Paul Horgan’s Priests | Daniel J. Heisey, O.S.B. | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Rediscovering the acclaimed historian and novelist Paul Horgan (1903-1995)
Soon twenty years will have passed since the death of Paul Horgan. In his heyday, Horgan (1903-1995) was an acclaimed historian and novelist, receiving the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes (the latter twice), as well as several fellowships, medals, and honorary degrees. In 1957, Pope Pius XII made him a Knight of Saint Gregory, acknowledging Horgan’s contributions to Catholic literature; and in 1960, Horgan served as president of the American Catholic Historical Association. Now, however, Horgan seems to be known only to a few aficionados; most of his nearly forty books, once bestsellers, are out of print. This essay seeks to dust off Horgan’s name by focusing on his depiction of Catholic priests, in particular in two short stories. Since Horgan wrote history as well as fiction, this study will close by considering priests in some of his historical works.
Perhaps, Horgan’s disappearance from public, if not critical, appreciation derives from his identification as a regional, and a Catholic, author. He disliked such categorization, but Paul George Vincent O’Shaughnessy Horgan was Catholic and wrote mainly about one geographical area. As a regional writer, he ranks with his contemporaries Louis Auchincloss (1917-2010), Conrad Richter (1890-1968), and Eudora Welty (1909-2001). As does any serious writer, each had a variety of interests, but these three authors are best known for writing about their home regions. Auchincloss in his essays and stories brought to life the upper-crust society of New York City, and Richter and Welty conveyed the small-town and rural worlds of Pennsylvania and Mississippi, respectively. Just so, Horgan captured the stark lives of the settlers and natives of New Mexico. Nevertheless, despite their excellent prose and profound understanding of human nature, these authors all seem to fall into the second rank; somehow, Horgan has not survived in literary memory even to stand alongside another contemporary Catholic, regional author, Flannery O’Connor. A British literary critic, Sir Frank Kermode, surmised that although Horgan “wrote with care and precision,” he “was not much interested in the kind of formal experiment that helped elevate [William] Faulkner from the category of regional novelist.” 1
So, just as one must haunt used bookshops for copies of books by once ubiquitous authors such as John O’Hara and John P. Marquand, so, too, must one mount a bibliophile’s safari and hunt high and low for editions of works by Paul Horgan.