Orestes A. BROWSON, The Convert: or, Leaves from My Experience, edited by Arie J. Groffioen. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2012. pp. 258. $29.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-87462-797-8. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541
This 1857 autobiography by Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) might well have been subtitled “History of My Religious Opinions,” as his fellow convert, correspondent and sometime antagonist John Henry Newman designated the various sections of the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his own account of his journey into communion with the Roman Church. This is definitely an intellectual autobiography rather than a circumstantial account of Brownson’s more mundane experiences. He neglects even to inform his readers at the outset of his story that the reason why he lived with an elderly farming couple during much of his poverty-stricken childhood in New Hampshire was that his father had died and his mother could not care for all her children; his own wife is mentioned only obliquely in his comment that despite professing egalitarian principles during his more radical phase he preferred being the head of his household, while his children make no appearance in the book at all. What is provided is a detailed recounting of the various stages of his religious and philosophical journey through most of the major (and some of the minor) available positions of belief and unbelief in early nineteenth-century America, bringing him finally to join the Catholic Church in 1844, an option that had been unthinkable for much of his earlier life as a Yankee Protestant seeker, preacher, editor and controversialist.
While not a literary classic of the same stature of the Apologia, The Convert is a work of central importance by perhaps the most significant American Catholic layperson of the nineteenth century, and with the possible exception of his younger friend Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, probably the most important American convert to Catholicism of his era – and certainly one of the most prolific authors of the period (his collected works, compiled by his son, run to twenty volumes and omit most of his pre-conversion writings). This new edition, ably introduced and helpfully annotated by Arie J. Griffioen, makes available a welcome companion to Brownson’s Selected Writings, part of the Paulist “Sources of American Spirituality” series, edited in 1991 by Patrick W. Carey (Griffioen’s mentor), who has since written a well-regarded biography and has been editing a series of Brownson’s uncollected early writings. Brownson’s major role in American cultural and intellectual life both before and after his turn to Rome was made evident by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his first book, A Pilgrim’s Progress: Orestes A. Brownson (1939) (actually written as a Harvard undergraduate thesis) and has been reaffirmed a number of times since, notably by Perry Miller in his highly regarded 1950 anthology The Transcendentalists, in which Brownson emerges as arguably the most prominent contributor to the movement (other than Emerson and Thoreau, largely excluded from the volume for reasons of space), a powerful if idiosyncratic proponent of the social and political dimensions of Transcendentalism whose major role was subsequently obscured, even suppressed, after his entry into the Catholic Church.
Throughout most of the book, Brownson’s major purpose in writing The Convert, some thirteen years after becoming a Catholic, is apparently to demonstrate that he was not simply the “weathercock” who was constantly changing his mind and his religious affiliation, as his critics maintained. His stability in his final spiritual home had, he could safely maintain, proven that he was not merely inconstant, but the thread of his argument is that his progression from early Presbyterianism to Universalism to a period of skepticism and utopian socialism to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism and ultimately to Roman Catholicism was in fact motivated by a devotion to truth and an unwillingness to stop his quest before being satisfied that he had found it. Part of Brownson’s problem was that the very forcefulness of his advocacy of his beliefs, coupled with his own honesty in subsequently examining their foundations and discovering and articulating their inadequacies, made him seem unreliable as a guide – what could have been (and sometimes was) seen as evidence of his sincerity could also undermine any reliance on his positions (and often did – particularly when they headed in a direction antithetical to those held by his former associates – which certainly was the case when he turned to Catholicism). As he himself writes in one of his most passionate declarations:
No one can be a man, and do a man’s work, unless he is sincere, unless he is in earnest, terribly in earnest, throwing his whole heart and soul in his work, and whoever does so may depend upon it that the chief men of his sect, his party, or his school, if not of his church, will be alarmed at his conduct, will accuse him of being ultra, of going too far, of endangering every thing by his rashness, his want of prudence, of policy. I am no saint, never was, and never shall be a saint. I am not, and never shall be a great man; but I always had, and I trust I always shall have, the honor of being regarded by my friends and associates as impolitic, as rash, imprudent, and impracticable. I was and am, in my natural disposition, frank, truthful, straightforward, and earnest; and therefore have had, and I doubt not, shall carry to the grave with me, the reputation of being reckless, ultra, a well-meaning man, perhaps an able man, but so fond of paradoxes and extremes that he cannot be relied on, and more likely to injure than serve the cause he espouses. (75)
The evidence of the book provides strong support for the claims to frankness, earnestness and devotion to truth, as Brownson commits himself “heart and soul” to whatever religious or political cause he has currently espoused, until his relentlessly logical (though self-trained) mind exposes its flaws and sends him off in another direction, which in time will have its errors exposed as well. Thus he reveals also why his associates would indeed find him both exhausting and exasperating (though many found him fascinating and admirable as well).
After he relates the circumstances of his entry into the Church, largely prompted by his writing a series of articles that makes clear to him in the course of their composition that Catholicism is indeed the authentic goal of his search for truth, a new purpose for the book emerges and becomes more explicit in its final section. His understanding of life as communion, developed from his reading of the French philosopher Pierre Leroux, had resolved for him the dichotomy between a deadening empiricism that left little scope for a wholehearted personal faith commitment, and a subjectivism that allowed for little assurance of a genuine contact with an objective order of a world outside the mind. This philosophy, though it had brought Leroux to what Brownson regarded as a pantheistic position, had led Brownson himself to the threshold of Catholic belief, but he had effectually renounced this position upon entering the Church, submissively adopting instead the neo-scholastic stance that predominated in Catholic thought of the time and was championed by his instructor in the faith, Bishop Fitzpatrick of Boston. While professing respect for both the bishop (with whom in actuality he had eventually developed so tension-filled a relationship that he had moved from Boston to New York in the hope – to be disappointed – of being able to write more freely and according to his own bent) and for the methodology he had been taught, he now expresses the conviction that the rather dry logical approach of the reigning philosophical school was very unlikely to appeal to anyone not already convinced of the truths of the Catholic position, and that his own epiphany, brought about principally by the insights of the communion philosophy, was much more likely to make sense to other seekers like himself and to encourage them, as it did him, at least to consider the claims of Catholicism with an open mind.
The Convert is a product and a reflection of the most creative and positive period of Brownson’s life as a Catholic, liberated from the constrictions of a rigid philosophy that he had struggled to conform to in the first years after his conversion, and still years away from the final period of a new self-imposed rigidity that would mark the final phase of his life and work in the wake of Pius IX’s promulgation of the Syllabus of Errors in 1864 and would predominate until Brownson’s death in 1873. In The Convert Brownson is seen at his best, reflecting on his own journey with equanimity and a conviction of a providential power that had led him to find a place where he could dwell in truth and where he could engage those both outside and inside the Church to recognize both the subjective contributions of his experience and the objective solidity of his final commitment. The Convert makes for a compelling story that reveals much about Orestes Brownson, the world – especially the world of ideas – in which he lived, and the truth claims of the Church he had discovered to be his true home.