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Communion of Radicals: The Literary Christian Left in Twentieth-Century America – Q&A with Dr. Jonathan McGregor

What led to your interest in this area of study? 

I’ve been interested in both literature and religion as long as I can remember–perusing lyrics in the hymnal during services as a kid was my introduction to poetry, and Bible study taught me how to do “close reading” before I knew the terminology. As my interests sharpened into something approaching scholarship, I grappled with the problem of religious belief in a secular age through its literary representations (I was–and remain!–particularly interested Marilynne Robinson’s approach to this in her Gilead novels). However, the ripple effects of the Great Recession, which roughly coincided with my entry into a PhD program, made my epistemological questions seem suddenly less urgent to me than the question of what American religious writers have said and done about poverty and inequality. I tell a story in the introduction to my book about discovering Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement on the eve of graduate school, when I was willingly but unknowingly co-opted into a supply run for a St. Louis Catholic Worker community. The formation of the Catholic Worker Movement at an earlier moment of economic crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s, was the key clue that led me to the tradition of American religious radicals I take up in the book. 

Could you give us an overview of your upcoming book Communion of Radicals: The Literary Christian Left in Twentieth-Century America

Communion of Radicals is a literary history of writers whose conservative faith commitments drove them to progressive political action. For Vida Dutton Scudder and Dorothy Day, W. H. Auden and Walker Percy, it was keeping faith with their religious traditions that led them to oppose the depredations of capitalism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Beginning in the 1890s, US Christian Socialists such as Scudder and Ralph Adams Cram looked back to medieval monasticism as a model for resisting Gilded Age industrial capitalism. In Great Depression Manhattan, Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Workers adapted a similar historical imagination to the challenges of economic collapse and rising fascism, while Claude McKay, in his late work as a Catholic convert, made medievalist socialism a rhetorical weapon against white supremacy. In his Southern comic novels, Percy dramatized the ecumenical Christian anarchism he fomented alongside Will Campbell and their comrades in the Committee of Southern Churchmen–a political outlook forged in the fires of the Civil Rights conflicts of the 1960s. By telling the story of these and other writers who united deeply traditional faith with political radicalism, I hope to offer a usable literary past that shakes up our taken-for-granted alignments of politics and religion in modern America. 

Could you tell us a bit more about some of the key figures that you write about?

My discovery, early in my research for the book, of Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954)–Anglican churchwoman and lay theologian, socialist theorist, novelist, literary critic, queer pioneer, settlement house activist, and longtime English professor at Wellesley College–was hugely consequential for all the writing and inquiry that followed. Not as well known as the canonical authors, like Auden and T. S. Eliot, I cover, nor as recognizable as fellow-activist Dorothy Day, she deserves much wider reading and knowledge. Her memoir, On Journey (1937) is the single best place to acquaint yourself with her thought and life. (She has also inspired a rad little magazine called The Hour, where you can catch her still-living spirit in action. Full disclosure: they asked me to write a brief intro to her life and work for issue I.3!)

What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this book? 

The biggest challenges I faced in writing this book were structural and economic; they are challenges faced by many, many early-career academics in our current dispensation. In the six or so years I spent writing the book, I moved across the US several times to take jobs at four different institutions; only one of those positions wasn’t contingent. Inconsistent access to research and conference travel support, libraries of varying scope, heavy teaching loads, changing computers and email addresses and locations: all of these presented barriers to undertaking the sort of multi-year research and writing project required for a monograph. And I am one of the lucky ones–I had full-time employment with benefits the entire time!

What is one core thing you hope that readers will take away from your book?

Since the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 80s, it’s become a kind of common sense that conservative Christians are also political conservatives in the American, small-government, pro-capitalist sense. Likewise, the crucial position of white evangelicals in the Trump coalition reinforces the plausible notion that strong faith is inherently authoritarian. I hope my book reminds us that such religious-political alignments are historically manufactured and contingent by testifying to an alternative tradition. If we want to imagine and enact different alignments, we need the encouragement of past examples–what Auden calls a “paradigm” of “a plausible Future.” That’s what I hope Communion of Radicals might offer to its readers.

What are you working on now?

I’m working right now on an article about Afromodernist literature and aviation in the 1930s-40s. It incorporates archival research into Ralph Ellison’s abandoned Tuskegee Airman novel and his short story “Flying Home,” George Schuyler’s pseudonymous serialized adventure novels, and the African American aviation entrepreneur–and novelist!–William J. Powell. My hope is that this article will be the seed of a second book project: a literary history of the “Aerial Age,” from the Wright Bros. achievement of powered flight in 1903 to the end of the Apollo program in 1972. 

Jonathan McGregor is a Lecturer in the Writing and Reasoning Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including J19Religion & LiteratureJournal of American Studies, Commonweal,Gulf Coast, and Image Journal

Communion of Radicals will be available from LSU Press in November 2021