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John Crowe Ransom's Secular Faith

by Kieran Quinlan

Southern Literary Studies

152 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / no illustrations

Literature - American

  Paperback / 9780807124680 / March 1999

Recent interest in the life and works of John Crowe Ransom has brought to light the many apparent contradictions and discontinuities in the career of this important man of letters. A noted poet, Ransom chose to devote his energies primarily to the composition of prose. A southern agrarian in the 1930s, he later rejected the movement as nostalgic and unrealistic. But perhaps more central to his development as a man of letters, he came to renounce all traditional religious beliefs, even though he was descended from a line of Methodist ministers.

In John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith Keiran Quinlan examines these and other incongruities within the context of the writer’s career and offers a substantially revisionist interpretation of his subject. Quinlan argues that the key to understanding Ransom’s development lies in “his early rejection of the tenets of Christian theology and in his consequent effort at articulating an alternative philosophy to live by.” Ransom’s literary efforts are viewed as a philosophical project aimed at discovering an empirical validity for the world rather than a transcendental one.

Quinlan examines Ransom’s development against the background of the literary and philosophic movements that influenced the writer. He shows how thinkers like Kant, Hegel, Dewey, and the logical positivists, and poets like Arnold, Hardy, Stevens, Eliot, and Graves, all made significant contributions to Ransom’s progress.

Although Ransom has often been allied with T.S. Eliot, who turned to religion and a transcendental knowledge of the world, Quinlan contends that Ransom’s real symoathies were with Wallace Stevens, who south a suitable substitute for religious faith in the celebration of a world he felt was emptied of its transcendental component.

Ransom’s difficulties are in many ways symptomatic of the struggles of our age—the supplanting of God and a supernatural world view by scientific advances, the loss of faith, and thus the need to find an alternative meaning in existence. Quinlan stresses that although the gradual emergence of Ransom’s “secular faith” was a direct result of his lifelong dialogue with the Christian tradition, his final belief was that “‘this is the best of all possible worlds’; inasmuch as it is not possible for imagination to acquaint is with any other world.” Quinlan concludes, therefore, that Ransom belongs squarely in the American pragmatist tradition. 

Kieran Quinlan is the author of Walker Percy, the Last Catholic Novelist and John Crowe Ransom's Secular Faith. Born in Dublin, he spent several years as a Trappist monk and is currently writing an account of that experience. He is a professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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