Tomorrow: “Richard John Neuhaus – A Life In The Public Square”

NeuhausTomorrow evening at the Catholic Information Center here in DC, author Randy Boyagoda will be delivering a talk on his book, “Richard John Neuhaus – A Life In The Public Square“.

The story of the man perhaps best known as the author of “The Naked Public Square”, among many other books, and the founder and editor of “First Things” magazine, has not been properly told up until now. Father Neuhaus himself revealed it in glimpses, such as in his deeply introspective “As I Lay Dying”, a study about suffering arising from his experience of cancer surgery and the complications which arose from it. Yet Neuhaus himself never penned a proper autobiography, probably because he was far too busy writing other things – like this superb analysis of the waning influence of modernists in the Church (“no identity is recognizably Catholic if it skirts the question of obedience.”)

It must be very difficult indeed to fit into one volume the biography of a man who began his public life as a left-wing Protestant clergyman, marched with Dr. King, organized anti-Vietnam protests, ran for Congress, and ended up as both a conservative and a Catholic priest.  Bovagoda does so exceedingly well, but the setting out into the deep must have been intimidating, with such a wealth of material to examine.  Neuhaus’ story is one which would be interesting to tell from either a politico-philosophical or theological standpoint alone. Why did Father Neuhaus turn to the right, as the second half of the 20th century sputtered toward its conclusion? Or for that matter, why did Richard John Neuhaus, Lutheran pastor, choose to become FATHER Richard Neuhaus, Catholic priest?

Bovagoda wisely not only devotes space to these subjects, he also takes the time to give the reader some insight into who Father Neuhaus was as a human being, rather than simply as a public figure who would moderate Crossfire or sit down for a chat on BookTV.  Bovagoda’s book is not a piece of hagiography, either, even though one comes away from it even more impressed with its subject than one was before reading it. Of course, if you have read any of Neuhaus, he doesn’t really need lionizing (lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice). Yet what are perhaps the most compelling sections in the book, which took the author five years to write, are the fly-on-the-wall details which reveal both the flaws and the goodness of Neuhaus the man.

In a telling passage, a stressed-out Father Neuhaus takes on his editor at First Things as both sounding board and receptacle for his frustration over a combination of personal pain and public reaction to a piece published by the magazine which has provoked unwanted results.  “Neuhaus knew none of the screaming and lamentations would leave the apartment,” Bovagoda writes. Later, Neuhaus acknowledged that his editor probably knew better than he did, on advising against publication of more problematic articles. “I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles we published that he opposed…and in retrospect, he was mostly right (I suspect he has been waiting a long time for that admission.)”

A particularly touching section recounts the last time Father Neuhaus and his good friend William F. Buckley, Jr. had lunch together, a couple of months before the latter’s death:

They talked about the book on Ronald Reagan that Buckley was writing, and the health challenges that were preventing him from making much progress, namely emphysema, the result of years of smoking that Buckley told Neuhaus he was partly to blame for, because of all the very many postprandial cigar sessions the two men had shared…There was also some business to discuss; Buckley suggested subjects to consider at the next meeting of “That Group”, the conservative talking club the two of them had founded in the early 1990’s, but, as Neuhaus recounted in the extended remembrance of Buckley in the May 2008 issue of First Things, “I do not really think that he expected to be there. I think we both knew that we were possibly, probably, meeting for the last time.” Neuhaus left Buckley’s in tears, and he was right: in lieu of seeing him again, Neuhaus wrote about Buckley instead, following his death.

The cast of characters in this book reads like a who’s who of American public life over the past half-century or more: run-ins and commentary on Presidents from LBJ to Obama reveal much, but it is in his contemporaries in the world of commentary that Neuhaus’ biography is a wonder. They are all here: Buckley, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Frank Rich (intellectually a “toy Doberman”, per Neuhaus), and many others.  From the Catholic world, Pope Benedict XVI, Father George Rutler, George Weigel, Raymond Arroyo, and others are as equally integrated into Neuhaus’ understanding of the world he lived in as his political commentariat friends and rivals – indeed, more so, given Neuhaus’ vocation and deep religious faith. Boyagoda’s recounting of Neuhaus’ visit to see the body of his friend, Pope St. John Paul II, before his funeral at the Vatican, is both moving and telling about the way Neuhaus viewed life, and the legacy one leaves behind.

For more about Randy Boyagoda’s fascinating and comprehensive look at the life of this remarkable figure, visit the Image Publishing website. And for those of my readers who will find themselves in the DC area tomorrow, drop by the Catholic Information Center to hear Mr. Boyagoda himself speak on and answer questions about his book. And be sure to pick up some signed copies for yourself and others, for this is one work you will definitely want to add to your permanent reading and reference library.

Announcing the “Chasing Texas” Winner!

Thanks to all of my readers who entered for a chance to win a free copy of my Dad’s first novel, “Chasing Texas”, the story of three generations of men in the same family, making their way across the vast state of Texas. As in “Highlander” there can only be one winner, but the less-messy way of selecting has come down to chance, or in this case a random number generator. I’m pleased to announce that the winner of this giveaway is Cameron Wakefield. Thanks for reading and entering, Cameron, and I’ll be in touch with details about how to get your copy!

For those of you who are interested but did not win. you can pick up either a printed or an e-copy of my Dad’s book over on Amazon, where he is starting to receive some very favorable views. I hope you’ll enjoy it, he worked on it for years, driving back and forth across Texas observing the landscape, the people, and using his literary skills and imagination to create something very engaging and enjoyable. And thanks once again for your support!


Book Giveaway: “Chasing Texas” By…My Dad!

I’m pleased to offer my first book giveaway of the year to one of my lucky readers, for what *I* consider a very special book. My father Reece Newton has published his first novel, “Chasing Texas”, the story of three generations who make their way across the vast landscape of Texas. If you’re interested in the chance to win a copy, just use this simple entry form. I’ll select one lucky winner from my readers, whom I will announce on Monday, March 9th.

To be frank, “Chasing Texas” is not the sort of novel I would normally read. There are no drawing-room scenes of elegant people sprawling about saying elegant things to one another beneath a languid lighting scheme. No one in the book holds an aristocratic title or high political office, engaging in the kind of plotting and intrigue that often accompany such positions. Instead, this a book of gritty realism, but one in which the values of basic decency and respect for others still matter to the characters inhabiting the Texas evoked by the author,

When the first protagonist of the book, Sedge Rountree, decides to leave home on his quest, he is following in a line of stories seminal to Western literature, from “The Odyssey” to “Don Quixote” to “Captains Courageous”. This type of storytelling begins with adventure, but ends up being more about the making of a man in the process. Moreover, “Chasing Texas” is engagingly written, painstakingly researched, and frankly rather hard to put down, in the tradition of the best “on the road” type of literature.

Take a look at this passage, for example, when Sedge is thinking back on what he left behind as he heads out across Texas. Even as he sleeps out in the cold, remembering the comforts of home, he is already beginning to realize how he is changing from a boy into a man:

Shivering, he wrapped himself more tightly in his blankets, thought of the fireplace at home, his mother making his favorite by filling cored apples with raisins, cinnamon, brown sugar, and a little of the blackberry brandy and nestling them near the dulling coals of the fire to roast and meld the fruit, but strangely something in him now made that seem not appealing at all.

Later, Sedge has found work on a ranch, but has run into trouble with the law. He has made friends with an elderly Indian named Alonso, whose real name is Red Wolf Runner. As the two sit and consider the troubles facing Sedge, the old man reflects on his own regrets:

They sat watching the hills far across fading into deeper blues. The old man gazed at them, hardly breathing, it seemed.”To dream of the wolf was a good sign, they used to tell me. A good sign for a boy. It meant he was true to himself. To know what was right and to do right. I don’t know if I was true. I tried to be.”

Sedge and the other Rountree boys that come after him have to go through their own trials in the transition from boyhood to manhood, against the backdrop of Texas. In fact Texas is, in a way, another character in the book. From the marshlands and Gulf Coast of East Texas to the big open skies of West Texas, the Rountrees continue to head West across their home state, never quite knowing what lessons life will have in store for them, even as the State draws them on.

Sometimes those lessons are pleasant and profitable; other times, they are extremely serious, even deadly in nature. And nature itself, in the hugely varied geography and wildlife of Texas, is more than mere scenery for these men. The places they find themselves are as important to the plot as any other individual in this family tapestry.

Even as generations and stories change within the novel, the reader stays with these men, coming to appreciate and identify with them, as characters with facets mirroring his own. With age comes the realization that, despite what you have been told, there really is no single guaranteed path to success, otherwise everyone would simply follow the same path and achieve the same ends. Instead, as the experiences of the Rountrees demonstrate in this novel, the question of remaining true to the self, even when the end result is unclear, matters more than any achievement measurable by mere human standards.

Again, for those of my readers interested in entering to win a free copy of the novel, please fill out this form with your contact information, and I will announce the winner on Monday, April 9th. And for those of you who do not want to wait to find out whether you’ve won, hop on by Amazon and pick up either a printed or e-reader copy of Chasing Texas for yourself or someone whom you know would enjoy it. I am certain you or your recipient will appreciate the well-woven storytelling as much as I did.

Nice job, Dad. :-)

Reece Newton.