Why Annie Dillard Supports Image

Annie Dillard illustrated by Alissa BerkhanDear readers,

When Image was founded in 1989, we turned to a few literary exemplars for endorsements. After all, we had no reputation, money, or power, so we needed to find advocates whose words carried authority.

One of the first we turned to was Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard, whose incandescent prose dealt with some of the deepest and most challenging questions, from the existence of God to the mystery of nature, which can possess so much beauty and so much brutality.

To our great surprise and delight, she responded with her usual gusto, stating in her endorsement that “Image is one of the best journals on the planet.”

So as we launched our end of year financial appeal last month we decided to chance asking her again to say why she still reads (and comments on!) every issue of Image.

Once again she responded with her signature blend of passion and truth-telling. What follows below is not marketing language. It is, verbatim, Annie Dillard’s thoughts about where we are as a culture and why Image is worth supporting. After writing it she joked that this is the most she has written since retiring from literary life! [Read more…]

There is More to See: A Letter from Gregory Wolfe

don-quixote-600Dear friends,

We are entering a season of thanksgiving, and soon we’ll begin a season of reflection as we prepare to celebrate a remarkable birth that changed human history.

I begin with thanksgiving. On behalf of all the staff at Image, thank you. Thank you for being part of our community. Thank you for your subscriptions and financial support. Thank you for receiving this letter with grace, knowing that we, as so many charities do this time of year, will be asking for your support to launch us into 2017. Thank you!

2016 has been a helluva year—about that I think we can all agree. With the presidential campaign behind us, calls for unity and healing seem more impossible than ever. We remain shaken by the coarsening of public discourse and the lingering fear and anger that threaten to divide us into warring tribes.

But grace and hope can still be found.

Late in the campaign, when it seemed that things couldn’t possibly get worse, I found both in an unlikely place: the pages of Don Quixote.

I read the book because I never had—and I felt guilty about the omission. I knew it was hilarious and poignant but I wasn’t prepared for how directly it spoke to my own sense of vocation. [Read more…]

Reading (in) Walden

607px-walden_thoreauWhat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.… To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise…. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Yes, it’s Thoreau. I’m re-reading Walden. Why? Because it’s on my bookshelf, and I’m in the process of interrogating each book there. The choice: either read it or get rid of it. I hadn’t read Walden in decades, so I pulled it from the shelf.

Though I admire Thoreau’s radical simplicity—if something isn’t a necessity, get rid of it! and my shelf-purging seems to be in Thoreau’s spirit—the book’s opening hundred pages lay it on too thickly for my taste; too much finger-wagging at people who are attached to even minimal property.

But this short chapter called “Reading”: this one is a treasure. [Read more…]

T.S. Eliot, Agent of His Own Demise

Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575_publicdomainIn my last post for Good Letters, I took minor issue with a point my friend and mentor Gregory Wolfe made about the relative prominence of Christian public intellectuals around the middle of the last century.

Wolfe named, as examples of such prominence, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. It is, by any account, a damn impressive list of intellectual heavy-hitters. But I claimed that Wolfe’s nostalgia-tinged look at the days of past glory might be obscuring the way in which those same figures bear responsibility for the fading of Christian—or any other religious— voices from the American public sphere.

In a comment to that post, Mr. Wolfe noted that I’d misread his main argument and that, “The point I was making was not nostalgic, but factual. It was a statement about the way religious public intellectuals of the mid-20th century moved freely within (and were welcomed into) the public square.” [Read more…]

The New Critics and the Barbarians

Thomas_Stearns_Eliot_by_Lady_Ottoline_Morrell_(1934)The poet and writer Dana Gioia penned an essay for the December 2013 issue of First Things titled “The Catholic Writer Today: Catholic Writers Must Renovate and Reoccupy Their Own Tradition.” The essay does not inspire much confidence in the state of “Catholic” writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Our own Gregory Wolfe wrote a response published in Image issue 79, called “The Catholic Writer, Then and Now.” Mr. Wolfe’s essay consists in a broadening of the discussion to all Christian writers (Jews too). It also contains a strong pushback against Gioia’s mostly negative assessment.

In pushing back, Wolfe argues, against Gioia, that the problem is not so much that we lack good writers of faith, but that there is a general cultural unwillingness to recognize these writers of faith for what they are. Writers of faith, in short, are producing as many brilliant works of art as they ever were. It’s the public discussion that has gone silent.

In essence, Wolfe flips Gioia’s argument on its head. For Gioia, the primary factor in the decline of Catholic writers (and Christian writers more broadly) comes from the fact that the writers themselves “ceded the arts to secular society.” [Read more…]