Back to Foote


The discussion continues, and I'm somewhat disturbed to see that Foote's postulate is taken without any real questioning of its underpinnings. John at Disputations has this to say:

Last idea for now: Foote's statement was, "The best novelists have all been doubters." But Foote's judgment, and literary judgment generally, was formed in a culture of doubt. Our choice of "the best novelists" may say more about us and our culture than it does about whether doubt causes great art.

To which I would respond--that's investing pretty heavily in someone who has nothing more than an opinion in a letter as credentials. What are Foote's qualifications for such a literary judgment? He is certainly not a renowned scholar of literature and given his own body of work I would be disinclined to give much credence to his judgments outside the question of the Civil War. Not that he isn't entitled to an opinion--but that is what it is--an opinion with all of the force of an opinion, and without the force of years of work on the subject.

I could equally well say that the greatest novels were by people who had no doubts--The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and War and Peace, all often on the list of the greatest novels of all time were by two Russians who did not struggle with belief in the way Foote would have you believe all great novelists do. For that matter, some of Greene's greatest work The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and End of the Affair were written during a time in his life in which there was little or no doubt about the truths of the Catholic Church.

No, I would not give excessive weight to a postulation. I would say once again that great novels come out of struggle, not doubt. The struggle can be with the truths of the faith, it can be with wrestling with the mysteries of God and the full understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ in a life. Flannery O'Connor did not doubt--her faith was rock solid, and her books Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away are being published today as they will most likely continue to be for some time. On the other hand, the one-time popular, virulently ant-Catholic James Gould Cozzens cannot claim the same for the vast majority of his oeuvre.

Once again, I contend that those who are restlessly searching through the faith, yearning toward God, probably produce the finest work. If Mother Teresa had written, I expect that she would have written some profound meditations that might approach poetry, but she would not have written a very fine novel because much of the sense of struggle, in human terms, had been resolved. It isn't firm faith, but the lack of anything to grapple with, Union with God, that makes a novel unnecessary.

I think it is safe to say the Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Lawrence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, Daniel Defoe, and a vast majority of other writers up to and including Charles Dickens had no real doubts about the existence of God. The vast majority of writing after the Death of Jesus up to the present time in western culture is permeated and underlain by a solid belief in God and in Jesus Christ. This nonsense about doubt is a chronological absurdity that has little validity even in the 20th century. It as, as even this very argument you are reading, a biased representation set out to validate the world view of the proponent. It carries little or no weight and needn't be regarded as anything more than and interesting and evocative postulation. One can play off it, but one would be wise to carefully consider it before accepting the unsubstantiated argument. One might also wish to consider one's terms in examining it. Draw up the list of what you think are the very finest novels, and then examine it--how many of them were by people who were "doubters" at the time of writing?

As with all arguments about literature and aesthetics, this one must be endlessly subjective. Even so I acquiesce, that my own words above are simply a subjective view (from one who believes) of the literary scene. I will point out that one of the greatest voices in the English Language--William Shakespeare is not, nor has any legitimate argument ever made him out to be a doubter.

Doubt, I maintain is not the cause of great novels, rather struggle, an internal dynamic that has not yet found resolution. A person who is coming from St. Augustine's early years "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee," this is the kind of person who brings forth the finest works of the novel.

I believe I'll take up the other contentions of John's post later, as they require a somewhat fuller representation than I can make in the brief time afforded to me now.

{Revised version}

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 15, 2002 7:46 AM.

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