The Mind of Knox | Preface to "The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox" | David Rooney | Ignatius InsightThe Mind of Knox | Preface to The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox | David Rooney | Ignatius Insight

The English Catholic literary revival had already been thriving for almost three-quarters of a century when Ronald Knox, fourth son of the Anglican Bishop of Manchester, was received into the Roman communion on September 22, 1917. It had begun with the conversions of the clergymen John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, both later to become cardinals, and the layman William George Ward, whose son and granddaughter would carry on the apostolate of the pen, the former through books and essays, and the latter primarily as cofounder with her husband of the most famous Catholic publishing house of the twentieth century. [1]

In the early 1900s, that world of letters was the domain of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton (though Chesterton's formal entry into the Church wouldn't come until 1922), and of the prolific but short-lived novelist Robert Hugh Benson, himself the convert son of an Archbishop of Canterbury. It was a world in which many well-educated men and women had come to see the Church of England as insufficiently countercultural in the face of materialism, agnosticism, and alternating moods of self-pride and despair, and who then saw in Rome a constancy and a consistency betokening a sure guide to the meaning of the Gospel message. There were converts among scientists, among historians, among novelists, even among actors, and the impression they produced, especially during the decades of Knox's prominence (the 1910s through the 1950s) was fortifying to those already in the Church, encouraging to those thinking about conversion, and vaguely alarming to those who retained the prejudice against Rome so thoroughly inbred in the nominally tolerant, vestigially Protestant culture that dominated the printed and spoken media.

Two fairly recent books have chronicled that world through an examination of many of the figures who experienced conversion to Catholicism. Patrick Allitt's Catholic Converts surveys both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for writers to profile and consequently includes sketches of figures such as Theodore Maynard, Dorothy Day, and Carlton Hayes along with the British intellectuals whose works were likely to be found on the Sheed and Ward book list. [2] Joseph Pearce's Literary Converts focuses solely on the British writers but illustrates well the web of contacts that continued to breathe life into the movement up to the days when Alec Guinness converted. [3] Not surprisingly both historians accord Knox a respectable chapter or so, but in such comprehensive overviews one would not anticipate finding more than a brief analysis of some of his signature works.

In a way, Knox was blessed in his choice of biographer and literary executor. Evelyn Waugh was certainly one of the most celebrated novelists in mid-twentieth-century England, and he was a friend who genuinely admired Knox for what he wrote and how he crafted what he wrote. Waugh had access to Knox's private papers, and with Waugh being only fifteen years Knox's junior, Waugh's circle of friends intersected enough with Knox's to allow him to mine reminiscences fairly effortlessly while working on his biography. Yet the formidable shadow of Waugh, coupled with the temporary eclipse Knox suffered during the postconciliar years, may have deflected later historians from producing another biography in the near half century since Knox's death. Waugh had assumed, incorrectly as time was to show, that in the years after Knox's death, scholars would pore over Knox's writings, dissertation following dissertation in theology faculties much as they have on, say, Newman or Thomas Merton. Knox's niece, the gifted writer Penelope Fitzgerald, did write a highly acclaimed (and recently reissued) composite biography in the 19705 of the four Knox brothers: Edmund (her father), Dillwyn, Wilfred, and Ronald. The reader interested in Knox's life will find in her book some personal touches that supplement what Waugh provides in his more formal biography. In the mid-1960s, Robert Speaight, an accomplished actor and biographer of personages as disparate as Belloc and Teilhard de Chardin, wrote a lengthy essay on Knox's contributions to apologetics, detective fiction, satire, and other genres. This was then bound in hardcover by Sheed and Ward (ever obliging to Knox's memory) to an equally long essay by Father Thomas Corbishley on Knox's spiritual writings. Much time has passed since then, and more than one commentator has noted some slips of the pen in Speaight's essay. Twenty years later, Father Milton Walsh wrote a doctoral dissertation for the Pontifical Gregorian University that concentrates primarily on Knox's apologetics, though it also notably presents some previously unpublished sermons Walsh discovered on a visit to Knox's final resting place in Mells, home to the Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Father Walsh kindly sent me a copy some years ago, and its scholarly merit is evident. It has now happily been made available in updated form for the reading public as Ronald Knox as Apologist. [4]

The time then may be auspicious for an overview of the full range of the mind of Ronald Knox, a fifty-year-later retrospective of a fifty-year career in letters, which commenced at Eton College in 1906 and was stilled only when death from liver cancer overtook him on August 24, 1957. The present, work is an intellectual portrait of the kind that I flatter myself might have qualified for the English Men of Letters series of a century ago. The following pages do not attempt to add anything to the story of Knox's life. The first chapter is included merely to provide the reader who has not read either Waugh or Fitzgerald with a framework within which to peg chronologically Knox's literary endeavors, which are segregated largely by subject matter in the remaining chapters. Likewise, it does not purport to address his place in modern theology, a subject Father Walsh is far better equipped to analyze than I am. It is instead a purely armchair survey of what Knox wrote in a variety of genres, with the attendant advantages and disadvantages of such an exercise. The seasoned historian, and even more so the student of theology, who scans the footnotes will no doubt find too frequently the reference to a less-definitive study on some topic, read and cited merely because it happened to occupy a more convenient place on a home or institutional bookshelf. On the other hand, armchair readers will find that most of the references are to books available in reasonably large university libraries, and none to manuscripts or letters rendered practically inaccessible to them because they repose in out-of-the-way archives, or for that matter to books written in tongues the author is insufficiently conversant in to read more rapidly than at the pace d'un escargot. [5]

As with all writers, Knox was influenced by other writers, yet neither Waugh nor Fitzgerald was particularly interested in charting those influences; it was enough for them simply to write their biographies with the occasional nod toward Knox's literary achievements. This book too was initially planned as a portrait of his mind and no one else's. But others necessarily found their way onto the canvas. Some, like W. H. Mallock and Father Maturin, entered by invitation lest the portrait be missing something; some entered by brute force of personality; like Arnold Lunn; others, like Samuel Butler, wandered in unexpectedly, while yet others, like Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley, were ushered in to provide some needed chiaroscuro. As a result, the final portrait differs from those of Allitt and Pearce, not only in the far greater attention devoted to but one Catholic convert, but also in being more inclusive (even if at times only in the footnotes) of Catholic-from-birth thinkers like Fathers Martin D'Arcy and Herbert Thurston, as well as of various symposiasts, BBC Brains Trust commentators, and others to whom Knox had to react in his public ministry as apologist for Catholicism.

The reader will observe too that around one-quarter of this book was actually written by Knox himself, so frequent and so lengthy are the quotes included in the text. Indeed, in writing and assembling it, I have often considered the work in light of the "mosaic" approach used by the great contemporary historian Emmet Larkin, who so skillfully has patched together extensive extracts from Irish bishops and other personages to make the period from 1850 to the early twentieth century in Irish ecclesiastical history emerge so vividly from the printed page in his multivolume series. [6]

At the same time, when as in the present work the quotes are so predominantly issuing from the writings of one person, the author/arranger must often guard against the inclination to present the reader with too much of the best of what the subject has written, thereby inadvertently fostering the impression in the reader's mind that there is no need to go back to the originals, since the purest gold has already been extracted from the ore of commonplace writing, and so any expenditure of energy directed to sifting through the rest would be superfluous. Let the reader be assured that such is not the case with Knox's writing. In editing and reviewing the quotes used, I am frequently tempted to employ far more material; how much more edifying, indeed, it would be, just to reprint whole sermons rather than paragraphs from them. When Philip Caraman edited Knox's sermons and Oxford conferences alone, he ended up with three volumes of small print, each running to well over four hundred pages.

There are over forty thousand words taken from Knox's writings in the present book, but they represent well under 1 percent of his published output. The other 99 percent is of the same quality. The reader need only randomly consult any of his books to verify that assertion. He was a consummate writer: every word in its place, every sentence carrying forward an argument or an image, every thought intelligible and, far more often than not, compellingly persuasive. If the present work does not encourage the reader to seek out and read a book written by Knox, and not just a book about Knox, it will have failed in its intent.

It should also be mentioned in passing that a little over a decade ago, the publisher of this book brought out a volume called The Quotable Knox. [7] No doubt it is a good introduction to its subject, but with a deliberateness bordering on scrupulosity, I have avoided ever seeing it, not to mention perusing it. That is simply because I did not want to be influenced in any way by what its estimable editors considered quotable in his writings while I was selecting what I found useful to quote. If there is an overlap, it may then be attributed to the overwhelming effect certain Knoxian paragraphs produce on whoever reads them. The same probability of overlap might have been presumed to exist vis--vis Father Walsh's study, but in actuality the overlap is not at all great, so quotable is our common quarry.

Finally, the reader will, I hope, excuse a personal note, which a preface seems to demand. As was mentioned above, this study is of the armchair variety and was cobbled together outside normal duties, which revolve around teaching university students in such noncongruent subject matter to literature and theology as aerodynamics and structural analysis. The staff of Hofstra University Library, especially its interlibrary loan office, has been very helpful in tracking down whatever books I needed so that I could follow through on a line of investigation.

I should admit that I was already well into my adult years when I first became familiar with Ronald Knox's writings, even though I had read continental writers like Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, and Karl Adam a long time earlier. Around 1990, I was serving in a very part-time capacity as literary editor for a small Midwestern Catholic monthly journal of opinion when I received a batch of potential review books containing, among other items, a new printing of A Retreat for Lay People. I owned at the time only a copy of Enthusiasm among Knox's titles, and I regret now to say that it had remained unread because its scope and its subject seemed a bit too peripheral to my reviewing interests in modern American and British Church history. In any case, I read the retreat book and was henceforth a Knox admirer.

Which brings me to my largest debt of gratitude. I deeply appreciate the patience of my wife Mary and of my five children, Mary Therese, Margaret, Bernadette, Claire, and Robert, during the years I have worked on this project in the hope of introducing a new generation of readers to a remarkable writer and expositor of philosophical and theological truth. My children can no longer be unaware of Ronald Knox: his books cover a fair number of shelves and will increasingly invite inspection as adulthood rapidly approaches. May they and other children grow into full womanhood and manhood appreciating them and achieving a deeper faith with their assistance.


[1] Technically W. G. Ward too had been a clergyman, but he had become convinced that Anglican orders were invalid and was engaged to be married even before he was stripped of his Oxford degrees for his advanced Roman-leaning views. He subsequently entered the Catholic Church a vociferous member of the laity.

[2] Patrick Allitt, Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).

[3] Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).

[4] Milton Walsh, Ronald Knox as Apologist: Wit, Laughter and the Popish Creed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

[5] "Of a snail".

[6] See, for example, Emmet Larkin, The Making of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

[7] George Marlin, Richard Rabatin, and John Swan, The Quotable Knox: A Topical Compendium of the Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Knox (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).

Related Links: Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
The Monsignor and the Don | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Monsignor Ronald Knox: Convert, Priest, Apologist | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Experience, Reason, and Authority in the Apologetics of Ronald Knox | Milton Walsh | From Ronald Knox As Apologist
The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson
A Lesson Learned From Monsignor Ronald A. Knox | Carl E. Olson
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce

The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox

by David Rooney

David Rooney has authored a well written and in-depth overview of the life and literary accomplishments of Ronald Knox, the famous Catholic convert and apologist from England who was a major figure in the English Catholic literary revival during the first half of the twentieth century.

Rooney examines the full range of Knox's writings including apologetics, detective fiction, satire, novels and other genres and offers an intellectual portrait that is both fascinating and engaging. The author includes many samples of Knox's own writings throughout his book. Rooney thus uses a mosaic approach that makes the works and the person of Knox emerge from the pages in a vivid and lively way.

Knox was a prolific author who wrote over seventy-five books, as well as many articles and homilies. He utilized many genres including satire, novels, spirituality, and detective stories. His literary works include The Hidden Stream, The Belief of Catholics, Captive Flames, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons and many more. With the "Knox revival" going on today and the renewed interest in his writings, as evidenced by the large Ronald Knox Society of North America, this book provides a timely and valuable addition.

David M. Rooney, an expert on the writings and life of Ronald Knox, is an Associate Professor of Engineering at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Aside from his professorial research in experimental aerodynamics, he has published several articles and many book reviews in Catholic periodicals. He is a long time member of the American Catholic Historical Association.

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