There's always been a conflict between intellectualism and religion - now more than ever. In a new memoir, one writer confesses to being a nice girl in an ironic world.
In a terrific review on the Daily Beast, writer Megan Hustad draws a contrast between the recent rash of "bad-girl" tell-alls - stories of substance abuse and regrettable relationships and youthful misdemeanors - and Carlene Bauer's new Not That Kind of Girl, which upends the formula. Whereas most of these stories are tales of redemption, Bauer's is of someone who's found herself and needs to hang onto it. She's not a zealot or a prisoner of a narrow upbringing; she's an intellectual who happens to be a practicing Christian from a conservative home. As Hustad puts it,
She aspires not only to be truly hip, she also wants to be taken seriously in New York's snobbish literary scene. And she seeks to accomplish both of these goals while hanging on to her fervent faith in Jesus Christ. If life maneuvers received scores for technical difficulty, Bauer would be competing for gold.
While the romance of childhood repression - be it the mysteries of Catholicism, the strictures of evangelism or the tangles neuroses of the Jewish home - have always been literary gold, there's nothing quite so romantic about, well, a measure of contentment. Says Bauer, "Neither class anxiety nor Christianity were considered real, or fashionable, torments." And the memoir draws a sharp contrast between theoretically open-minded sophistication on the one hand, and the literary milieu's shock and disbelief when she admits to being a virgin.
Of course, this is nothing new. With the exceptions of those intellectual movements defined by their "moral seriousness" (think Transcendentalists, here) literary scenes from the Enlightenment through Bloomsbury have been characterized by a blithe scorn for the earnest - even as they dealt in the currency of emotion. While pre-Vatican II Catholicism actually became highly fashionable in British literary circles of the 20th Century, Americans - perhaps burdened by a need to throw off recent puritan antecedents? - tend to need a certain level of defiance to justify modern faith. Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor were conscious - not to say proud - Catholic writers, but in O'Connor's case this led to an uneasy relationship to much of the New York intelligentsia. (Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own is great on this.)
This is not to say that, person by person, there aren't all kinds of "literary types." Any world is made up of a myriad of individuals, and doubtless the New York "scene" has always seemed more frustratingly hermetic than in fact it is. We've heard horror stories - and as this memoir shows, the milieu's as prey to provincialism as any other - but at the end of the day, Bauer concludes, people are kind. That Bauer's story has a happy ending - she is, by any standard, a gifted and accomplished writer - is a testament, ultimately, to the power of talent. Bauer evolves, of course, in the memoir - but it's not the reflexive abandonment of a narrow girlhood that we've become used to. And no one who reads Bauer's book can doubt that it's variety of experience and, yes, worldview that makes for true vibrancy in writing as in life.
Girl Gone Mild [Daily Beast]
* I drew on The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Megan Marshall's The Peabody Sisters in this post.