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"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
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
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
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
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?
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"
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?
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
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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