Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Patricia Appelbaum's "St. Francis of America"

Patricia Appelbaum, an independent scholar of religion and American culture, is author of Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era. Her new book is St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America's Most Popular Saint.

Appelbaum applied the “Page 99 TestIs Ford Madox Ford’s statement “Open the book to page 99 and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you,” accurate for your book?to St. Francis of America and reported the following:
My first response was, “Goodness, I hope not.” Page 99 is mostly just descriptive. It begins in the middle of a sketch of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel about Francis and continues with an outline of Elizabeth Goudge’s narrative biography of him. Certainly these are two very different accounts of Francis, and if the reader looks back at page 98, or goes on to page 100, it will be clear that both works challenge sentimental stereotypes about him. So to that extent, the descriptions do suggest something about the whole book, which argues that interpretations of Francis have varied more than most people realize, and that many constructions of Francis are countercultural critiques. But page 99 doesn’t include much historical interpretation, analysis, context, new insights, or advancement of my thesis – nothing to move it past a description of one thing after another, though I hope it’s a clear and engaging description.

On further reflection, though, I wonder if “quality” of the whole means its character or nature, rather than its overall structure and purpose, or its value and merit. From that perspective, page 99 reveals a good deal. It shows that I like to use close readings of texts and that I think individual texts can tell us a lot about cultural currents. It shows that I provide some sense of the literary and theological contexts of these writings, though it misses my references to historical and social matrices, to say nothing of visual art and material culture, or practice and action.

Even better, it shows how drastically the various visions of Francis can differ. Kazantzakis’s Francis affirms the goodness in nature but tries to transcend it; Goudge’s Francis finds God in it. Kazantzakis muses on sex and eating while Goudge thinks about the human spiritual journey. Goudge’s Francis works through struggle and sin toward mystical union with God. Kazantzakis’s God looks at all of Francis’s desperate efforts and screams “Not enough!”

So page 99 supports one of my guiding questions to the reader: What is missing from your vision of Francis? In other words, how is it partial or limited? How might you enlarge and complicate it in light of the history of interpretation?
Learn more about St. Francis of America at the University of North Carolina Press website and Patricia Appelbaum's blog.

Writers Read: Patricia Appelbaum.

--Marshal Zeringue