Jon Hassler put Catholics’ complicated fear around Vatican II into his novels

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Jesuit sociologist Joseph Fichter once made a bold proclamation about American Catholic culture: “The creative centers of American Catholicism seemed to be concentrated in a triangle that stretched from St. John’s to Chicago and Notre Dame.” The St. John’s mentioned in this blasphemous statement (Jesuits, amirite?) is St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, the great Benedictine abbey and the educational and literary institutions that grew up around it.

St. John is known to Church historians for his important role in liturgical reform (beginning long before the Second Vatican Council and continuing throughout it) and for his significant influence on the architecture of the church, music, preaching and more. Bookworms might also remember it for a 1955 alumnus of St. John’s College who spent much of his life on and around campus, novelist Jon Hassler.

If you don’t remember Jon Hassler, it might be because he never felt the need to stray too far from his Upper Midwestern roots, either in his life or in his fiction.

If you don’t remember Jon Hassler, it might be because he never felt the need to stray too far from his Upper Midwestern roots, either in his life or in his fiction. Born in Minneapolis, he became a high school teacher in Minnesota after graduating from St. John’s. In 1960 he received a master’s degree from the University of North Dakota – with a thesis on moral decision-making in the novels of Ernest Hemingway – and from 1965 to 1980 he taught at various area colleges, including St. John’s, where he became writer-in-residence in 1980.

When he died in 2008, his New York Times obituary cited a 1997 review by Diana Postlethwaite, a professor of English literature at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, of Hassler’s 1997 novel. The Dean’s List“Forget Garrison Keillor and the Coen brothers. Jon Hassler is Minnesota’s hottest cultural export.

Hassler began by writing short stories, using John Cheever as a model, and turned a story into his first novel, staggerford, in 1977. Its short stories and novels were simple, written simply but eloquently, the language reflecting the pragmatic and practical lives of its characters. Novelist Richard Russo noted in 1990 that “Mr. Hassler is one of those writers who make storytelling so easy that the stern guardians of contemporary literature might be suspicious. Part of Jon Hassler’s brilliance has always been his ability to reach the depth of real literature through language so confident, gimmick-free and honest that the result seems effortless.

Although Hassler himself once told the Associated Press that he enjoyed writing about misfits – “You can’t write a novel about someone who is perfectly happy” –staggerford and many of his other books were at least partly autobiographical. “On the surface, this is the story of an exhausted high school teacher in the fictional small town of Staggerford, in northern Minnesota,” Ed Block wrote in a 2015 appreciation of Hassler for America, and “readers will marvel at the image of a high school teacher’s drudgery and the sheer exuberance of satire and humor.” Block, who later wrote an intellectual biography, Jon Hassler—Voice of the Heartland (revised for America here by Ellen O’Connell Whittet), wrote that at the end of the novel, “the reader is left with a sense of grace and mystery despite the tragedy”.

staggerford was followed by a novel every few years for two decades, 11 novels in all. Noted priest-sociologist (and author of novels of an, ahem, more racy nature than Hassler’s) Andrew Greeley identified four of Hassler’s novels——staggerford, North of Hope, A green trip and Dear James-as books that “could have a critical impact on Catholics’ understanding of the importance of religious symbols (sacrament) on Catholic life” in a 2008 article for America in which he describes Hassler as “the last Catholic novelist”.

Andrew Greeley: “Hassler’s work, I suppose, is not well known to Catholics, even Catholics who teach literature, because it is not grim enough.”

“I guess Hassler’s work is not well known to Catholics, even Catholics who teach literature, because it’s not dark enough,” Greeley wrote. “The right model, teachers for Catholic fiction might say, is Flannery O’Connor or Léon Bloy. Or, as I tell my friend John Shea, it’s a story that’s entirely dark until a flash of lightning flashes, briefly and suddenly lighting up the sky and then allowing darkness to return. Hassler, however, located his epiphanies and moments of grace in simpler things, such as a reconciliation between lovers or a kindness shown by a former teacher to a struggling student. “As the country priest says at the end of George Bernanos Diary, grace is everywhere,” Greeley wrote. “It was Jon Hassler’s gift to have seen this presence of grace.”

Hassler had a sense of the unease felt by many Catholics during the 1960s, both because of the innovations brought about by the Second Vatican Council and because of rapidly changing social mores. A nun in Dear James scandalizes part of the congregation by starting prayers at a funeral with “Our Mother who art in heaven”, for example, and the protagonist priest of North of Hope falls in love with his childhood sweetheart in middle age and considers leaving the priesthood.

Agatha McGee’s recurring Hassler character (the sensible schoolteacher of her staggerford novels, based in part on Hassler’s own mother) was fairly consistently portrayed as being unhappy with – or unaware of – any change in the church after the council. “Hassler repeatedly said that Agatha’s conservative, pre-Vatican II Catholicism expressed a part of itself,” Block wrote, “observing that when Agatha complained about the excesses of the church , it relieved him to have to do it.” Hassler wrote only once for America, but it was on a momentous occasion: Great author (and fellow Collegeville homebody) JF Powers had passed away, and Hassler wrote his obituary for the magazine in 1999. Hassler captured Powers’ pleasant but brooding mein, but a also transmitted something of the close ties that bound him. The Collegeville community had them. The two authors met at the post office or at the library more than elsewhere; neither strayed from either.

In 2008, America honored Hassler as the latest recipient of the Edmund Campion Award, given to a distinguished person of letters, for his novels which “examined with infinite compassion the lives of small-town Minnesotans and generally touched on overtly Catholic themes…His pithy writing and the marvelous ability to create fully formed characters – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually alive – have marked all of his fiction. Other recent recipients have included the aforementioned Father Greeley, Muriel Spark, John Updike, Chinua Achebe, Daniel Berrigan, SJ and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Because Hassler died on March 20 of that year, his widow, Gretchen Hassler, accepted the award at a ceremony in Collegeville on his behalf.

The decor would surely have pleased Jon Hassler: Why go to New York when Collegeville is already there?

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On another note: two weeks ago, we announced the winner of the 2022 Foley Poetry Contest: Lisa Mullenneaux, for her poem “In Copenhagen.” Congratulations! Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to notify digital subscribers of some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:

From poetry to Catholicism, Muriel Spark did nothing halfway

Telling truth and lies with the Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize

How Walter Ciszek found God in the Gulag

Leonard Feeney, Americathe only excommunicated literary publisher (to date)

Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life

Good reading!

James T. Keane


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