authors continue to speak to us. His literary criticism is deft and understanding, but it does not dominate his narrative. Instead, he is properly focused on the worlds in which these four lived and wrote, and their contemporary importance . . . Mr. Elie allows us to see that their literary influence reaches beyond members of their own faith to anyone searching for transcendent meaning."—Gerald J. Russello, The Washington Times

"They make a memorable quartet—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy—in Paul Elie's brilliant new study. Founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day finally emerges as a saintly and heroic figure. Though I thought I knew everything about the other three, who were my close friends in our author-editor rapport, Elie's insights into each member of this highly gifted and complex trio (Merton, O'Connor, Percy) strike me as fresh and original and his discoveries are new. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a remarkable book."—Robert Giroux

"Paul Elie's book reads like a magnificent novel, with four deeply distinct characters who just happen to have been the best Catholic American writers of the twentieth century."—Richard Rodriguez

"Paul Elie's book is lucid, humane, poignant, and wise. As a work of the spirit, it is universal and in no way sectarian."—Harold Bloom

"Elie is superb . . . He writes well everywhere and throughout this major, readable study, which is free of jargon, full of insight . . . Smart as hell."—Leonard Gill, The Memphis Flyer

"The Life You Save May Be Your Own is about how books can change lives . . . [and] recounting his own profound encounters with these authors, Mr. Elie provides one of his own for us."—Gerald J. Russello, The Washington Times

"Elie does a wonderful job interweaving the stories of his four figures under the overall rubric of pilgrimage . . . [He] does a superb job in using the lives of his subjects to illuminate the landscape of American Catholicism in the years before and during the Second Vatican Council, and in using the events of their era to contextualize and elucidate their lives and work. The Life You Save May Be Own is both biography and social history of a high order."—Patrick F. O'Connell, Cistercian Studies Quarterly
"Deeply informed [and] extraordinarily ambitious . . . Elie weaves a compelling and complicated tapestry of the lives of these four devout Catholics, with the strands of each life occasionally and mysteriously touching the others. The author is both a skilled weaver and a consummate detective as he demonstrates the knowledge that each has of the other and the other's work and describes their common urge for God . . . The book is a wealthy array of information, and the spiritually-driven reader will likely learn much and see more clearly the early- and mid-twentieth-century American Catholic Renaissance . . . Elie's material and scope are impressive . . . The complex interweaving of the four lives is remarkably smooth and unfailingly interesting, and the book's witness to the lives and thought of four great spiritual pilgrims of our time is both important and admirable. Certainly The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a profound contribution to our turbulent times."—Sarah Gordon, Flannery O'Connor Review

"These four [Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy], contemporaries all, were only dimly aware of each other at the outset, but as time went on, scattered across the country, they came to form something of a school—a unity, Elie gracefully observes, 'will be that of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination, conversing at long distance from time to time.' That conversation—and this lucid work—will greatly interest readers on literary and spiritual quests of their own."—Kirkus Reviews

"Charting the influence of four major personalities of the 20th century, as well as describing their impact on one another and our culture, is a challenging enterprise. Paul Elie, editor and writer, has succeeded admirably. His reading and interpretation of the writings of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy manifest not only a deep grasp of their work but also a critical intelligence that is impressive . . . What is novel is the way the author shows how the lives of these four individuals intersected and how they often addressed the same themes and issues but from different perspectives. What is of special interest and value is Elie's literary analysis of the short stories, essays, columns, and novels of these four writers. Those familiar with O'Connor's novels and short stories, with Merton's autobiographical and meditative prose, with Day's Catholic Worker message and with Percy's linguistic essays and fiction will be given new insights that are both enlightening and critical . . . Well-balanced are the genius and flaws of each pilgrim in this book—no hagiography here. Well-developed, too, the historical and cultural context out of which these authors lived and wrote . . . Elie's analysis is perceptive and engaging. His story about storytellers is a narrative that captivates, even kidnaps, our imagination."—John Bookser Feister, St. Anthony Messenger

"The first book by Paul Elie, an editor for the past decade at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is a compendium of simultaneous narratives on the lives and work of four Roman Catholic authors—Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton—a radically new approach to both literary criticism and biography. Elie's interest in the intersections of these lives and the phenomenon of the simultaneity of much of their work led him to construct fragmentary narratives that interweave life events and connections between and among these authors. What gradually unfolds is a sense of spiritual, intellectual, and (in the case of Day) political direction among four members of disparate groups and their many friends and influences. Whether literary, political, or monastic—and in spite of the dramatic differences in geography, upbringing, and home environments—the locus of devotions and commitment of these four figures was the Church, and their pilgrimages merged as they approached the same destination. This is a most provocative and stirring examination of a movement that linked four writers and has found contemporary adherents in Denise Levertov, Ron Hansen, J. F. Powers, and Andres Dubus. Highly recommended [for] all collections [and] all levels."—J. P. Baumgaertner, Wheaton College, Choice

"Four 20th-century writers whose work was steeped in their shared Catholic faith come together in this masterful interplay of biography and literary criticism. Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where three of the four writers published their work, lays open the lives and writings of the monk Thomas Merton, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, and novelists Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. Drawing comparisons between their backgrounds, temperaments, circumstances and words, he reveals 'four like-minded writers' whose work took the shape of a movement. Though they produced no manifesto, Elie writes, they were unified as pilgrims moving toward the same destination while taking different paths. As they sought truth through their writing, he observes, they provided 'patterns of experience' that future pilgrims could read into their lives. This volume (the title is taken from a short story of the same name by O'Connor) is an ambitious undertaking and one that could easily have become ponderous, but Elie's presentation of the material is engaging and thoughtful, inspiring reflection and further study. Beginning with four separate figures joined only by their
fs26Catholicism and their work as writers, he deftly connects them, using their correspondence, travels, places of residence, their religious experiences and their responses to the tumultuous events of their times. This thoroughly researched and well-sourced work deserves attention from students of history, literature and religion, but it will be of special significance to Catholic readers interested in the expression of faith in the modern world."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own
The night the earthquake struck San Francisco--April 18, 1906--Dorothy Day was there. Startled awake, she lay alone in bed in the dark in the still-strange house, trying to understand what was happening and what it meant, for she was confident that it had a meaning, a significance beyond itself.Some years later she described that night in her autobiography. By then she was known as an organizer and agitator, a living saint, the prioress of the Bowery. But she saw herself as a journalist, first of all, and gave a journalist's
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  • Paul Elie

  • Paul Elie, a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Commonweal. He lives in Manhattan.
  • Paul Elie Copyright Sue Johnson