In 1646, ten years after first arriving in New France, Isaac Jogues, S.J., was murdered by Mohawks, against the wishes of their tribal leadership, in what is now upstate New York. He had earlier endured torture and a year of captivity in the same place, but was returning after a negotiated peace to establish a mission among his former captors. In 1930, Jogues was canonized a saint, and five years later Francis X. Talbot, S.J., published his biography. Its style was calculated to make a powerful statement, amidst a skeptical culture, about the place of honor which Catholicism had occupied in American history from colonial times. In 2002, Ignatius Press reprinted Talbot's text, as it has reprinted so many Catholic classics of the first half of the 20th century. Jogues is thus now enlisted in the perceived struggle for orthodoxy in the face of the encroachments of post-modernism. Even without this history, the very title of Talbot's book, Saint Among the Savages, would distinguish this work as a landmark in a series of "culture wars" that have raged in the history of America for the last 500 years.
To be a saint was the lifelong ambition of many zealous 17th century Catholics like Isaac Jogues. However much the forms of his piety may differ from those of many 21st-century Catholics, the love of God and the diligent search for the divine will is manifest in such a life as Talbot describes. In this historical setting, however, sainthood takes on the additional meaning of a rallying cry for a Catholic religious culture struggling to emerge from three centuries of decadence, defections, and disasters. To strive for sanctity in the 17th century was to demonstrate the renewed strength and beauty of the Catholic faith. Three hundred years later, to tell a tale of such determination for sanctity could still serve well for the same purpose. Now, nearly seventy years further on, Catholics worried about a contemporary erosion of the traditional virtues of personal piety, bodily purity, physical sacrifice, zeal for saving lost souls, and loyalty to institutions, may find new inspiration for the struggle in the heroic sanctity of Jogues and his companions.
So much for "saints"; what, then, of "savages"? French "sauvage" means "wild," without inevitable connotations of barbaric cruelty. (In French, even mushrooms can quite meaningfully be described as "sauvage.") When Jesuit missionaries referred to the Native Americans whom they sought to convert as "les sauvages," they often did so almost affectionately. A later veteran of the Jesuit missions, Sebastien Râle (killed by the English in Maine in 1724, but so far passed over for canonization), once said of his own lifestyle: "As for what concerns me personally I assure you, that I see, that I hear, that I speak, only as a sauvage." By the time of Talbot's 1935 title, however, the word in English immediately conjured up all the horror of the martyrs' sufferings so skillfully elaborated within the book, from the mangling of hands to the eating of live human flesh. The starkly drawn contrast between the saint and the savage allowed Talbot to project the image of the holy Church pressed in and beleaguered on all sides by unspeakable sin, and yet triumphing. He thus created an epic swashbuckler of a book that has stirred Catholic hearts for two or three generations.
In 2002, however, the title invokes a different struggle, and stirs different emotions. Many Americans, Catholic or not, trained by years of debate and uncertainty over common names for this continent's original inhabitants, will be struck first by the evident slap at Native American culture, and the unexamined arrogance of drawing it as the polar opposite of the virtues of 17th century Catholicism. Opening the book will not dispel this impression of racist self-righteousness; even Talbot's physical description of Native Americans, presented as Jogues first perception upon his arrival in Canada, speaks of "flocks of natives" who have faces that are "heavy, barbaric-looking, with large, hooked noses, spreading nostrils, and bulbous lips, with high cheekbones, with narrow slits for eyes," who have hair that is "straight, wiry as the mane of a horse," and who speak with "grunting sounds."
It is not only Native Americans who are subjected to such stereotypes here. In fact, one of Talbot's primary devices for turning dusty archives into a rousing moral tale is the drawing of broad- stroke cartoons that can be called upon to evoke, with great effect, the proper emotional response at any point in the narrative. Thus, French colonists are "hardy and reckless spirits inspired with grand visions," and Protestant Dutchmen of the Hudson Valley are "well rounded and comfortable-looking" while they "smoke their long-stemmed pipes and exude an air of prosperity and well-being."
Throughout the book, these characters play the roles they are drawn to play: Isaac strides purposefully toward his martyrdom, with the brave and loyal colonists of New France at his back, before him the treacherous Indians, perpetually displaying only the worst of human qualities (until such time as they suddenly become Christians), and to one side the European-yet-not-Catholic Dutch being mostly harmless and uninspired, often kindly, but utterly mystified by true holiness. If an intervention from the world of the 21st century is not allowed to spoil the moment, the reader of this book knows what a good priest is, what good Catholics hope for (and why most have so much spiritual work left to do), why pagans are lost and must be saved, and why anyone who knows about it will want to belong to the one true Church.
Talbot wrote an extremely moving book for 1930's sensibilities, when the Church may have seemed to have no need of examining itself but could march toward triumph in America with the same purposefulness and certainty as Jogues himself. Republishing this book (the only parts omitted being Talbot's somewhat vague documentary references, and his very clear dedication of the book to his Jesuit brothers) in the current climate drafts it into service in a different war. Unless one willfully lays aside the "signs of the times," it is impossible to read these pages without being reminded of the arrogance and self-satisfaction that has cost the church so much of the influence which it was steadily building in the days when the book was written. This is not the arrogance of sincere and humble men like Jogues who used the best lights of their own era and culture to strike out in new and bold directions for the church. It is, rather, the arrogance of those who claim these giants as their own while refusing to stand on their shoulders to see further.