Robinson’s Tops Best-Seller List Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Henry Morton Robinson’s Horatio-Alger tale of a Boston boy’s rise from parish curate to prince of the Roman Catholic Church was the best-selling book of 1950, became the fourth best-selling book of 1951, and eventually sold more than 1.3 million copies in various editions.

Summary of Event

Henry Morton Robinson is best known as the coauthor, with Joseph Campbell (later famous for his work on myth), of A Skeleton Key to “Finnegans Wake” (1944), an explication of James Joyce’s densely allusive masterpiece. Robinson served as an common seaman in World War I and then attended Columbia University, serving there as a professor of literature from 1924 to 1927. In 1932 he became a roving editor for Reader’s Digest. He wrote nonfiction books on subjects ranging from Hernán Cortés to forensic science. After he published his first novel, The Perfect Round (1945), he decided to become a full-time novelist. He worked for three years on his third and most famous novel, The Cardinal, which was initially published in serial form in Cosmopolitan magazine. [kw]Robinson’s The Cardinal Tops Best-Seller List (1950)[Robinsons The Cardinal Tops Best Seller List] [kw]Cardinal Tops Best-Seller List, Robinson’s The (1950)[Cardinal Tops Best Seller List, Robinsons The] [kw]Best-Seller List, Robinson’s The Cardinal Tops (1950)[Best Seller List, Robinsons The Cardinal Tops] Roman Catholic Church;in literature[literature] Christianity;literature Roman Catholic Church;in literature[literature] Christianity;literature [g]North America;1950: Robinson’s The Cardinal Tops Best-Seller List[03130] [g]United States;1950: Robinson’s The Cardinal Tops Best-Seller List[03130] [c]Literature;1950: Robinson’s The Cardinal Tops Best-Seller List[03130] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1950: Robinson’s The Cardinal Tops Best-Seller List[03130] Robinson, Henry Morton Gallup, George Preminger, Otto

The Cardinal is a historical bildungsroman that covers the years from 1915 to 1939, tracing the rise of its protagonist from a young parish priest to a “prince of the Church.” The story draws on Robinson’s own family experience in a working-class Irish family in Boston on the wrong side of Beacon Hill, and the character of his protagonist, Stephen Fermoyle, is a composite of various priests Robinson knew, combined with some aspects of more famous real-life prelates. The novel became a best seller of 1950.

The subject matter of The Cardinal assured at least its notoriety. Catholic priests have always been an object of fascination in American popular culture, initially as positive figures. Two of the first sixteen Academy Awards Academy Awards;Best Actor for Best Actor went to heroic portrayals of Catholic priests: Spencer Tracy in Boys Town Boys Town (Taurog) (1938) and Bing Crosby in Going My Way Going My Way (McCarey) (1944). Robinson’s tale of the rise of Fermoyle was one more positive portrayal, a bias that Robinson proudly claimed in his “author’s foreword” to the book. From the early twentieth century to the 1960’s, men of Irish descent formed 75 percent of the American priesthood, and most American cardinals of that era were the sons of working-class fathers. Fermoyle, like many priests earmarked for their organizational talent and intelligence, was educated at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Several of the novel’s reviewers noted that The Cardinal followed a trend of many historical novels about the recent past in its mixing of real and fictional characters, referring to Upton Sinclair’s Sinclair, Upton best-selling Lanny Budd Lanny Budd series (Sinclair) books (a series of eleven novels published between 1940 and 1953 that, together, covered most of the political history of the Western world in the first half of the twentieth century). Despite theories to the contrary, Robinson strenuously maintained that Fermoyle’s portrait had nothing to do with Francis Cardinal Spellman Spellman, Francis Cardinal of New York, the most politically powerful American prelate at the time. However, other references were clear. Fermoyle’s patron, like George Cardinal Mundelein’s of Chicago, is apostolic delegate to the United States. Like Dennis Joseph Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia, Fermoyle maintains a friendship, grudging in his case, with the Vatican secretary of state. Fermoyle works on the famous response of 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith Smith, Al to Charles C. Marshall’s “An Open Letter to Alfred E. Smith” (which appeared in the April, 1927, issue of The Atlantic Monthly) about Smith’s Catholicism; in reality, this task was performed by Father Francis Patrick Duffy, famous chaplain of the Fighting Sixty-ninth Infantry Division during World War I. The novel’s saintly Father Ned Halley is based on (indeed named after) a devoted priest whom Robinson knew. Lawrence Cardinal Glennon, Fermoyle’s boss, is partially modeled on William Henry Cardinal O’Connell of Boston, as Robinson admitted, although Glennon’s basically good-hearted irascibility reflects the rose-colored view of a person who has been described as both “a dreadful human being and a bad priest” and “undeniably a successful cardinal.” In the case of The Cardinal, if any negativity is evidenced in a character’s portrayal (aside from out-and-out scoundrels such as Benito Mussolini), then the character is fictional: Pietro Gasparri, the book’s Vatican secretary of state, is an example. If the portrayal is favorable, like that of Glennon’s patron, Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val y Zulueta, the character is real.

Nevertheless, the novel does not shy away from controversial issues, such as therapeutic abortions, race relations, and clerical celibacy. Perhaps because of these issues, Simon & Schuster, the book’s publisher, commissioned a study by Audience Research, pollster George Gallup’s organization, to gauge the appeal the novel would have for various audiences. The result showed that Catholics were more likely to finish the book than non-Catholics, and 67 percent of Catholics said they enjoyed it more than other novels they had read, while only 30 percent of non-Catholics did. Gallup himself wrote to assure Simon & Schuster that in the light of favorable polling results, the Catholic Church should support the novel. Another factor in the book’s success, which Audience Research admitted it could not calculate, was the novel’s simultaneous release in a paper-covered edition costing $1.00 (as opposed to the clothbound edition’s price of $3.50). Around 70 percent of its purchasers chose the cheaper edition.

Also interesting are the subjects not covered. While nuns are prominent characters in the book—Fermoyle’s sister is a contemplative, and Lalage Menton a nursing sister—the chief role of the nun in actual American life, that of educator, is passed over, as is the contentious subject of religious education. Also, in view of later priestly scandals, Robinson’s characterization of sacristan/verger Lew Day is significant. Day has been rejected for the priesthood because of his “nervous system,” but his “almost hysterical rubbing of the candlestick” affords a clue as to the sexual nature of his condition. On the whole, Fermoyle’s opinions on controversial subjects such as evolution and psychoanalysis are fair and moderate. Even the explanation by Fermoyle’s confessor of Fermoyle’s sin of pride is quasi-Freudian. Fermoyle reasonably defends the use of Latin in the Mass, not as a means to mystify the laity but as a symbol of the rite’s universality in space and over time. He also attacks the idea that salvation is granted exclusively to Catholics.

Even before the novel’s publication, Robinson and his publisher were interested in selling its film rights for the maximum amount. The rights were initially sold to Columbia Pictures and producer Louis de Rochement. Rochement, Louis de In the Robinson papers at Columbia University is a 235-page screen treatment, presumably written by Robinson himself, that concentrates on the early events of the book; Fermoyle’s sister dies in childbirth on page 200 of the treatment, with only 35 pages left to cover the book’s final 300 pages. The movie was not produced during Robinson’s lifetime—he died in 1961—probably for reasons of content. Producer/director Otto Preminger, famous for his defiance of Hollywood’s Production Code, then obtained the rights, and the movie came out in 1963, with the endorsement of Boston’s Richard Cardinal Cushing. The most significant change from the novel was a scene set in Vienna, where Fermoyle and eventually an Austrian cardinal defy the Nazis. This scene was deliberately intended by Preminger and screenwriter Robert Dozier as a rebuttal against the charges against Pope Pius XII Pius XII in Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter: Ein Christliches Trauerspiel Deputy, The (Hochhuth) (1963; The Representative, 1963, also known as The Deputy, 1964). As a film, however, The Cardinal was not critically successful.


At the end of the 1940’s, religious subjects became increasingly popular in American culture. The best sellers of 1949 included books on religious topics by Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Fulton Oursler, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Robinson maintained that The Cardinal was not written to profit from this popularity, but rather as an expression of it. However, several other forces seemed to be at work in Robinson’s writing of the novel.

The Cardinal is an explanation for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike of those aspects of Catholicism, such as priestly celibacy, that mystified observers. Some reviews went so far as to label it as a piece of “propaganda.” Also, several reviewers—and one respondent in Audience Research’s report—deduced that The Cardinal was a response to Paul Blanshard’s 1949 book attacking the growing influence of the church, American Freedom and Catholic Power. Fermoyle continually asserts that Catholics can be as patriotic as members of any other religious denomination (despite Pope Pius IX’s denunciation of the American Bill of Rights as a symptom of the modernism he saw infecting the world). Through the first half of the twentieth century, Catholics formed the largest and fastest-growing religious denomination in the United States, and while Catholics often established parallel organizations of various social groups for their co-religionists, they also were at pains to proclaim vociferously their nationalistic loyalty.

Ironically, though, The Cardinal appeared at the apex of Catholicism’s triumphalism in the United States. Factors such as the spread of higher education and increasing suburbanization weakened the hold and power of local parish priests over their flocks, even before the effects of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council could be felt. The election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency was significant not because Kennedy was a Catholic but because he was a thoroughly secularized Catholic. Outside its explanations of arcana, The Cardinal, in a sense, preached to the converted. As the number of American Catholics doubled from 1940 to 1960, many of the Church’s stances—its fervent anticommunism, its advocacy of nonviolence in labor unions—became mainstream American ideals, as was proved by the popularity of Bishop Sheen’s television show. Stephen Fermoyle’s rise was not only Catholic; it was quintessentially American. Roman Catholic Church;in literature[literature] Christianity;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Charles R. American Catholic. New York: Times Books, 1997. A generally fair and judicious portrait of the Catholic Church in America in the eras before, during, and after the time span The Cardinal covers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Henry Morton. “Why I Wrote The Cardinal.” Cosmopolitan, June, 1950, pp. 88-90. Robinson’s declaration that his main motivation in writing his novel was to communicate the difficulties and rewards of a priest’s vocation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tobin, Greg. Saints and Sinners: The American Catholic Experience Through Stories, Memoirs, Essays, and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 1999. Contains an excerpt from book 1 of The Cardinal, “The Curate,” in a section titled “Faith and Fantasy: A Catholic Imagination.” Helps to place Robinson in context with other post-World War II Catholic writers.

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