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Thursday, April 26, 2012 03:30 pm

Springfield visited

Novelist Evelyn Waugh lectures the capital in 1949

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Evelyn Waugh
Photo BY CARL VAN VECHTEN
No doubt some members of the of the Springfield Diocesan Council of Catholic Women settled into their seats at the Centennial Auditorium in March 1949 looking forward to being instructed by their invited guest on the writers and converted Catholics G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox and Graham Greene. I suspect more of them came to learn more about the guest, the English novelist Evelyn Waugh.

A few years previous, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited had been published. The novel was damned by most critics as a mere Catholic tract and thus the least of his novels, and embraced by many U.S. readers as his best. Not that Waugh put much stock in the opinion of either set of readers. When an American woman in England approached him to tell him that Brideshead was one of the best books she’d ever read, Waugh replied, “I thought it was good myself, but now that I know that a vulgar, common American woman like yourself admires it, I am not so sure.”

Waugh seems to have been in a sunnier humor during his brief stay in Springfield. He told a reporter for the Illinois State Register that he had undertaken the lecture tour of which the Springfield talk was part so that he might see the Midwest. It is possible that readers believed it. His real reason for visiting the Midwest was less flattering to his hosts, and even less flattering to Waugh. Officially, Waugh was in the U.S. on assignment for Life magazine. A lapsed Anglican, Waugh was to report on the state of his adopted church among the immigrants of America. He was less interested in reporting on America – he wrote his old friend and fellow novelist Nancy Mitford, “There is nothing to say except that Americans are louts and that Catholic Americans are just a little better than panglossist Americans” – than he was in getting away from a postwar England in which food, fuel, clothing was still rationed. A trip also promised time away from his five young children – a happy prospect to a man who regarded time spent with his children as time wasted.

The proprietors of Life certainly did not ration his travel allowance, which was the equivalent of some $30,000 to cover a seven-week stay. Waugh’s research consisted of being wined and dined at a succession of Catholic colleges. There, in these caravansaries in the vast desert that was America, he could count on congenial company at least. Wrote Arthur Jones of the National Catholic Reporter in Notre Dame magazine, “It is unlikely Waugh actually met an immigrant, unless one happened to wait on him in a restaurant or on a train.”

Why Waugh stopped at Springfield is unclear. Apart from a talk in New York City to benefit a Catholic priory, Springfield was the only one of his dozen talks that was not delivered to a college audience. It seems likely that his presence owed to the late Hugh Garvey, owner of Templegate, the Springfield-based independent religious book publisher Garvey founded in 1947 and which remains a presence on Adams west of Fourth. Garvey was well-known among Catholic writers and thinkers, and was on friendly terms with the often irascible Waugh. (Garvey would later recall to Jones that Waugh was “unremittingly decent....absolutely the opposite of what others saw in him, and saw quite rightly.”) An invitation from Garvey to visit Springfield, should Waugh find himself in the neighborhood, would have carried weight.

The local papers gave only a perfunctory account of the talk. Reports of his appearances at other stops on the tour have him speaking entertainingly. Certainly Waugh had interesting things to say about his lecture subjects, being personal friends with two of them and a biographer of the third. However, nothing interests townspeople hosting visiting celebrities more than the celebrity’s opinion of the old hometown. Waugh kept a personal diary from age 7 until he died at 62, with only rare breaks. One of those breaks, unfortunately, encompassed his time on tour.

Waugh used his diary in part to record impressions that he would later convert into fiction, and those impressions would not likely have been good ones. The Springfield Waugh found in 1949 was essentially the city described two years earlier by writer Elise Morrow for the Saturday Evening Post – “an overgrown prairie village...something between a backward country settlement and a cosmopolis,” a place “so little disposed to civic progress that...gambling and prostitution blossom like the rose,” leaving the capital with “probably the largest collection of taverns, joints, and low dives functioning in any city of less than 100,000 population in the country.”

Waugh’s travels to Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia) and to Los Angeles inspired (or perhaps excited) the savagely comic novels Black Mischief and The Loved One, respectively. Springfield patriots should probably rejoice that Waugh did not pick up his pen that night after seeing Springfield and make the city famous as the hero of a further addition to the literature of derision.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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