On Things As They Are

Amy Welborn

You’d think that when it came to the coming-of-age novel, Catholics would be the masters. It’s the story of redemption after loss—isn’t that the basic Catholic story? Loss of innocence, exposure to the real world, hints of redemption, recollections glimmering like small jewels worked into an antique tapestry… you’d think.

In reality, though, there few instances of the genre in the Catholic literary pantheon. After Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the landscape of novel-length literary treatments is arid. Oh, pop culture is replete with them, crowded with Catholic school youths bumping and grinding against the constraints of frigid nuns and hypocritical priests. Short literary fiction boasts fine examples: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” and Bernard MacLaverty’s “The Beginnings of a Sin” come immediately to mind. These stories are funny and wrenching, just like the human experience they reflect. But is there a Catholic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye, a novel that’s an honest literary rendering of the moments when the veil is lifted on the adult world, when pedestals shatter and idols fall?

Things As They Are was written by Paul Horgan and published in 1951. It is not a rollicking or picaresque novel. It’s quiet, episodic, and subtle. But it’s also powerful, lucid, and authentic-—a hidden gem of English-language Catholic literature and of the coming-of-age novel.

I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of it myself before a couple of years ago, when, as the editor of the Loyola Classics series of mid-century Catholic novels, I was talking with George Weigel, who had written the introduction to our edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. Had we given any thought to Things as They Are, he wondered. I confessed I had no idea what he was talking about. Get it, he said. Read it. He was sure we’d want to include it in the series.

He was right. We read the novel. We were completely taken with it, and astonished that it had slipped out of almost everyone’s consciousness in the half-century since its publication.

Paul Horgan was an intriguing figure, the product of a period of freedom in American intellectual life, before specialization and professionalism, when a man without a college degree might write a history—-or two—-that might win him a Pulitzer Prize—-or two.

Horgan was born in 1903 in Rochester, New York. The family moved to New Mexico in 1914 for the sake of his father’s health. Horgan attended the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, then returned to Rochester to attend college at the Eastman Music Institute. He didn’t stay long at Eastman. After a couple of years studying music and dabbling in theater, he left in 1923 without finishing his degree. He returned to his old school in Roswell, where served as the librarian until 1942.

Horgan had begun writing in the 1920s, primarily novels and short stories. He worked in Washington, D.C. during the war, at which point he began writing histories. His primary interest was, not surprisingly, the Southwest. His two Pulitzers were awarded in 1955 for a history of the Rio Grande River called The Great River (which was also awarded the Bancroft Prize) and in 1975 for Lamy of Santa Fe, his biography of Archbishop John Baptist Lamy, the first bishop of Santa Fe, and the inspiration for Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Horgan moved to Middletown, Connecticut in 1959 where he wrote, worked at Wesleyan University, and died in 1995.

Horgan may not be included on most lists of American Catholic writers, but all of his writing is infused with a sacramental sensibility. In 1976, he was awarded Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, given to one “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

Things as They Are is the first novel of a trilogy called The Richard Trilogy. Richard, the title character, is a young boy growing up in upstate New York in the early twentieth century, the much-loved only child of kind, prosperous middle-class Catholic parents. The book is episodic: Each chapter describes a different incident in the boy’s life within a clear chronology, but not, at first look, in the context of a clear narrative sequence. Though isn’t that the way all of us, particularly children, experience life? As a series of episodes, of moments that only later do we see linked by a common thread, purpose, or direction?

The episodes in Things As They Are are linked, and their tie is made explicit in the novel’s title, and in the opening lines of the book:

“Richard, Richard,” they said to me in my childhood, “when will you begin to see things as they are?”

What is that, “things as they are”? It’s life: beauty, pain, and the discovery of the human capacity for evil, particularly in our own selves. The young Richard discovers frightening things about himself in the opening chapter of the novel when he encounters, not a pear tree, but a kitten, and chooses to do wrong, for what reason he cannot tell—for no reason, for any reason. As the novel unfolds, evil continues to reveal itself in the consequences of judging a misfit; in the sad, pathetic deception of a beloved uncle; in the harshness of family; in adults who use Richard’s affection as a means to sin with each other; in the strange attraction of those who would exploit the young; and most powerfully and heartbreakingly, in the story of a mentally disabled neighbor boy who is victimized by other boys to the point of grave illness, and, Richard perceives, allowed to die by his outwardly upright and loving parents.

But this is by no means a dark book. It authentically renders a child’s-eye view, that mix of inherent egoism and deep and barely understood love, of boldness and dread, all dwelling in the same soul. And it depicts the way grace always waits for us, not above the confusion, but in the midst of it, patiently. Weigel wrote in his introduction:

Paul Horgan knew that there is nothing less sentimental than Catholicism, because Catholicism is realism. And he knew the reason why Catholicism is realism: because it is through the Incarnation, a real event at a real time in a real place, that God’s unsentimental, cleansing, and all-powerful love is decisively revealed—-the divine mercy that is, according to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the defining characteristic of God’s interaction with the world. Catholic realism doesn’t deny “things as they are.” Catholic realism doesn’t deny the temptations of what an older generation called “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Catholic realism confronts the world, the flesh, and the devil in the confidence that, as Christ has conquered, so, by the divine mercy and grace, may the people who are Christ’s Body in history.

The novel is filled with moments of clarity in which Richard begins to understand that mystery, none more memorable than the evening his mother takes him out to confront a thunderstorm. The family is at their summer cottage on a lake. The father has just experienced the terrible, wrenching dissolution of a friendship and business relationship. Richard, who has seen his father as he has never seen him before—-weak, wounded, and dependent on others—-is terrified, as always, when a thunderstorm strikes. Defying his father’s command, he rushes to the closet to hide.

His mother opens the closet, dressed to brave the storm. He refuses to go outside. She, uncharacteristically, strikes him, and he follows her:

“Richard, look!” She shook me and pointed to the wild sky, the sweeps of rain on the lake, and then at the tearing strikes of lightening amidst the clouds. “Richard! Look! Why be afraid? It is so beautiful!” She put her arm about my shoulders and when the lightening struck I could feel how she too trembled before the power of God. But how new was her idea that this power was beautiful! I stared at the new idea as I stared at a world I had never been able to see before…

Over the past three years, as part of the editing the Loyola Classics series, I read a great deal of mid-century Catholic-themed fiction, the vast majority of it decidedly mediocre. It was exhausting. The stories about idealized priests and nuns and tragic, repentant heroines are mired in their time, imprisoned by their authors’ determination that what readers needed and wanted were piety and neat conversions-on-the-precipice. Those books are relics, of little interest or value today.

Things as They Are, however, still resonates. Richard is us. The world he sees with wonder and even sadness is our world. The fallen idols he mourns are our idols. But in loss, grace shimmers, faint but unmistakable. For if we are to recognize the voice of God in the midst of things as they are, the idols must fall.

my Welborn writes Open Book, a highly-respected blog on culture, theology, Church news, current events, devotion, and a host of other topics. She is the author of many works of catechesis and apologetics, including A Catholic Guide to the Good Life, The Words We Pray, and The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints. She is also a popular speaker and the editor emeritus of Loyola Classics.