Inspires American Readers

During the Great Depression, while many Americans were turning in despair to mass political movements and charismatic leaders, Georges Bernanos’s story of an unprepossessing man who becomes a vehicle for God’s grace suggested that the answer lay elsewhere.

Summary of Event

George Bernanos’s 1936 novel Journal d’un curé de campagne, the winner of France’s Femina Prize and the Grand Prix of the Académie Française, became available in English translation as The Diary of a Country Priest in October, 1937. The book had been a great success in France, the author’s native country (although he wrote the work while living in Spain), but its focus on a Catholic priest’s struggles was more problematic in the United States. Could a literary work that sought to address the great problems of society through a Roman Catholic cleric’s eyes speak to a nation that had, within the past decade, rejected a Democratic candidate for president largely because of his membership in the Catholic Church? [kw]Diary of a Country Priest Inspires American Readers, The (Oct., 1937)
Diary of a Country Priest, The (Bernanos)
[g]France;Oct., 1937: The Diary of a Country Priest Inspires American Readers[09590]
[g]United States;Oct., 1937: The Diary of a Country Priest Inspires American Readers[09590]
[c]Literature;Oct., 1937: The Diary of a Country Priest Inspires American Readers[09590]
Bernanos, Georges

The Catholic press in the United States celebrated the work as emphatically as the French had. Bernanos’s most valuable praise came from John Kenneth Merton, Merton, John Kenneth who wrote for the lay Catholic weekly Commonweal. Merton characterized the book as “unusually touching and beautiful,” a work that, “despite its exquisite restraint, makes the reader breathless with intensity.” He called some of the characters “beautiful” and extolled the protagonist’s “spirit of heroism that is so perfect as not to be conscious of itself.” He further praised The Diary of a Country Priest as “a remarkable book, one written with beautiful art, full of a searching and delicate psychology, and revealing a simplicity so crystalline and a courage so humble as to lift what might have been a sordid tragedy to heroic heights.”

What of the American literary world outside the Catholic orbit? Would others also see the beauty of the work? The New York Times trumpeted the publication with a glowing review on the front page of its book review section in which Katherine Woods Woods, Katherine pronounced the novel to be a work of “deep, subtle and singularly encompassing art” likely to “fill a quite definite place in the interest of readers here.” Woods celebrated the work’s “greatness as creative art” and called it a “strange and sad, yet beautiful and triumphant, story.” Reviewers and critics for other publications also welcomed the work with high praise and suggested its import for the American audience.

However, the simplicity so often cited as the principal source of The Diary of a Country Priest’s value, when coupled with the Catholic focus, militated against the book’s success in the literary market. The book has little action and no excitement. Even Merton admitted that the work had “very little” plot “in the ordinary sense.” The novel consequently never made it onto any best seller lists, and it subsequently fell into relative obscurity. Even so, it remained available in English translation for more than fifty years and continued to draw praise from those who read it even decades after its initial publication.

What little action the novel contains takes place in an obscure French village. The protagonist is a young, frail, and dying Roman Catholic priest who is largely incapable of inspiring those around him and whose greatest attribute is the ability to absorb lectures from those seemingly more confident, secure, and wise than himself. The book consists of a series of these lectures (and the reflections they inspire) presented as discussions, bracketed between bouts of personal anxiety and small defeats. The plot develops from the reflections these experiences inspire. The work takes place within the individual priest’s consciousness as he grapples to comprehend his place and role in the largely unpleasant developments around him.

The priest comes new to his assignment in a small village and worries that the residents neither like nor respect him. His physical and social impairments sap his confidence and impede his efforts to relate to his parishioners; the parish children make fun of his efforts to teach them the faith he sometimes wonders if he still holds. The local merchant seems to take advantage of his impoverished state, and his peculiar diet of bread dipped in wine (necessitated by a growing stomach cancer) causes parishioners to suspect him of alcoholism.

Despite the unrelenting frustration the curate experiences in the town—perhaps because of it—he rises to heroic heights. His earnest ineffectualness and his genuine and seemingly losing battle with despair render him a transcendent hero to whom all who suffer can relate. Although he accomplishes no final feat that might render him “heroic” in the sense that many understand the term, his continued charity throughout his suffering suggests a spiritual triumph.


Contemporary American reviewers located the value of The Diary of a Country Priest in its transcendence of the French village setting and in the lessons the book provided for all who struggled in those turbulent times. Bernanos wrote as much about the world as he did about the tiny French village, and the young priest is not so much a denominational manifestation as a representative of every person searching for the good in a society steeped in despair and ugliness. The priest grapples with the very issues that consumed Americans in the late 1930’s, questions of social justice and human dignity. Bernanos located much of the cause of these concerns in the very institutions that were supposed to eliminate (or at least ameliorate) them: the Church and the community. The Church sought institutional survival rather than social salvation, and the community blunted and dwarfed its members rather than nurtured them.

If Bernanos seemed cynical about the ability of the Church and the community to solve serious social problems, he also suggested that individuals could successfully find solutions through inner, individual, efforts. Although the Church did not always foster virtue and dignity (and often seemed to impede the achievement of those aims), people could find such values in the world around them. The dying priest’s last words, spoken in answer to his friend’s concern that a priest will not arrive soon enough to provide final absolution, suggest an extrainstitutional route to salvation and dignity. The priest asks if it matters that he will not receive the Church’s final rite; he then answers his own question by noting that “grace is everywhere,” which is itself a teaching of the Church.

Bernanos, however, came to this conclusion slowly. He was born in the late nineteenth century, when many Frenchmen were divided over the issue of whether they owed their loyalty to the republic or to the monarchy and Church. Bernanos grew up strongly in the royal camp and was highly supportive of the Catholic Church in its struggle to regain preeminence. He developed this position from his early life experiences, such as his Jesuit education, and bolstered his monarchical bent with political commitments. He joined the reactionary Action Française movement and edited the royalist weekly L’Avant-garde de Normandie. He fought in the French army during World War I. His views began to change shortly after the war, when he began to question the Catholic Church’s strong alignment with the wealthy rather than with the poor. He became even more critical of the Church during the Spanish Civil War.

Bernanos became disillusioned with his fellow conservative Catholics as he witnessed firsthand the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by Francisco Franco’s supporters in the Spanish Civil War. The more he spoke out about the violations, the more isolated he became from the community in which he had long situated himself. He wrote The Diary of a Country Priest in the midst of this profound personal transformation, this disillusionment with the institutions he had so long supported. Evidence of his disillusionment permeates the novel and culminates in the young priest’s conclusion that grace abounds outside the Church.

Many of these concerns, particularly regarding the French Catholic Church, might reasonably be considered more European matters than American. What might explain the favorable reception of The Diary of a Country Priest in the American literary world of 1937? Much can be explained by the state of the American social, economic, and cultural scene at the time. Drained by nearly a decade of terrible economic depression, Americans sought solace from their misery. The earlier optimism about the New Deal’s ability to move society completely out of the Depression waned by 1937—despite the relative success various programs had achieved. For a short while, such demagogues as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin Coughlin, Charles promised to lift the country from its economic malaise, but they too foundered. An assassin felled Long, and with him the promise of his share-the-wealth solutions to the sufferings many Americans endured. Coughlin turned vitriolic in his social criticism, and his increasingly strident and hateful message came to alienate many who had placed with him their own hopes for a solution to their suffering. Cultural historians suggest that Americans had begun to turn inward for relief by 1937, and away from social interpretations of their persistent suffering.

By the late 1930’s, Americans had come to seek personal rather than societal solutions for their problems. The Diary of a Country Priest provided a portrait of a young man in much the same state as many Americans during the Depression. He was anxious and near despair. If Americans worried about the seeming inability of collective social reform to regenerate society, the French country priest shared their troubling concerns. He too located much of his anxiety in larger social developments that impeded the formation and survival of a just society, but he located his solace, his resolution to the problems he identified for himself and his world, in an individual, deeply personal commitment to the struggle for human dignity and grace.

Another key theme perhaps often missed in this work is the central Christian teaching about the need for humility in a world governed by pride. The young priest’s relationship as confessor to the haughty Mme la Comtesse, and to others, is rooted in humility and charity facing down pride and hard hearts. The majesty of the interior life of the soul, Bernanos holds, in keeping with the Sermon on the Mount and Church teachings, is built paradoxically on the foundation of humility, from which well-ordered love, justice, mercy, and peace then grow.

Many American critics could appreciate this struggle and resolution because they too saw the causes of their concerns, and the answers to their uncertainties, to be individual and personal. They too had become cynical about the possibility of societal transformation, about the potential for social justice in the world, and they saw in the young priest’s simplicity and honesty, in his earnest struggle to do right, the dignity Americans sought in their own lives. The young curate’s final peace provided hope for Americans frustrated with persistent social and economic dislocation, and in creating such a character, Bernanos provided reason for optimism in a troubled world. Diary of a Country Priest, The (Bernanos)

Further Reading

  • Bernanos, Georges. The Diary of a Country Priest. Translated by Pamela Morris. 1965. Reprint. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Reprinting of the novel includes an introduction by novelist and cloistered monk Rémy Rougeau.
  • _______. The Last Essays of Georges Bernanos. Translated by Joan Ulanov and Barry Ulanov. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1968. Collection of six essays Bernanos wrote roughly a decade after he published The Diary of a Country Priest and shortly before his death. Centers on the evils of the times and covers some of the same issues as the earlier novel.
  • Bush, William. Georges Bernanos. New York: Twayne, 1969. Surveys Bernanos’s artistic vision, summarizes his novels, and provides a brief analysis of each. One of the most approachable works on Bernanos available in English. Chapters are organized around Bernanos’s works, and each provides a brief conclusion. Chapter on The Diary of a Country Priest argues that the original English-language edition mistranslates the priest’s final words, and so misses the centrality of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to Bernanos’s work.
  • Cooke, John E. Georges Bernanos: A Study of Christian Commitment. Amersham, England: Avebury, 1981. Brief examination of Bernanos’s religious life centers on the author’s focus on the human struggle for redemption. Suggests that all of Bernanos’s work can rightly be understood as his attempt to point the modern, corrupted world back toward a spiritual orientation, to the search for grace and societal salvation.
  • Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Examination of the Catholic worldview through discussion of central themes such as the Sacrament, salvation, and community, particularly as these themes have been addressed by Catholic artists, including novelist Bernanos.
  • Pells, Richard. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. 1973. Reprint. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Solid one-volume survey of the American cultural scene during the Great Depression helps to set the context for the positive reception The Diary of a Country Priest received in the United States. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Speaight, Robert. Georges Bernanos: A Study of the Man and the Writer. London: Collins & Harvill Press, 1973. Comprehensive biography examines in depth both Bernanos’s literary work and his life, explaining his writing in the context of his experiences.

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