"I never thought I wanted to be a writer" | An Interview with Thomas Howard | Carl E. Olson | April 30, 2007
Thomas Howard was raised in a prominent Evangelical home (his sister is well-known author and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot), became Episcopalian in his mid-twenties, then entered the Catholic Church in 1985, at the age of fifty.
He is an acclaimed writer and scholar, noted for his studies of Inklings C.S. Lewis ( Narnia & Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis) and Charles Williams (The Novels of Charles Williams), as well as books including Christ the Tiger, Chance or the Dance?, Hallowed be This House, Evangelical is Not Enough, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass, On Being Catholic, The Secret of New York Revealed, and Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, the story of his embrace of Catholicism, and Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page here.
The recently published The Night Is Far Spent is an anthology of essays and talks given by Howard over the years, on topics including the Inklings, the sacraments, Handel, ballet, and fatherhood. Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently spoke with Howard about his life of writing, thinking, and teaching.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've been writing and being published for several decades now. Do you recall your first published article?
Thomas Howard: I never especially thought I wanted to be "a writer." That would have struck me as being audacious, I think! I just liked to write, and I slid into it by being taken on, after college and a stint in the U.S. Army, as an assistant editor, responsible for a weekly "editorial" in the journal of which my father was editor, the (then influential) Sunday School Times. Other than those pieces, my first article of any note was in l965, when Christianity Today ran a piece I wrote when my wife and I returned from our honeymoon, and which I had entitled "Notes from Florence," and which they were pleased to call "Art and Religion: They Need Not Clash." Needless to say, I found their title a bit leaden.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You taught English and literature for some thirty years. Any words of advice for teachers and students of those subjects? What were some of the significant and lasting truths that you learned as a professor?
Thomas Howard: Actually, I taught English for forty, not thirty, years. Advice? Well, just read and read and read, and, if you can, fall in love with the English language. Don't read to "improve" yourself, or store up "ideas" and get sophisticated. Teachers: don't extinguish the stars from your students' eyes. The last thing we need in this epoch are jades.
IgnatiusInsight.com: I've heard many times from readers of your work how struck they are by your impressive grasp of the English language. How much of that is aptitude and how much is labor? Growing up, how did you develop your vocabulary?
Thomas Howard: I never "labored" to work up vocabulary. I always loved words, the way other kids loved baseball. I inherited it from my father, his father, and a long lineage of editors and writers. At the age of nine, I asked for a Roget's Thesaurus for a birthday present, and would read it with something almost like lust. One of my older brothers claims that he heard me going about quoting Bunyan: "He [the Giant Despair] getteth him a grievous crabtree cudgel." I suppose it's a true story.
IgnatiusInsight.com: After the Bible and breviary, what, for you, is a "must read"?
Thomas Howard: For children, A. A. Milne; Beatrix Potter; Kenneth Grahame; Lewis Carroll. For adults: all of Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Then Romano Guardini, especially The Lord, but everything, really. Also Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (not to mention Dickens, Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot, Chaucer, and everybody else...)
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've written substantial books or articles about C.S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Charles Williams, Deitrich von Hildebrand, and Malcolm Muggeridge. What qualities attracted you to the thought and writings of those men?
Thomas Howard: For all of the writers you list, two qualities would apply: first, their prose (or, in Eliot's case, his poetry and his prose style); and then, second, the substance of what they have to say. Obviously in every case, these are men who laud what Eliot calls "the permanent things," and who view the collapse of language and virtue with great misgiving.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Was there a certain point in your childhood or teen years when you began to question some of the Fundamentalist or Evangelical doctrines that you had learned?
Thomas Howard: I don't think I ever questioned the main Fundamentalist or Evangelical "beliefs," unless it were some of the details about the timing of the Second Coming, say (I agree with them, and with the whole Church, that the Lord is most certainly coming again), or the exact formula to which a man must subscribe in order to get into heaven. That sort of thing. I have always felt that I was more orthodox than these groups. I have never had the slightest inclination towards "liberalism" which has attracted thousands of my contemporaries, who argue that the Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are "narrow" and intellectually derisory.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How has Evangelicalism, especially here in the U.S., changed since you were a child? What significant changes in Catholic-Evangelical relations have you noticed?
Thomas Howard: Evangelicalism, starting in about l948, began a draconian and highly self-conscious attempt to make itself academically respectable, feeling, quite correctly, that it was looked upon by the Ivy League as a rabble off Applachian stump preachers. They have, to some extent, succeeded, if by that we mean that they have all got PhD's now. In the process, the faculties at their seminaries and colleges have espoused a great number of views that would have shocked their fathers (politics, biblical criticism, sexual morals--that sort of thing). On the Catholic front, they are of two minds: on the one hand, they pride themselves on engaging in "dialogue." But I would say that not a single one of them (with obvious exceptions!) has the slightest doubt that Catholicism is as wrong as they always suspected. There is no question of any serious seismic ecclesiological change.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Having read many of your books and articles--and having benefited greatly from them--one word that comes to mind on a regular basis is "Incarnational." Is that an accurate word to use to describe much of what you have written?
Thomas Howard: I suppose that the word "Incarnational" might be as useful a word as any to come at what lies at the root of much of what I have written about.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your estimation, what is the state of "Catholic letters" today?
Thomas Howard: I am more familiar with the state of Catholic letters in the early and middle ofthe 20th century than now.The usual names that are trotted out--Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, and so forth--these are the ones I could speak about. I don't really know what is going on now, so I would have to demur at the question. I wish I did know more!
IgnatiusInsight.com: You recently wrote somewhere (Crisis magazine, perhaps?) that you were done writing books. Say it isn't so! Or is it?
Thomas Howard: Have I finished writing books? Well--I certainly have no plans for anything more! But I won't dig in my heels if something seizes me, or fire ignites in my bones--but that would be a first, since I have never yet had any such experience when it comes to sitting down to write a book. It has always been a very plodding business.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard | An excerpt from The Night Is Far Spent
Thomas Howard and the Kindly Light | IgnatiusInsight.com
On the Meaning of Tradition | Thomas Howard
Reading T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" | An Interview with Dr. Howard about Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S Eliot's Four Quartets
The Quintessential And Last Modern Poet | George William Rutler | The Foreword to Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, by Thomas Howard
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard
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