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52 Authors: Week 33 - Marion Montgomery

Marion Montgomery (1925-2011) authored three novels, three books of poems, and several short stories, a few of which were award winners. He is best known, however, as the author of some 20 or so books of literary and cultural criticism, based on a Thomist reading of philosophy, history and literature. At the root of his critical work is the idea that the “spirit of the age” has manifested itself in poetry and literature as much as it has in political and social matters, and that analysis of literature can thus aid us in the diagnosis of modern ailments with a view towards eventual treatment.

Montgomery taught literature and creative writing at the University of Georgia for over 30 years before his retirement in 1987, after which he continued writing and lecturing. He was born in the same general area of central Georgia as Flannery O’Connor was, in the same year, and they both attended the same graduate program, the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He didn’t know her then, however, and was only introduced to her work in the early 1950’s, when a friend recommended one of her stories that had appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. They later became friends and correspondents. In a well-known letter from 1962 O’Connor praised Montgomery’s first novel, The Wandering of Desire: “The Southern writer can out-write anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history. You have more than your share of both and a splendid gift besides.”

Montgomery found out later, after O’Connor’s death, that they had both been reading St. Thomas at the same time, using the same book as a guide -- Anton Pegis’s Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas. Just as for O’Connor Thomas became the touchstone for Montgomery’s reading of history, philosophy and literature, and he was extremely well-read in all three. He is one of those writers who appears to have “read everything,” although Michael Jordan of Hillsdale College believes that this is because Montgomery may have had a photographic memory. Because of this, as well as his discursive style, Montgomery can be quite challenging to read. Fortunately, unlike many contemporary critics, he uses no modern lit-crit jargon, so even when he’s difficult he’s not indecipherable.

Because of his style and his depth (as well as his tendency to write long paragraphs), Montgomery is difficult to quote. He is the precise opposite of an aphorist, and out of the context of the flow of his arguments his paragraphs wouldn’t make a lot of sense. One finds evidence of this in one of the most well-known analyses of Montgomery’s work, the essay “Why Marion Montgomery Has To ‘Ramble’ “by Gerhart Niemeyer. Niemeyer includes a few block quotes from Montgomery’s work in his essay, but the majority of the quotes are smaller ones embedded in the essay’s text itself, used to support Niemeyer’s various points.

Says Niemeyer, the prime matter that Montgomery addresses in all his work is the modern idea of freedom, which allows even the freedom of “the will to atheism,” which involves alienation, the self-separation of the individual from reality. This act, in Montgomery’s words, “issues forth from the deepest regions of the self, where freedom is more than choice, where it is the self recognizing its own existence in the recognition of God or rejecting its own existence in the refusal of God – and thus lapsing into absurdity.” Where other writers have traced this absurdity in politics and culture, “Montgomery traces it in American literature.”

A good example of this approach, which also serves as a summary of his take on Flannery O’Connor, is this excerpt from his little book The Trouble With You Innerleckchuls:

It was mistakenly assumed when the stories first began to appear, and it continues to be, that [O’Connor] writes a very sophisticated kind of local color with sociological implications. But what interests her is the condition of the modern intellectual. That is the issue in this fiction, rather than representations of rural characters whose concrete historical presence misleads “some New York critics.” The pole of grace on the one hand and of the finite gnostic mind on the other establish the intellectual ground within which the fiction’s dramatic tension arcs, sputters into a climax, and then calms to a steady glow when the reality of existence – of being – reasserts itself with persuasive finality. Hence we discover that her protagonists are, in their spiritual state, reflections of the larger, geographically foreign (one might call it New Yorkish) intellectual community where Gnosticism is dominant and from whence it trickles down through Atlanta (Taulkingham), even unto rural Georgia. She says this to be so and says it in plain enough language in her letters and essays. But that her agents are reflections of that larger self-insured gnostic world is signaled as well by the disquiet with which her fiction was and is received in many otherwise sophisticated quarters.

The attempt to declare Haze Motes or The Misfit merely backwoods psychopaths, the sort of unfortunate, deprived creatures on the evening news for whom poverty programs and rehabilitation are designed, is only a momentary stay against confusion, against a shock of self-recognition. Her chosen audience doesn’t remain safe, since the stories keep saying, shouting in an irresistible way, “You can’t be any poorer than dead” – dead spiritually and intellectually.

The constant comparison in Montgomery’s work is thus between those thinkers and writers who reflect “the pole of grace” and those who champion the “finite gnostic mind.” Drawing into the discussion poets, novelists, and philosophers, Montgomery believes that most writers lean towards one or the other, and that this leaning is reflected in their writing. Into this discussion he brings the thoughts of such luminaries as Hawthorne, Poe, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Eliot, the Fugitives, Pound, Maritain, Voegelin, Gabriel Marcel and Walker Percy.

As a starting point for reading Montgomery, I’d recommend the collection of essays titled On Matters Southern, edited by Michael Jordan. For a deeper introduction, one that requires some familiarity with O’Connor’s work, I’d recommend the small, but dense, book I quoted above, The Trouble With You Innerleckchuls, published by Christendom College in 1988.

I’ve read two of the three novels, The Wandering of Desire and Darrell, and though I liked both, I’d have to give the nod to the former. It’s a tragi-comic somewhat Faulknerian story of two families who have fought for generations over a piece of land, it going by hook or crook back and forth between them. As far as his poetry goes, I’ve not read enough of it to comment, other than to say that he has written in both modern and traditional/formal styles, and is seemingly fairly adept at both.

When Montgomery died on Thanksgiving weekend 2011, he was in the midst of writing a book on Hawthorne. Not sure if/when that will ever see daylight, so at present Montgomery’s last published book was 2009’s With Walker Percy at the Tupperware Party, a big rich ride through Percy’s fiction and nonfiction. It’s a no-nonsense academic-level work, albeit one with absolutely no critical apparatus: no index, no notes, no bibliography, no table of contents. Just a solid block of 330 pages of text divided into numbered chapters -- huge, challenging, and fun, like an intellectual whitewater rafting trip.


M.M. is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and I fear I haven’t quite done him justice here. He’s a writer that for whatever reason I find much easier to talk about than to write about. But if your appetite has been whetted a little I encourage you to give him a go. In my opinion he was one of the most astute and interesting literary and cultural critics of the past thirty or forty years. I’ve come across no one that connects literary and philosophical dots in quite the way that he’s able to, and it is this aspect of his work that I find most stimulating.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


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That sentence you quote on Flannery O'Connor's work ("The pole of grace...") is a perfect capsule description of it.

I read his trilogy that begins with Why Flannery O'Connor Stayed Home and really probably should have given up after the first volume, if not sooner, as I was baffled by much of it, mainly due to the philosophical references. I mean, I've never read a word of Hegel, and am not likely to. I should give it another try. Maybe I could do more with it now, just as a result of somewhat wider reading--that was 25-30 years ago. I have a copy of The Trouble... but have never gotten around to it.

I'm the same way with him. I have to slog through (or skip altogether) some of that heavy-duty philosophical stuff when it appears, because I just don't have the chops for it. But then he always seems to summarize it well when he gets around to applying it to literature and culture.

In some ways The Trouble... is somewhat of a condensed version of the first volume of the trilogy, with specific attention to Wise Blood. It was the first book of his I ever read, and I found it challenging, but thrilling at the same time.

I looked at my copy of Vol 1, and I see a good many marked passages. So apparently I got something out of it.

Rob, I have really enjoyed your posts in this series.

This is driving me crazy. I want to read these books. I simple will not have time until next year.


"I looked at my copy of Vol 1, and I see a good many marked passages."

Rather fortuitously, I ended up with Cleanth Brooks's copy of the first volume, so I didn't want to mark it up. I read it twice and noted a lot of things on index cards.

Thanks, Janet. I know the feeling -- lots of stuff that folks have recommended here have been added to my list!

The "52 Authors" series has really opened my eyes to so many writers that I had never heard of and are so worth reading. Marion Montgomery is another that any astute reader of literature, philosophy, theology, and all things "Southern" must look into. Thank you, Rob!

Yeah, the only problem is that it's overwhelming--the number of writers one hadn't read, and now wants to read.

Cleanth Brooks's copy! That's pretty cool.

I've always been kind of hesitant about marking books, even though my marks are very discreet. Now I use book darts (google it if you don't know what they are).

I keep thinking I'm going to get some of those.

I'm afraid, though, that with Pieper the entire side of every page would be metaled.


"Cleanth Brooks's copy! That's pretty cool."

Yeah, this was 7 or 8 years ago. It came with a letter from MM to CB, and also a copy of the Niemeyer essay I mentioned above. MM had apparently sent it along to Brooks with the book in case he hadn't seen it.

I had been going onto Abe Books once or twice a week waiting for a reasonably priced copy to show up, when after several months this one appeared, which had the interesting extras, but also happened to be the least expensive copy I'd come across. The same seller had quite a few other things from CB's library, many of them signed/inscribed by the various authors. His prices weren't bad either, and I would have liked to have grabbed a couple more items, but didn't have the cash at the time.

Yes, it's going to be ages until I can even think about reading these authors. But it's a good series. :)

Mac, do you know anything about the Southern poets Byron Reece and George Scarbrough? Montgomery talks about Reece in one of his essays in On Matters Southern, and I found an article on Reece that praises Scarbrough in passing. Both look like they might be worth checking out.

The problem is that every week there is another author I need to read!

2016-2017 52 movies

Hmm...that would be fun...and maybe easier for people to deliver on. Whether we're actually going to make it through 52 Authors is very much in doubt.

No, I haven't heard of them, Rob. Have you heard of John Finlay? I can't remember where I heard about him, but he's of interest. He died fairly young, of AIDS, and was a Catholic convert, and he didn't leave all that many poems, but although many of them are too dense for me they're good. His fairly brief collected poems are called Mind and Blood.

I must be due to write one soon

You've done your share, although I think there are still one or two on the list you volunteered for. We have something for this week (GKC!) but beyond that I think we only have two specific commitments for the rest of the year. At least one person has put off contributing because of health problems, though still hoping to do it before the year is out. Well, it's been one week at a time for most of the past 6 weeks or so, and so far someone has always come through.

A funny story: So, I was rereading The Chosen for my post about Chaim Potok in September. Suddenly a couple of weeks ago the book disappeared. No one knows what happened to it. Now I have to go get it at a library or something. Hmph.

Maybe it was recycled!

I didn't realize you were writing about Chaim Potok. I'm so glad. AND, I won't have to run out and read the books.


Don't expect much erudition. It is going to be more personal reflection than anything.

I am down for June and Danielou. I also want to do Louise Fitzhugh - sorry more girls books! My advice to everyone is its a great series but the best is the enemy of the good.

I tried unsuccessfully to figure out who "June" was and finally looked at the list--Hume. Autocorrect at work, I guess?

Speaking of the list, I haven't kept it up very well. If there's anything that anyone knows should be on there from August on, let me know.

I was going to do more girls books too. I could do that fast and then Vanauken fairly soon.


I keep promising and doing nothing, just like a politician I suppose. But I will do Dickens first, and then Tolstoy, both soon Mac.

That's ok, you've said all along you wouldn't be doing those, or at least Tolstoy, till fairly late in the year. I'd forgotten you were doing Dickens, actually.

We have 18 weeks remaining, btw. I can probably do Hopkins. As I've mentioned before, there just aren't that many writers whose overall work I feel qualified to discuss. There are several books I've read recently and intend to write about here. If desperate, I could make them 52 Authors entries, but that would be cheating a bit, because I haven't read any but the one book by the authors.

By no authority in heaven or on earth, I hereby declare that it will be all right if you just write about one book by an author.


"By no authority in heaven or on earth, I hereby declare that it will be all right if you just write about one book by an author."

Provided, of course, that that author has written just one book. :-)

Well, I have re-read almost every book written by the authors that I have written about so far so that I could do them justice, but it has worn the heck out of me. I'm willing to show a little mercy to others so that I can get some for myself.


I don't think anyone has Graham Greene. Is that correct?


One expression I have heard in NYC that I never heard before is 'you got the light', 'i got the light' and, from a police woman, 'you don't got the light'

That means crossing on green

Well, it's pretty familiar to me.


"My advice to everyone is its a great series but the best is the enemy of the good."

Yes! Or as Chesterton says, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly"!

My dissertation director used to say, "A done dissertation is better than a good dissertation."

I complied.

It is done.

Right. I wrote the Stuart Little one on a public computer in a hotel in Budapest. But at least we did not miss a week.

By my reckoning from the previous few messages there's about ten coming in from me, Janet and El Gaucho.

What had Art Deco done? Which authors? I missed some when I was in Spain

I have two coming, one in Sept. and one in Dec.

I guess I should at least update the list to show what actually transpired. Maybe tomorrow. But Art Deco didn't sign up.

I think there are roughly ten specific commitments from the three of you, Grumpy, maybe twelve with Robert's. Not sure exactly because, for instance, Dickens is not actually on the official list (probably an oversight of mine). But that's fairly close. That leaves us with 6-8 empty slots. I'm not sure the person who has Walker Percy is going to be able to do it, so I may take that one.

I think people around here say "you got the light", too. Seems familiar. Or maybe "you have/had the light."

Thank you, Janet, for the dispensation. I hope I won't need it.

And thank you Grumpy for going above and beyond in order to keep us from missing a week.

'I think people around here say "you got the light", too.'

Yeah, here too. I imagine it's a dropping of the contraction in "You've got the light." People here also say "It's your light."

Re the authors, I'm still scheduled to do Madison Jones. If I do that in Oct. I might be able to do another in late Nov. or Dec. I'd have to think about who I'd pick though.

Well, you may not have noticed this but I sent you one last night.


No, haven't looked at email since Sunday morning. Wonderful--I don't have to worry about this week. Thank you.

Found this on the FT website yesterday -- this essay appears in MM's book 'On Matters Southern' (pictured above) but I hadn't noticed, or had forgotten, that it originally appeared in FT. Since Walker Percy came up on the Chesterton thread I thought I'd post the link.

I started reading that on my phone, which is a pretty bad thing for me to do to MM, and ended up with a headache, which I guess I deserved. I'll finish it later but as far as I got (about a third of the way) it's very good.

That's really interesting, Grumpy. It's been a hundred years since I read the book, but when my daughter was little she was a big fan of the movie, so I've seen it any number of times.

How they tried to force him to take out Charlotte's death! And how each character is based on a real animal in Whites life!

Never would have guessed that it was a roman a clef.:-)

Just a quick note to say that I was reminded by a friend that Montgomery died 10 years ago this weekend. He and I had discussed driving down to Georgia to meet MM sometime but he passed away before we got the chance, alas.

I was thinking recently that I ought to give him another look. I certainly missed a lot when I read him 30+ years ago.

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