Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a short post on John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me. Fr. Longenecker hadn’t known until recently that Griffin was Catholic. Most people don’t – nor do they know that he was the author of a very Catholic novel.
It’s called The Devil Rides Outside. I read it several years ago when I was editor of the Loyola Classics series – the series of at-that-moment out of print and obtainable mid-century Catholic-themed fiction.
I have lots of interesting stories to tell about the books we were able to get and those we weren’t. Perhaps I’ll do a blog post over the weekend about some of them. It was really a very interesting job.
Anyway, I learned about Griffin’s novel and obtained a well-worn paperback with quite a lurid cover, and started it with high hopes. This will be great, I thought – bringing back into print the novel by figure so well-known for one part of his life and work and completely unknown in the present for this one.
At the time he wrote it (the late 1940’s) Griffin, not yet Catholic (he was Episcopalian) was suffering from blindness caused by an injury he suffered while in the military in Europe during World War II. He would be healed of the blindness in 1957.
Griffin was an accomplished and knowledgeable musicologist, and had spent time at Solesmes Abbey exploring both religious vocation and chant. This novel came out of that experience.
It’s a fascinating piece of work – heated and intense, a confessional novel of a young man’s struggle to find God as he’s pulled between life in the monastery and outside.
In an interesting twist, the novel played a role in overturning censorship laws. In 1954, Pocket Books decided to use the book to test Michigan’s censorship statutes. It had been banned there because of Griffin’s (for the time) frank sexual scenes. The case reached the Supreme Court which decided that censorship laws that were explicitly intended to protect the young were unconstitutional since the consequence of such laws was denying anyone access to these materials, not just the young.
My take? I probably need to read it again, because that first reading was done with a specific purpose in mind: would this have general appeal to a 21st century audience? So back then, with that in mind I decided…no. It was certainly interesting – that’s why I say I think I’d like to read it again – but on the whole I found it just a bit overheated, too long, a little hysterical and caricaturish in its portrayal of women. It’s mainly interesting for the portrait of monastic life – and this is one of the reasons I read even not-“classic” fiction with Catholic themes: you get little glimpses of Catholic history without the academic overlay.
But wouldn’t it be awesome to republish it with this cover?