“The dislocation of man in the modern age”: The Pilgrim Condition and Mid-Twentieth Century American Catholic Literature highlights the ways in which the major Catholic voices in mid-twentieth century America—Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Jack Kerouac, Martin Scorsese—all shared a conception of man as a pilgrim (what philosopher Gabriel Marcel described as homo viator), one striving for something that transcended the physical and present world and yet fundamentally and necessarily of it and moving through it and that emphasis on the pilgrim is very in keeping with shifts occurring surround the Church at that time.
I begin with a discussion of two earlier texts in which Catholicism plays a role—Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea—highlighting the ways in which the de facto American Catholic literature of the early twentieth century did not in fact address the concerns of the American Catholic, mirroring the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council that saw itself as a fortress against the modern world (of which America was closely associated). From there, I consider works such as O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Percy’s The Moviegoer, Kerouac’s On The Road and Visions of Gerard, and Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. In that discussion, I note the recurring notion of man being necessarily in the world and yet longing for something outside of it, embodying the condition of the pilgrim making their way and paying penance while heading towards something more transcendent. The emphasis on this pilgrim condition in the work of these four authors mirrors the changes occurring within the Catholic Church at that time that led up to and resulted in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, reforms that carried a profound resonance in America and emphasized the Catholic Church’s essential nature as a pilgrim church in the world.