The School of Ronald Knox | An Interview with David Rooney, author of The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox | January 26, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
David Rooney's The Wine of Certitude is an in-depth overview of the life and literary accomplishments of Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957), the famous Catholic convert and apologist from England who was a major figure in the English Catholic literary revival during the first half of the twentieth century. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Rooney about the book and Knox's place in the annals of Catholic literature.
Ignatius Insight: You admit in the Preface that you didn't begin reading Ronald Knox until you were well into your adult years. Which of his works did you read first, and what was it that you found so attractive and engaging about his writing?
David Rooney: Yes, I was a latecomer to his writings. I had been doing book reviews mainly in American and British Church history for some years, and then a reprint of his book A Retreat for Lay People was sent to me unsolicited. I decided to look into it, and I was immediately taken by Knox's acute discernment of the state of people's spiritual lives. He came across in that book—and as I subsequently found, in his other retreat books and compilations of sermons—as wise and compassionate, and particularly skilled at elevating a reader's mind to the presence of God in our lives.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the unique challenges faced in writing a literary biography as opposed to writing a standard biography?
Rooney: Obviously the literary biographer needs to read not only what the subject of the study wrote, but also a fair amount of the works of authors that the subject read which influenced what he wrote. In the case of Knox, that meant delving into the writings of such positive influences as Robert Hugh Benson, Fr. Basil Maturin, and W.H. Mallock, and then surmising some others he might have read, and then also examining the works of some writers he had to cross swords with as an apologist, such as Sir Julian Huxley and H.L. Mencken and others.
I still recall as a goal of the scholarly investigator, a reference made in a talk by Fr. Stanley Jaki when he was lauding the work of Pierre Duhem as a historian of science, that Duhem wrote a book on Leonard da Vinci, which had as its title, something to the effect of "A Study of Leonardo da Vinci, what he wrote and whom he read." That is literary biography.
Ignatius Insight: Some readers might assume that Knox, whose father was the Anglican bishop of Manchester, was a high Anglican or "Anglo-Catholic" whose journey to Catholicism was more of a step than a leap. But, as you carefully detail, that wasn't the case, was it?
Rooney: No, it wasn't. One has to remember that even in the early twentieth century, it was common for English people to refer to those who entered the Roman Catholic communion as "perverts." Granted that there were many Ritualists whose devotional and liturgical practices mirrored very closely those of Rome, but that in itself was regarded as a powerful argument for staying put. Why not have all the apparent advantages of Catholicism without the opprobrium of belonging to what was considered by many to be an alien sect, populated largely by Irish people, and under the authority of an Italian Pope? In Knox's case, the break with the Church of England meant a permanent break with his father, who had previously regarded him as his favorite son. That is a heavy cross, but it is one that a number of converts experienced—Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example.
Ignatius Insight: Knox wrote across an impressive range of genres and styles. How did his background, educational and otherwise, prepare him to be such a varied and productive author?
Rooney: I think one of the presumptions of that era was that a solid classically based education at Oxford or Cambridge prepared you for just about any intellectual endeavor you chose to pursue. In that sense, Knox was far from unique: on the same side of the confessional ledger, consider Hilaire Belloc and Maurice Baring, both actually more versatile than Knox. On the other side, consider Huxley (a Balliol contemporary) and Lord Bertrand Russell, mathematician, philosopher and propagandist for hedonism.
Ignatius Insight: What were some of his literary achievements and what was his reputation as an author during his lifetime? What are, in your opinion, some of his best works?
Rooney: During his lifetime, he gained renown first as a satirist, while still in his Anglican days. Then in the 1920s his reputation as a detective story writer was quite high: remember, he was one of the founding members of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and others. He was always in demand as a preacher, and as a teacher of the truths of the Catholic faith. His books of conferences to Oxford students stand out as works of apologetics. Then his chef d'oeuvre, Enthusiasm, is still regarded as one of the major contributions to the study of emotionalism in religion. Finally, his translation of the Bible was the official version used in Great Britain, Ireland and Australia for the decade leading up to Vatican II. That alone guaranteed him a sort of fame even among the people in the pews who otherwise knew nothing about him except that their Sunday readings came from the Knox Bible.
As for my favorites, I'm still partial to the retreat book which got me started reading him, as well as the Oxford conferences published as In Soft Garments and The Hidden Stream. Let Dons Delight, the book in which he reconstructs typical conversations of Oxford dons in exact contemporary idiom over eight periods of British history in fifty year intervals from 1588 to 1938, is another outstanding piece of literary art.
Ignatius Insight: How did Knox's translation of the Bible come about? How was it received? What place do you think it holds among the various Catholic translations available in English today?
Rooney: Knox had wanted to try his hand at updating the language of the Bible throughout the 1930s. Remember, the Challoner revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible, still used at that time, was filled with archaic language, was burdensome to read, and in places was downright incomprehensible.
The English bishops gave him the go ahead just before World War II broke out. Originally he was to report his work to a team of evaluators, but the wartime difficulty of communication made that impractical, so he worked entirely on his own. When it came out after the war, first the New testament and then the Old, it met with some predictable criticism from people who liked either the King James version or the Challoner Douay-Rheims, but as I said before, it was adopted by the hierarchy as the official English version of the Bible. It is far clearer than earlier versions since he attempted to cast it in what he called "timeless English." It is especially effective in the Epistles of St. Paul, where he disentangles some of Paul's phraseology, the better to convey what he is trying to say as he dictated his letters.
Ignatius Insight: Throughout his life, Knox carried on correspondence with a wide range of non-Catholics. Who were some of those literary interlocutors and what were some of the results of those communications?
Rooney: Knox used to say that some priests were better with the hook (capturing converts) and others with the crook (the symbol of a bishop's authority, speaking to the already convinced people in the pews).He counted himself among the latter. Much of his time was spent preaching on Sundays to Catholic congregations around the country, or to the Catholic students who attended Mass at the Old Palace, the Catholic chaplain's residence at Oxford. In that sense, he was very different from Fr. Martin D'Arcy at Campion Hall or Fr. Philip Caraman of the Farm Street London Jesuits, who hobnobbed with many famous people, and brought some of them into the Catholic Church.
Even the two eventual converts he worked with most, Sir Arnold Lunn and Lady Daphne Acton, were not entirely "his" converts. Lunn, of course, started as an epistolary adversary, but gradually was convinced of the truth of Catholicism by his own reading as much as by Knox's patient approach in dealing with his objections. Lady Acton was on the road to conversion even before meeting Knox, but she benefited from his wisdom and friendship.
Ignatius Insight: For those who have never read anything by Knox, where do you recommend starting? What will readers gain from time spent with him?
Rooney: I suppose it depends on where someone is starting from. In response to the previous question, I somewhat downplayed his role as a "hook," but one of the points I try to make in my book is that the historian has no way of knowing who, or how many, he affected through his writings to examine the Catholic Church more seriously during the course of his fifty year writing career. I think someone who is starting from a rather vague notion of what Catholicism means would want to start with his 1927 book The Belief of Catholics. It is just as fresh today as it was when he wrote it. Someone looking to deepen their spiritual life would be attracted to his retreat books—they're more contemporary than classics like De Caussade or Brother Lawrence, but they contain the same message. The historian of religion needs to read Enthusiasm; so does any Catholic who is attracted charismatic forms of religious expression.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:
IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
The Mind of Knox | Preface to The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox | David Rooney
The Monsignor and the Don | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Monsignor Ronald Knox: Convert, Priest, Apologist | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Experience, Reason, and Authority in the Apologetics of Ronald Knox | Milton Walsh | From Ronald Knox As Apologist
The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson
A Lesson Learned From Monsignor Ronald A. Knox | Carl E. Olson
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox
by David Rooney
David Rooney has authored a well written and in-depth overview of the life and literary accomplishments of Ronald Knox, the famous Catholic convert and apologist from England who was a major figure in the English Catholic literary revival during the first half of the twentieth century.
Rooney examines the full range of Knox's writings including apologetics, detective fiction, satire, novels and other genres and offers an intellectual portrait that is both fascinating and engaging. The author includes many samples of Knox's own writings throughout his book. Rooney thus uses a mosaic approach that makes the works and the person of Knox emerge from the pages in a vivid and lively way.
Knox was a prolific author who wrote over seventy-five books, as well as many articles and homilies. He utilized many genres including satire, novels, spirituality, and detective stories. His literary works include The Hidden Stream, The Belief of Catholics, Captive Flames, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons and many more. With the "Knox revival" going on today and the renewed interest in his writings, as evidenced by the large Ronald Knox Society of North America, this book provides a timely and valuable addition.
David M. Rooney, an expert on the writings and life of Ronald Knox, is an Associate Professor of Engineering at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Aside from his professorial research in experimental aerodynamics, he has published several articles and many book reviews in Catholic periodicals. He is a long time member of the American Catholic Historical Association.
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