With the death of Bruce Fingerhut a few weeks ago, on May 23, Christendom lost a great culture warrior; and I lost a dear friend and ally. Since he is not as well-known as he should be, a brief introduction to his life and legacy will be needed.
Bruce Fingerhut was born of Jewish parents in Washington, D.C., in 1943 and was raised in that religion. As a young man, he met his future wife, Laila Pedersen, on a date that had been arranged by his mother. They would be married for fifty-seven years and were blessed with four children, three sons and a daughter.
Bruce studied at the University of Maryland, earning a master’s degree in political philosophy. He then studied under the great political philosopher Gerhart Niemeyer at the University of Notre Dame, an experience that changed his life radically, precipitating his conversion to Catholicism. His background in philosophy, fortified by the theological grounding of his new-found faith, was the inspiration for his founding of St. Augustine’s Press in 1996, which has become one of the most important and pioneering Catholic publishers of our times.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Focusing primarily but not exclusively on philosophy and theology, St. Augustine’s Press would publish classic works by the great saints and thinkers of Christendom, as well as new books by some of the great writers and thinkers of our own day. Any effort to list these would result in a litany of authors of unwieldy length. This being so, we’ll restrict ourselves to an alphabetical list of the illustrissimi: Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Averroes, Brague, Feser, Gilson, Girard, Hildebrand, Kreeft, Marcel, Maritain, McInerny, Niemeyer, Pieper, Schall, Scruton, and Suárez.
Apart from arming a new generation of apologists with the hefty tomes of the great philosophers, which constitute the heavy artillery in the weaponry of the culture wars, Bruce could also be charmingly and endearingly quixotic in the titles he chose to publish. Take, for instance, I Surf, Therefore I Am, by Peter Kreeft, described as “the first book about surfing ever written by a philosopher”; or All Nature is a Sacramental Fire, a book of poetry by the political philosopher Michael Novak; or The Woman Who was Poor, Léon Bloy’s dark but redemptive novel about a Parisienne of the fin de siècle.
Bruce’s quixotic tendency to think outside the formulaic box led to the great friendship that I formed with him. Many moons ago, toward the end of 2009 to be precise, I found myself homeless—not personally but in my capacity as editor of the St. Austin Review, the Catholic cultural journal that I had edited since its launch in September 2001, the month of 9-11.
The StAR was being published by Ave Maria University, of which I was a faculty member. But the powers that be at the time decided that it was no longer something to which the university wished to continue to be committed. Faced with the journal’s imminent demise, I asked Bruce if St. Augustine’s Press could become the StAR’s publisher. To my surprise and delight, he agreed.
The first issue under Bruce’s patronage was published in January 2010, and he remained the publisher until the end of 2019, when ill-health forced him into semi-retirement and fewer responsibilities. Thankfully, another quixotic benefactor stepped in as publisher of the St. Austin Review. But I will forever be grateful for Bruce’s benevolence and his sense of adventure in partnering with me in the publishing of a journal which was and is a labor of love.
Bruce also published two of my books. First, in 2014, he published Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture, a volume of essays for which Cardinal Raymond Burke wrote a foreword. Then, in 2017, he displayed his quixotically adventurous spirit in agreeing to publish a work of mine which is at least as “outside the box” as Peter Kreeft’s book on the philosophical aspects of surfing. Its genre-defying and pigeon-hole denying credentials are evident in its title: Death Comes for the War Poets: A Verse Tapestry woven for dramatic and narrative effect by Joseph Pearce, Featuring the work of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Believe it or not, this convoluted title, twenty-seven words in length, was actually the abbreviated version of the title. The full title, which was given on the title page within the book itself, is much longer: Death Comes for the War Poets: A Verse Tapestry, Being a Dramatic Presentation of the Poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, with cameo appearances by Thomas Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Rupert Brooke, Edith Sitwell, and Joseph Pearce, Arranged for dramatic and narrative effect by Joseph Pearce. That’s fifty-one words!
Considering the sheer oddness and eccentric eclecticism of Death Comes for the War Poets, to give it an abbreviated and therefore manageable name, it is easy to see why I would have had serious doubts about the prospects of finding anyone willing to publish it. Where would one place it in the catalogue? How would one market it? Even were one able to market it, who would want to buy it? I’m sure that all these questions ran through Bruce’s mind, but it never fazed him.
You can imagine my great relief and deep sense of gratitude when he took the leap of faith in such a strange oddity of a work. (Incidentally, and as a brief tangential aside, I am equally grateful to Fr. Peter Cameron and Peter Dobbins for producing and directing Death Comes for the War Poets for its short theatrical run at the Sheen Center, off-Broadway, also in 2017.)
Although Bruce and I corresponded and spoke on the phone on numerous occasions, we only met a handful of times, usually on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The last time we met was at a gathering of “Catholic thinkers and artists,” assembled at the behest of our mutual friend Michael Novak, on the campus of Ave Maria University in Florida. It would have been around 2015.
My most treasured memory of the few days we spent together in Florida was a game of chess that I had with another attendee, our mutual friend Peter Kreeft, in which, to my great surprise, I held my own. Reaching stalemate with a mind as brilliant as Professor Kreeft’s is a claim to fame that I intend to trumpet to the hills!
As for my final thoughts on the passing of Bruce Fingerhut, which will encompass my memories of him and my deepest gratitude for all that he did for me, I keep coming back to the adjective which I’ve used repeatedly heretofore. Bruce was quixotic in the best sense of the word. He was always up for an adventure. He was willing to do the unexpected and to explore new approaches to publishing and to defending the Faith. Bruce was quixotic in the best sense of the word. He was always up for an adventure. He was willing to do the unexpected and to explore new approaches to publishing and to defending the Faith.Tweet This
Like the allegorical figure of Reason in C.S. Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress, he was like a knight in the shining armor of truth who went to battle with the monstrous Spirit of the Age. Bringing his philosophical lance into play, he was always tilting at perceived enemies which were not mere windmills but were real-life dragons.
After these final thoughts comes the final prayer. I can do no better than the words with which Horatio prays over the dead body of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s philosopher prince:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!