Gaze Without Wavering: Louise Cowan and the Literary Forms of Truth

Objecting to the phrase “Catholic fiction,” the distinguished Catholic literary critic and teacher Louise Cowan writes, “We don’t really speak of Dante’s Divine Comedy as Catholic writing. For the very term implies something less than the serious pursuit of an art for its own sake. I’m with Cardinal Newman on that point: truth must be sought in itself, for it’s larger and more complex than any of us could think up. Our own ready-made formulas are not equal to it. Christ is the startling (and as Saint Paul says, ‘scandalous’) example of our inability to recognize truth if we follow prescriptions. The Pharisees were the most learned of the Jewish scholars; yet because reality did not take the form their minds dictated, they failed to recognize the living truth before them.”

This is not to say, of course, that great literature, to which Cowan has dedicated her life, disposes one to the “scandalous” simply, or leads to heresy. Rather, great poetry—whether or not its author is Catholic—can bring one closer to achieving a caritas and wisdom that can gaze without wavering into the living truth of great suffering and great joy.

In the 40 years since Louise Cowan began teaching as a graduate student at Vanderbilt, she has never ceased to find in poetry the occasion for an experience—not simply a discussion—of this caritas and wisdom. Honored by President Bush in 1992 with one of five Charles Frankel prizes awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, recipient of many other citations for excellence in teaching and service to education, she tends to affect skeptics in the same way that the great preacher George Whitefield did Benjamin Franklin. Listening to her voice, with its almost uncanny Orphic ability to draw the heart out of hiding, even the most obdurate cynics begin to be softened. She bears with her, in her deep, uncompromising seriousness about the import of literature, a kind of implicit imperative to transform one’s life.

“If we do recognize this as a God-created universe, even though fallen,” she writes, “then aren’t we obliged to acknowledge that the laws of human suffering and loving will be the same for the close observer whatever his persuasion? The art of fiction is fiction, as mathematics is mathematics. The color blue does not change for our beliefs. And just as math and science are governed by accuracy about quantities—measurable entities—so literature is governed by accuracy about qualities. Love, joy, fear, envy—these are all part of the fallen human being; and these are what true ‘poets’ discern, wherever they appear” (emphasis added).

During the heart of her career at the University of Dallas, from 1959 until 1980, she and her husband Donald Cowan (physicist and president of the University from 1962 to 1977) worked to transform a diocesan college of modest ambitions in Irving, Texas, into one of the finest Catholic universities in the nation, one whose graduates now occupy leadership positions in some of the most respected Catholic colleges and universities in America. Literature became a central part of its curriculum, much more so than at most universities, largely because of Louise Cowan’s background. She did her doctoral work at Vanderbilt with Donald Davidson, one of the original Fugitive Group in the 1920s (a group that included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, all of whom were instrumental in the “New Criticism” of the 1930s).

Cowan’s study of that genial but tough-minded com-munity of creative and critical talents eventually led to a book (The Fugitive Group: A Literary History, 1959) that came out during the Cowans’ first semester at the University of Dallas. The book established Cowan as the major authority on the Fugitives just as she ended her years at Texas Christian University (alma mater of both Cowans) and assumed the leadership of the English Department at Dallas.

The conclusions of her study would be pressed into service in her new work. Cowan’s book demonstrated unmistakably that the origins of the transformation of the American literary landscape brought about by the New Critics had less to do with the chance association of individual geniuses than with their years of meeting together, discussing each other’s poetry, and honing their poetic and critical techniques. The origin of their immense collective effect, in other words, was a communal world that already existed. To be sure, their discovery of this world stemmed from their literary thinking, but it was in itself a phenomenon whose sources lay in the reality of an American South caricatured and mocked by such figures as H. L. Mencken. As Cowan said in a lecture at Mercer University (later published in the Georgia Review as “The Communal World of Southern Literature”), the South is a place “in which everyone might be cousins and therefore a world in which the concept of the stranger has little place. In short, it is a world bound together by a genuine culture and so possessed of diversity within unity; and chief among its distinctions is the capacity to engender among its members the ideals of love and loyalty.”

The South and Catholicism

As early as 1930, Allen Tate had recognized that this “communal world” of the South had an intimate inner relation to Catholicism, and that the South was in very real ways the cultural heir of a way of life more typical of the Middle Ages than of a more individualistic, not to say atomistic, modernity. By the early 1950s, both Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, had converted to Catholicism, and Cowan saw, particularly in Gordon’s novels, a movement from nature to grace that paralleled and informed her own intellectual and spiritual movement toward Catholicism.

“I had long admired her writing as the work of a committed Catholic who had heroically followed her calling: to render the highest possible justice to the universe, as Joseph Conrad once put it. She never allowed herself any leeway in the requisites for her art: in technique, knowledge, or vision.” In 1956, Cowan published an essay called “Nature and Grace in Caroline Gordon,” a work whose implicit argument is that the completion of the Fugitive Group, in at least one of its dimensions, was the rediscovery of the Christian tradition in Catholicism. By the late 1950s, the Cowans’ conversion, and (perhaps more tellingly) the fact that people who associated with them tended to convert to Catholicism, made their presence at a Protestant college increasingly problematic.

The move from TCU to the University of Dallas in 1959, just as The Fugitive Group appeared, was thus timely and providential. As chairman of the English Department, Louise Cowan set about restructuring the curriculum but also evoking that world in which “the concept of the stranger has little place.” Dr. Robert S. Dupree, one of Cowan’s early students at the University of Dallas and now a full professor at that institution, says that “the most memorable part of my undergraduate experience with them was the gatherings at their house, and the excitement of being taken seriously, of being allowed to enter discourse on a high intellectual plane and treated almost as an equal. I was provided an image of the intellectual as thoughtful, dedicated, sociable, and, above all, enthusiastic and not afraid to be perceived as excited by ideas.” The work that Cowan undertook was by no means limited to this communal dimension, as if good feeling alone were enough. But with the example of the Fugitives fresh in her mind, she knew that the intellectual level she and her husband hoped to foster would be im¬possible to sustain without a communal atmosphere that engendered “love and loyalty.” Within a year, she had rethought the English department and devised the Literary Tradition sequence. Not only did this new curriculum scrap the traditional freshman composition and rhetoric course, but, to the scandal of some outside the department who thought that the poem was too difficult for beginning students, it included the Waste Land in the freshman year. Homer, Virgil, and Dante replaced composition readers and grammar handbooks, even though Cowan had to hold seminars in the department to prepare her staff—who had all received traditional English and American literature graduate training—to teach these classic texts.

Clearly, Cowan was not so much enshrining the New Criticism that came from the original Fugitive Group and its aftermath as she was continuing the work of transforming the way literature was taught. Caroline Gordon, for one, recognized precisely this accomplishment.

“We invited [Gordon] to speak at the University of Dallas, and she was immediately struck with the atmosphere and the students,” writes Cowan. “Startled that any campus nowadays was abuzz with references to Homer and Virgil, she began immediately to think of ways of allying herself with us. I held her in the highest honor and so of course was thrilled at the possibility of her coming to U.D. to teach. At the airport, when she was waiting for departure, she and I sketched out on a paper napkin just what it would take to establish an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University. And before her plane had taken off, we had worked it out. It was to be an intensive course in reading, for isn’t that what every writer needs more than anything else? She herself would teach a course in the ‘Techniques of Fiction,’ but all the other courses would be in the masterpieces taught by our regular staff: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare—these were to be the materials for the young writer’s storehouse.”

Teaching the Tradition

Out of these same materials in the Literary Tradition sequence came a whole literary theory of genre, based on the experience of teaching these works semester after semester. Cowan’s “genre theory” has a large, luminous simplicity. It is not concerned with the particular mode of presentation that often defines literary genres in current us-age (such as “drama” and “fiction”). From Aristotle’s Poetics, which proved to be the text that most bore out her experience of teaching the tradition, she drew the four principal genres or “kinds” of poetry: tragedy, comedy, epic, and lyric. Each genre has a characteristic movement that is not so much a matter of convention and imitation (as in neo-classical “rules”) as of the most fundamental dispositions to action in the human soul. The same outer event— say, a father finding out that his daughter has eloped—can be tragic or comic, depending on the inner action of the work. Iago’s awakening of Brabantio in Othello plays on many a fooled father’s comic situation, but its tone and meaning have the unmistakable marks of tragedy. Paradoxically, the genre theory becomes most useful in criticism when a work is something not easily classifiable in Aristotle’s terms. The interpretation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, for example, changes radically if one reads it as what Cowan calls “infernal comedy” rather than as tragedy. The genre theory allows one to find the analogues to the tone and action of Flaubert’s novel in such works as Dante’s Inferno (very much part of the Divine “Comedy”), Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or Machiavelli’s Mandragola.

Discussed in the abstract, such considerations sound typically academic, and they do little to convey the effect of this thought on those who seriously undertake it. In her book The Southern Critics (1971), Cowan explains— in another context—the actual import of her own teaching:

Poetry cannot, as Matthew Arnold fondly hoped, take the place of religion in a world profoundly in need of a sense of the sacred. It cannot by itself produce myth, or symbol, or a sound moral and political order. What it can do—when fully understood and articulated—is to restore human feeling. It can become a discipline for that ordering of the soul that the Greeks called paideia.

Understanding the genre of a work yields the “accuracy about qualities” mentioned earlier, an accomplishment that both follows from and informs intellectual apprehension. Because the action of the novel occurs in an infernally comic world where the Devil (Monsieur Homais) runs the local pharmacy, the death of Emma Bovary (however horrible it is) would be inaccurately felt as tragic, unlike Desdemona’s; inaccurate feeling would lead to critical misunderstanding.

A Public Vocation

Louise Cowan was Chairman of the English Department at the University of Dallas from 1959 until 1970, then Dean of the Braniff Graduate School of the Humanities and Director of the Institute of Philosophic Studies from 1973-7. When the Cowans left the University of Dallas in 1980, it had a thriving undergraduate program and a growing, increasingly respected graduate school; at that point, both of them thought that their careers in education were essentially over. But by 1983, Louise Cowan had seen from her work at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture that she needed to direct her attention to the terrible—and typical—problems of public education in Dallas, and she did so by approaching the problem just as she had done 20 years earlier with the English department. She devised a Summer Institute for Teachers, wrote a grant proposal, secured funding for a two-year program in 1984-5, then again for 1986, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and set about to scrap anything that smacked of the usual soul-numbing in-service meetings required for certification. She made sure that the participants were provided with excellent food and many opportunities for conversation; she and her faculty fostered a sense of self-respect in the participants with what Cowan calls the “alchemy of praise.” But most importantly, she and her faculty began teaching the teachers the greatest works of the tradition. By the late 1980s, a Teachers’ Academy had been independently funded at the Dallas Institute, and the yearly sessions went on.

Two collections of essays by Cowan and her students, a number of whom were teaching with her in the summers at the Dallas Institute, came out of her continuing work with genre: The Terrain of Comedy (1984) and The Epic Cosmos (1992), edited by Larry Allums, with Cowan as general editor. A third collection stems from yet another innovative project, this one undertaken with her husband Donald. Called “A Principals’ Institute: World Classics and Educational Leadership,” this program did for principals in public schools what the other summer institutes had done for teachers. In the three institutes held from 1989 to 1991, almost every principal in the Dallas Independent School District studied leadership—not out of management textbooks, but by thinking about Odysseus and Henry V, Prometheus and King Lear. Just published by the Dallas Institute Press (with a grant from the Texas Committee for the Humanities), Classic Texts and the Nature of Authority recreates the experience, including the texts of three lectures by Louise Cowan.

These summer institutes were not one-way affairs, merely matters of bestowing riches on the beleaguered veterans of the public school classroom, but occasions of continuing discovery. “We had studied Faulkner’s Light in August in the summer institute,” she writes, “and I had pointed out that one of its characters, Gail Hightower, a retired Presbyterian minister, was a good man who, after he had been seriously wronged, had withdrawn from society and resisted being brought back into the current of life, even to help a friend. ‘I won’t,’ he declares, ‘I have paid.’ And his friend replies, ‘Maybe the good have to pay more.’

“One of our students, a beautiful African-American woman named Duane Emejulu, loved Faulkner’s novel. But she failed to see the importance of Gail Hightower as the spiritual center of the work, as I had called him. One day the following fall she left a book and a note on my doorstep. The book was Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the note said simply, Now I understand Gail Hightower.’

“It didn’t take me long to find in a character named Stamp Paid the same elevated figure as Faulkner’s man of God. But it took me even less time to find in Morrison’s work a classic of the first order. We started incorporating Beloved into every course in tragedy and comedy we taught; and we began our campaign of trying to make influential people see that Morrison is not simply a black woman writer: she is, after Faulkner, the greatest twentieth-century American author. Her winning the Nobel Prize vindicates our faith in literary judgment.”

The Form of Existence

“I have never known anyone,” writes Robert S. Dupree, “who has continued to reassess and develop her ideas and interests the way Louise Cowan has. One has the impression of a person always open to new explora-ions, always ready to take seriously ideas or works that deserve to be given that attention.” But her attention is not limited to ideas. Larry Allums, Chairman of the English Department at Mobile University, adds, “The ‘secret’ that Louise possesses, as it is revealed to those who finally (for whatever reason) come to see, is shockingly clear and simple: every human life can possess a form—is intended by God to do so. For her, this is the essential truth of existence, crystallized in Christ and embellished or reflected in every other cultural myth. Every human life must, if it is to experience the fullness of joy and suffering intended by God, come to be lived as poesis, shaped and informed by the great and memorable images of story.”

Cowan was recently named Editorial Director of a major new project, The Trinity Forum Guide to the Classics. According to Trinity Forum Project Director Dr. Os Guinness, the Guide “will be a lavishly illustrated, one- volume introduction to a selection of Western literary classics, chosen and interpreted from a Christian perspective.” In .a time of anxiety and loss of direction in the teaching of literature, the work of Louise Cowan affords a clear continuity with the best of the tradition. Most importantly, however, it demonstrates that a continuing openness to the “accuracy about qualities”—wherever that accuracy is found—keeps the tradition centered in vital hope.


  • Glenn C. Arbery

    Glenn C. Arbery is Director of the Teachers Academy and Professor of Literature at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. He has taught literature at Kennesaw State College, The University of St. Thomas in Houston, and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire. A poet and critic, he has written on a range of classic texts, and his essays have been included in a number of collections.

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