Marion Montgomery Befriends a Young Writer
In the spring of 2007, I interviewed Marion Montgomery for a story I was writing on “Bible-belt Catholicism” for the Catholic weekly publication Our Sunday Visitor (OSV). My editor gave me a list of people that I should interview for the story—people mostly associated with publications under the OSV umbrella. Mr. Montgomery wasn’t on the list. She instructed me to try to include something about Flannery O’Connor and to “try and have fun with it.” She would later regret her last instruction because I delivered over 3000 words that were much different than what she had in mind. She had to rewrite the entire story on deadline.
That makes it sound like Mr. Montgomery led me off on a tangent that upset my editor. I had already gone off on a tangent with the story before I called Mr. Montgomery. Actually, it was because I was off on a tangent that I called him in the first place. Still, I encountered him by chance.
I couldn’t sleep one night, so I was up flipping through the pages of First Things. Except, I don’t subscribe to First Things, and I can’t remember how I got that issue. They must have sent me a promotional copy, but there was a review of his book, Hillbilly Thomist.
I’ll apologize in advance for including more information about myself in this essay than I would like. Think of me as a piece of clay fortunate enough to have Mr. Montgomery’s imprint on it. The best I can do is describe the imprint he left behind, why the clay was soft enough to receive the impression, and why it remained. It’s also the only way that I can explain how reading the title of a book in the middle of the night lead to my writing three stories about Mr. Montgomery in one year. And for good measure, I used him as the primary source for another article I wrote on Nathanial Hawthorne. Of the countless people I’ve interviewed for stories over the years, he is the only one that I can say became a friend. I regret that I was never able to meet him in person or take him up on his offer to visit him and Dorothy down in Crawford. Still, we exchanged a number of letters and talked on the telephone several times.
I used to love getting his letters typed on the old 1925 Remington manual typewriter with hand-written notes in the margin. I’d have to approach his letters like a poem—read several times and left to linger in my brain for a few days before I fully understood what he was saying. Sometimes a manuscript would come with the letter. Usually it was a new chapter of a book he was working on. I’ve kept them all in a file.
Regarding his typewriter he told me one time, “It’s not that I object to laptops, I’m just not comfortable with them. I like the feel, the noise, and the immediate piece of paper with words on it that I get from a manual typewriter.” Mr. Montgomery was not alone in praising the virtues of manual typewriters. On the Internet, I found there’s a whole movement out there that contends that electronic word processing has destroyed our ability to write. These people also post pictures of their old typewriters. Mr. Montgomery was amused and quick to pick-up on the irony of an on-line community of users of manual typewriters.
I find it funny that he lived out in the country and used a manual typewriter, but he was the most “plugged-in” person I ever met. Two quick examples, I’m a generally healthy person, but one time I had a flu that caused me to miss a whole week of work. On the first day that I was home sick, I received a package in the mail from him that contained his book Possum and Other Receits for the Recovery of “Southern” Being. Staying in bed reading that book was an ideal way to ride out a flu.
The second time occurred during Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.S. in 2008. I was reading the pope’s talks and homilies on-line to follow his visit. In one of his talks, Pope Benedict referred to Nathanial Hawthorne’s description of stained-glass windows, but didn’t mention the name of the book. That very same day I received a letter from Mr. Montgomery talking about Hawthorne’s descriptions of stained-glass windows in the Marble Fawn. Cell phone companies talk about the speed of their 3G and 4G networks. Mr. Montgomery was on a network that operated on a completely different speed. His letter lead to an article on Hawthorne.
Before meeting Mr. Montgomery, I either had a hope or an intuition that someone like him existed. I’ve always been a bit different. My parents prefer the word “unique.” It didn’t seem possible that there wasn’t anyone else on my wavelength because I’d at least caught glimpses.
I’ve acquired much of my “informal education” chasing my love for music. It wouldn’t be untrue to say that I graduated from a Jesuit university in Pennsylvania in 1993 with a degree in rock and roll. My transcript says that I majored in English and had minors in history and philosophy. But really, I listened to music with my friends, wrote about it for the school newspaper, and played in bands. I didn’t live the “rock and roll” life however. I ran cross- country and went to daily mass.
Looking back, I was pretty fortunate in my formal education also. The English professors I had in college stuck closely to the text. I think I heard the word “postmodern” a few times in the James Joyce class I took in my junior year. “Critical Theory” was alien to me. My philosophy professors assigned books by Pieper and Gilson.
My like-minded musical friends found that bands that came from the South were the ones we liked. There was a difference between country music, which we found you had to strain with a fine-tooth comb to find the good stuff, and being southern. Bands from the South didn’t have to be country or even country-influenced, but they had a worldview that was different from what we had grown up with in suburban New Jersey. Southern bands, like R.E.M. to name the most famous, wrote actual songs that wouldn’t sound out of place between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The music had a truthfulness and transparency to it. You could hear their influences. They weren’t afraid of their tradition. (As the journalist Dave Barry would say, “I’m not making this up.” If it didn’t really happen, I would say that going from independent bands from the South in the early 1990s to the tradition of southern literature would be a stretch.) The bands we didn’t like usually came from northern metro areas and were either preachy world savers who spoke down to their audience or were trying to be weird for the sake of being weird to the point of being un-listenable; Sonic Youth being the most representative offender. When Mr. Montgomery started telling me about “matters southern,” I knew what he was talking about. I had never heard it articulated or applied to other subjects such as literature or education. Now I had a tool to be critical.
That still doesn’t explain why Hillbilly Thomist caught my eye. The year before coming into contact with Mr. Montgomery, I had been investigating Ph. D. programs. I wanted to study the intersection between religion and music. I thought jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams would make an interesting subject. She worked with Duke Ellington and was a convert to Catholicism. She was a friend of Cardinal John Wright who was friends with Jacques Maritain. I had begun digging for a connection between Williams and the neo-Thomists. I had acquainted myself with my wife’s copy of Anton Pegis’s Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas and an on-line version of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism.
Luckily, I didn’t get accepted. It would have been tough raising our kids living in a cardboard box under a bridge. I had also burned out on jazz and was on a serious country music kick anyway. Thanks to my new iPod, I was able to listen to country singer Dwight Yoakam for several hours everyday. I loved his second album called “Hillbilly Deluxe.”
I didn’t know at the time that Flannery O’Connor had coined the phrase “hillbilly Thomist,” but when I saw the two words sitting next to each other as the title of a book, I just had to meet the person who wrote it. When I was writing my “Bible-belt Catholicism” story, I had as my secret agenda to find a Catholic angle on country music. It was like I was looking for a hamburger but ended up with a 16-ounce rib-eye steak. So I called Mr. Montgomery’s publisher, McFarland, and asked for his e-mail address. The publisher told me that Mr. Montgomery didn’t use e-mail, but he’d be happy to talk to me, and she gave me his phone number.
Ironically, the only part of my original story that made it to print in OSV was my interview with Mr. Montgomery—as a sidebar on Flannery O’Connor. The first time we talked our conversation lasted well over an hour. I had expected a few nice quotes about O’Connor, but I ended up getting an education. After we were done talking, I e-mailed my editors at the National Catholic Register and Catholic World Report (a publication he subscribed to) and pitched them stories about Mr. Montgomery. I was ready to shout his name from the rooftops. How was it that I had never heard of him before? Why didn’t anyone tell me!
I lost control of my interview with him almost immediately. Remember, I just wanted some quotes about Flannery O’Connor. He mentioned something about Robert Penn Warren. I asked, “Who?”
“You’ve never heard of Robert Penn Warren? How about John Crowe Ransom?”
“Is there a book I should read for background and give you a call back?” I asked?
It seemed like the list went on and on, and I was feeling dumber and dumber. All that time I spent listening to music when I should have been reading.
Then he asked, “Josef Pieper?” Ding! Yes, I’d read a number of his books.
Mr. Montgomery breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Mark, what have you been doing? You need to get busy.”
I didn’t feel cut down by the remark. Quite the opposite—I felt it was an extension of friendship. He viewed other people as wonderful creations by God, and that God provided everyone with the special graces that they needed to carry out their individual tasks in life. It was all a show that he loved to watch. He just had to find out where I was coming from so that he could “muddy the waters” as he used to tell his students. Once the water was muddy, “they would have to wade around and wait for the water to clear. As it clears, you see deeper and deeper into it,” he said.
To talk to Mr. Montgomery and to read his books demands a lot from the audience. I’d like to meet the person who can read his books without having to look up background on some of his references to historical figures or literary characters. I remember waiting months to get Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home and Why Hawthorne was Melancholy through interlibrary loan. When the books showed up, all fifteen pounds, I had to humbly accept that with my day job and young children it would be a long time before I would read them--as interesting as they sounded. It can be frustrating, but all of the great teachers I’ve had in my life have frustrated me. I think it’s a necessary step in the never-ending process of being educated.
A few times a year I’ll get an e-mail with the subject line, “Marion Montgomery.” A friend of a friend of a friend had given them my e-mail address because they were interested in Mr. Montgomery and couldn’t find the articles I’d written on the Internet. I send them the Microsoft Word versions of my stories. We usually end up exchanging several e-mails in the process. There are people out there that have read all of Mr. Montgomery’s books and collect first editions as well. I take great comfort knowing that.
I guess what sticks with me the most about Mr. Montgomery was the ease at which he dealt with what he knew and what he didn’t know. Scholars and experts seem to spend a lot of time qualifying their answers to remain within their area of authority. In other words, the truth can’t stand on it’s own. You have to be “qualified” in order to make a statement of truth. Mr. Montgomery could separate the truth from merely information. It could be a difficult and messy process, but he saw it as a game.
I remember he ended one of our phone conversations, “See what happens when you ask questions? You open up a can of worms and then you go fishing and you don’t know what fish you’ll catch. Which takes us back to our metaphor for that little group the St. Thomas Aquinas and Rabbit Hunters Club. [He was referring to the reading group he belonged to back in the 1950s where he first heard about Flannery O’Connor.] When you get into St. Thomas you jump more rabbits than you can chase down. It confuses the dogs.”
I’ve never hunted rabbits, but I knew what he meant. And I’m also grateful that he wrote so many books because anytime I want to hear his voice, all I have to do is pull a book off the shelf and start reading.