Guest blogger Scott McLemee writes a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs and contributes to Newsday, Bookforum, the Boston Globe, and other publications. In 2004, he received the National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, who works for the Library of Congress. His one piece of advice to young writers is: "Marry a reference librarian."
A Rebel and a Gentleman
One of my back-burner projects is preparing a new edition of Eighty Years a Rebel, a short book from 1949 by Joseph McCabe.
The author deserves better than oblivion that swallowed him up even before his death in 1955. Raised in Victorian England amidst Dickensian circumstances, McCabe became a monk as a teenager, only to find himself tormented by doubts about his faith. He wrestled long and hard — for twelve years, in fact —and finally left the church, only to wage a sort of one-man crusade against all religion.
I made a very brief sketch of his life and work last year in my first column for The Philosophers' Magazine. To be candid, McCabe's anti-religious polemics don't interest me all that much in themselves. My teenage gusto for that sort of argument has waned, over time. And yet I find myself proselytizing on McCabe's behalf -- which does seem kind of paradoxical, come to think of it.
The fascination he exerts has less to do with his beliefs (or lack of them) than his energy and style. He was absolutely tireless in his efforts to unify and popularize contemporary knowledge (much of it now out of date, of course) -- driven by an Edwardian conviction that the world could be set right if people just start thinking a bit more clearly.
This is invigorating, in small doses anyway, even if you can't quite share his faith, if that is the appropriate word to use for it. You get a taste of some of McCabe's distinctive qualities -- his humor, his vigor, the mind-boggling range of just how much he knew -- in this pamphlet. But it is the autobiography he published at the age of 80 that best conveys his personality, so getting the book back in print after all these years seems like a personal mission.
By my calculation, Joseph McCabe published the equivalent of three or four large books each year for about six decades running. Whenever I start thinking of myself as prolific -- and in doing so indulge the deadly sin of Pride, though that was not much of a problem throughout August, when Sloth took over -- there is always that shelf of his books to keep things in perspective.