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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 Catholicism 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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker

This long, unusual book consists of interleaved biographies of four mid-century American writers—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor—who, though they rarely, if ever, met, are connected by the fact that they were all serious Roman Catholics and therefore alone: isolated both from literary circles (anti-religious) and from the Church (anti-literary). Except for O'Connor, they were converts; they "read their way" to religious experience, and then became writers, so that others could pick up the trail. They were very different—Day was devoted to social service, Percy to philosophy, O'Connor to literature, Merton to the inner journey—and Elie doesn't love them all equally. O'Connor is his favorite. Merton is the one he struggles with, but, by virtue of his warm, clear writing (better than Merton's), he makes us care about the self-involved friar, too.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 554 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (March 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374529213
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374529215
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #84,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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165 of 165 people found the following review helpful By Eric Lundgren on March 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I stumbled upon an advance reader's copy of this work in a used bookshop--I had never heard of the book's author, an editor at FSG, but I was curious to find out how he would weave together the stories of his four subjects: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy. At first glance, they seemed to have little in common apart from their religion.
As Elie shows in this entertaining and informative book, these writers were all highly aware of each other, and would meet on their separate "pilgrimages" toward authentic spirituality in increasingly secular times. "The School of the Holy Ghost" (as this quartet was once called) was not a school at all, as the Imagists or the Beats were; however, Elie shows, they felt a profound kinship, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Elie's depiction of how they reached out to each other, through fan letters, postcards, reviews, publishing each other's work, and not-always-successful meetings (Merton and Percy had little to say to one another as they sipped bourbon on the porch of Merton's hermitage in Kentucky.)
Above all, what brought these Catholic believers together was a love of literature, and Elie's book happily overflows with this same virtue. Whether discussing Day and Merton's dispute over Vietnam draft card burning, or the racism of O'Connor's letters, Elie writes elegant and opinionated prose. He shows how hard these people had to struggle to find a path for themselves, and how they came to see struggle as an inherent quality of faith. His readings of O'Connor and Percy's fiction are astute, and he productively contrasts Day's activism with Merton's withdrawal into solitude. Elie's use of letters--especially O'Connor's--brings out the voices of the principals, and at the end of the book, you feel that you know them personally. I would recommend this superb synthesis to anyone interested in the intersection of faith and literature.
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41 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Kearney VINE VOICE on December 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
The title of Paul Elie's book THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN is borrowed from a short story title of Flannery O'Connor, one of the four writers discussed in his book. The other three are Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. The focus of Elie's work is not as much biographical as it is literary. He looks at the two things that connect these four great people: faith and writing, and shows how both work together to produce the great literary output of each author. Elie sees these four people as being part of an informal "Catholic" school of writers. Elie looks at an analyzes many of the writings of each author, and presents it in a manner that will appeal to the scholar and lay reader as well. Though the book has biographical information, and is arranged in a chronological manner, biographical and historical details are only provided where absolutely necessary to discuss the literary works of Day, Merton, O'Connor, and Percy.
There has been a temptation to see Merton and Day as larger than life, almost saintly figures, Percy and O'Connor as eccentric southerners who happen to be Catholic, and in the case of O'Connor, a Catholic writer trying to impose blatant symbols of faith in all of her writings. Elie certainly admires all four, but shows them from a human point of view. In doing so, he debunks many of the myths surrounding these four figures. From a spiritual point of view, they are just as human as we are, and it is because of their very human struggles that their literary output is possible.
Elie breaks important ground by looking at these four great Catholic figures as writers, and his work will undoubtedly set the stage for further study of the literary connections of Merton, Day, O'Connor, and Percy.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Crazy Fox on May 25, 2006
Format: Paperback
This book is undeniably a classic of literary criticism and biography. Paul Elie gets it just right--he takes the spiritual concerns and the religiosity of the four authors very seriously while demonstrating a careful concern for the complexities and ambiguities of their faith. And he has a real knack for analyzing how all of this informs and undergirds their writings in ways that aren't necessarily straightforward and obvious. Furthermore, he accomplishes all of this in clear, jargon-free prose that is almost literary in its own right.

Certainly other biographies and autobiographies of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy are out there (sorry, Barthes, "the author" is not dead), but "The Life You Save" accomplishes something a little different. Elie weaves in and out of their different lives and in so doing both suggests commonalities and similarities shared by them (the chapter titles are usually a reliable clue to these) as well as differences and contrasts that mutually highlight their characteristic particularities. Developing along these lines, later as the book progresses and our foursome become aware of each other Elie discusses their communications with each other and impressions of each other, which sheds invaluable light on all four of them and their concerns.

All of this could easily fly out of hand, especially in so large and substantial a book, but Elie holds it together and keeps the story/stories flowing along together, using the metaphor of the "pilgrimage" on multiple levels as a sort of common theme smoothing out his narrative while adding meaning and significance to it. At the end, appropriately enough, the image of the pilgrimage symbolizes his own involvement with the four authors and the writing of this book itself.
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