The Bible and a Little History
Warren Cole Smith
Marion Montgomery was not a household name, but he was responsible for one of Southern literature’s most quoted definitions. When Flannery O’Connor read his 1962 novel The Wandering of Desire, she wrote him a letter that became famous: “I think your book is wonderful, 100 percent solid and alive throughout. The Southern writer can outwrite anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history, but you’ve got more of both than most and a splendid gift besides.”
That Marion Montgomery might be remembered for his relationship to what can reasonably be described as a sound bite is ironic in the extreme, for Montgomery’s work is anything but reducible to sound bites. He would often, only half-jokingly, describe the audience for his work as Milton described his audience: “fit, though few.” His novels and criticism, running to nearly 30 books, are famously dense, rich, convoluted—anything but aphoristic.
That quality of his work caused some consternation even among his friends and protégés, among whom I count myself. The great Andrew Lytle—no slouch as either novelist or critic—once told me that he found Montgomery’s work “unreadable.” Other assessments of Montgomery’s style were more charitable. Gerhart Niemeyer, priest and poet, defended Montgomery’s style with an essay called “Why Marion Montgomery Has To Ramble.” I summarize Niemeyer’s argument by quoting Tolkien: “Not all who wander are lost.”
My own assessment of Montgomery’s style is that it is simply out of fashion. We live in an age in which the purpose of literary prose, even fiction, is too often either to argue or to organize. In other words, modern writers are usually either attempting to force-fit the world into their own highly subjective worldview, or they are using rhetoric in service of some ideology. The writer who honestly looks out at the world and follows the instruction God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden (“Name the animals”) or Jesus gave John the Revelator (“Write down what you see”) is rare. In the end, I believe that the whole of Montgomery’s literary career can be summed up as nothing more nor less than his obedience to these commands.
Another characteristic of Montgomery and his work that tended to make him inaccessible was this: he was and it is self-effacing. Modern writers are a “brand.” From Hemingway to Harry Crews, Jack Kerouac to Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe to Hunter S. Thompson—all these writers have a kind of celebrity attached to them. Montgomery’s work, both explicitly (in a novel such as Fugitive) and implicitly (by the style and structure and sometimes by the daunting length of his works) made it difficult to turn him into a celebrity, a “brand.”
His best shot, perhaps, was when the aforementioned novel, Fugitive, released in 1974 by Harper & Row, a big “New York house,” as they used to say in the trade. But, alas, the publisher—like most of his readers—didn’t know what to do with the book. By the time I was in graduate school at the University of Georgia, with Montgomery as my thesis director and mentor, you could find the book for $1 in second-hand book stores in Athens. (I should add, though, that the book is now a collector’s item, selling on-line for as much as $75. It’s a turn of events I suspect Montgomery himself would have found gratifying and amusing.)
In the end, it is likely that a major part of Montgomery’s legacy will be his vocation as teacher and mentor. By championing the work of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, T.S. Eliot, and others who cared about what Montgomery called “the permanent things,” he awakened many a student both at the University of Georgia and elsewhere to the beauty and virtues of these writers—and to beauty and virtue generally. One of his protégés was Gregory Wolfe, who in the mid 1980s organized a symposium on Montgomery’s work and is today editor of IMAGE Journal. Wolfe said: “He had the gift of relating the smallest literary details to the largest questions.” And more to my point, he helped others—including Wolfe, who is himself leaving an impressive literary legacy—do the same.
This is no small gift, this “relating the smallest literary details to the largest questions.” But it is one likely to go under-appreciated in an era in which the cinema has become the dominant art form, and the primary theme of the cinema is, to use the old Hollywood cliché, “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.” Again, Montgomery himself was aware of this state. Indeed, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, wrestling as it does with celebrity and the desperation of the modernist condition, was a book to which Montgomery returned often himself, and one he helped others appreciate, even as he refused to use his understanding to pander to those caught up in the modernist snare.
Montgomery spoke often to me about writing for a “diaspora” and of writing about things mostly forgotten. He paraphrased Eliot’s melancholy assessment of his own career, that he wrote not so much to win an argument, or make a case, as to “keep the truth alive.” He spoke often, too, of the role of a prophet. A prophet, Montgomery said, is one who recalls for us “known but forgotten things.” And even that definition is cryptic, paradoxical. If a thing is forgotten, how can we say that it is truly “known”? A partial answer is this: Our heart cries out for it, even if we are no longer able to name the longing.
Most biographies and obituaries mentioned Montgomery’s literary associations, including friendships and close associations with the Fugitive/Agrarian writers responsible for the Southern Literary Renaissance. However, few mentioned Montgomery’s role in the development of conservative and Christian intellectual thought in the 20th century. He was not just a student of, but a fellow traveler with Neimeyer and Lytle, Percy and O’Connor. We should also mention his association with Russell Kirk, one of the founders of both “National Review” and “Modern Age,” the latter publishing Montgomery’s essays regularly. And among Montgomery’s students who carry his ideas with them are Wolfe; Dr. Michael Jordan, now the head of the English Department at Hillsdale College; and Dr. Allan Carlson, president of The Howard Center and director of the World Congress of Families, who said Montgomery would be remembered as a “man of letters who ably carried the proud Southern Tradition into the 21st century."
Carlson is right. Montgomery did that. But he did more. He had a sense of carrying not just Southern culture, but Christian culture, of which Southern culture was merely the last, tragically imperfect manifestation. For all his associations with “things Southern,” he was much more concerned with “things Christian.” And he hoped not just to carry these things, but to keep them alive, and pass them on.
If the tributes in this journal are any indication, we might now reasonably conclude that he did just that.