Catherine Mullins – a student in the Lane Honors Program at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon – has written a research paper on my own journey from racism to conversion and my subsequent life as a Catholic writer. I thought it might interest visitors to the Ink Desk.
As You Read It
From “Nazi-Hippie” to Catholic Literary Scholar, Joseph Pearce Discusses a Unique Career
By Catherine Mullins
With over sixteen published books, positions as Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Literature at a Catholic university, co-editor of a literary journal and host of a television show, one would imagine that Joseph Pearce obtained his doctorate from a distinguished institution such as Oxford or Cambridge. But Mr. Pearce states that he never completed college.
“My academic path is somewhat singular,” states the literature professor. “I dropped out of formal education at the age of sixteen in order to work full-time for the National Front, a radical extremist political party in England. I launched Bulldog, the magazine of the Young National Front, as a sixteen- year-old and served two prison sentences for ‘publishing material likely to incite racial hatred’.”
Mr. Pearce continues, “I spent my twenty-first and twenty-fifth birthdays in prison.”
Growing up on the East Side of London in the racially tense 1960’s, Mr. Pearce found himself associating with groups like the DAK, Dagenham Axe Klan, that were “…a mixture of what might be called Nazi- hippies…” who went around “getting high on LSD” and shooting non-whites with air guns (Pearce).
What is surprising, however, is that it was ultimately the time he spent in jail for his crimes that led him to Catholicism. With twenty-three hours of solitary confinement a day, Mr. Pearce found much time for reading, and, as he noted during a speech to the Chesterton Society, “a sound atheist, a sound racist, a sound bigot can’t be too careful of his reading” (Pearce). Fortunately for Mr. Pearce, he was not careful of his reading at all. Looking for a solution to both communism and capitalism, he landed on the idea of distributism as explained by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. These authors, in turn, exposed him to sound arguments against racism and anti-Catholicism that changed his mind as well as his heart. Mr. Pearce states, “These authors helped me to escape from the ideology of hatred in which I’d become embroiled as a teenager and paved the way for my eventual conversion to Catholicism in 1989, at the age of twenty-eight.”
Joseph Pearce’s conversion to Catholicism was a total transformation. He disavowed his racism and radicalism, and began the pursuit of truth and love instead. These pursuits in turn led him to publish his first book, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton. This and subsequent Catholic scholarly biographies published by Harper Collins were so authoritatively researched and written that they persuaded Ave Maria University to accept his “published work in lieu of a PHD.”
While Mr. Pearce has recently switched to St. Thomas Moore College of Liberal Arts in Merimeck, New Hampshire, he still enjoys publishing. More recently, he has become editor of a series of critical classical literature editions with Ignatius Press. And though he clearly enjoys teaching, he considers incidents in his publishing history, not his professorial one, as the highlights of his career. “Getting my first book, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, published was a very special moment,” states Mr. Pearce. “… My meeting with the Nobel Prize winning author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, at his home near Moscow, might be the pinnacle of my career,” he continues. “He (Solzhenitsyn) had long been a hero of mine and is one of the true giants of the twentieth century. The fact that he agreed to be interviewed by me for my proposed biography of him was a great honor indeed.”
Biographical research, however, isn’t all honor and glory according to Mr. Pearce. When asked what the biggest frustration he runs into during the research process is, Mr. Pearce responds, “The greatest frustration arises from the obstructions put in the way of researchers by key individuals who refuse to make important primary source material available.” Having shunned the hatred and lack of kindness of his youth, however, he adds wryly, “In the interests of charity and decorum I’ll refrain from naming these individuals!”
Mr. Pearce sees a difference between criticizing individuals and condemning ideals proposed by groups, especially when he sees those ideals as negatively affecting literary discussion and the lives of individuals. Hence, when giving advice to students interested in pursuing a similar career, he responds in this way: “Literary scholars need to be able to see through much of the modernist and postmodernist nonsense that has afflicted the academic study of literature.” The truth of a book is in how you read it and what you have read before it. “The important lesson that they must learn is the necessity of reading a work of literature through the eyes of its author, as far as this is possible. We need to understand the ideas which informed an author’s works, most crucially the author’s philosophical and theological beliefs, which are the concepts that govern our view of ourselves, our neighbours and the world in which we live. A failure to comprehend where the author is coming from will invariably lead to a failure to understand the work at its deepest and most important level. The modern and postmodern academy is full of the pride and prejudice of relativist subjectivism. Such pride and prejudice must be avoided in the service of an objective pursuit of truth.”
Perhaps this is why some of the thinkers from the past he would like to interview are those who most informed classic western literary tradition, including Homer, Socrates, Plato, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, St. Robert Southwell, Chesterton, Belloc, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. At the top of his list, however, is William Shakespeare. “It would be great to interview him about his own life and beliefs and to question him about his plays,” states Pearce. “If the Bard were alive today, he would no doubt be writing plays that illumined and exposed the faults and follies of our own meretricious age.”
Detours, reflections, and learning from your experiences:
Considering his heavy reliance on primary sources and contemporaneous material, it is not too surprising that Professor Pearce doesn’t head to news outlets to keep up on his topics. He states, “My positions, in addition to the research undertaken in pursuit of my writing projects and teaching commitments, keep me abreast of the key ideas in literary and cultural analysis.”
Above all, Mr. Pearce insists that the key to good scholarly research is the pursuit of absolute truth. “The best and most important question that anyone can ask and answer is Quid est veritas? (What is the truth?), the question which Pontius Pilate addressed to Christ,” states Mr. Pearce. “The asking and answering of this question is axiomatic,” he continues. “The problem is that relativism only asks this question in the spirit of cynical indifference, as a mere rhetorical question that does not have an answer. The failure to ask the question in the spirit of genuine and humble curiosity is at the root of the modern malaise and the reason for society’s descent into a new barbarism.”
What did you learn about research by doing this biography?
First of all, to learn that Mr. Pearce had no formal tertiary education was an eye-opener. After having read his work and heard his lectures, I had assumed a high degree of university education. His statement that this was not true combined with the quality of his work helped me understand that true research is a matter of reading and seeking after the truth, not fancy tricks learned at a college or respect given by academic credentials. The credentials for good research are good reading skills, sound logic, and breadth of knowledge about a given subject.
Secondly, I learned some things about biographical research that not only blew my mind, but stirred my heart. At first I was tempted to exclude the facts about Mr. Pearce’s racism. Then I realized this wasn’t being fair to my readers, just to Mr. Pearce, or honest with myself. With that decision to be as honest as possible and keep that information in came the revelation that I could actually make it the cardinal theme of the article to the advantage of Mr. Pearce, the topic, and my writing. I learned that researchers can choose to reject critical pieces of information in their mission to lay bare the facts, and in doing so miss the most important aspect of their subject.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this research process came when I read this sentence: “I spent my 21st and my 25th birthday in prison.” For him to have shared that statement of loneliness and regret with me was deeply touching. I suddenly felt the connection that a researcher has to have, particularly in a biography, with the subject. I empathized deeply with Mr. Pearce, having spent those two birthdays in misery myself, and I realized what level of vulnerability and trust was being given to me by the sharing of this information. So much power was in my hands. This sense of obligation to not just to do justice to the words of Mr. Pearce, but to the ideas he was trying to convey…to make the reader understand him the way I felt I understood him, swept over me. I could put the words I had researched on the page, and still completely leave out the essence of my subject. Good research isn’t just reading words on a page. Good research means understanding the context of your topic, engaging the world that your topic was created in, and getting to know that topic the way you would a friend. Conveying your research well is to introduce that friend to others.
Pearce, Joseph. “The Conversion of Joseph Pearce.” Siministries. St. Irenaeus Ministries, 10 Nov. 2007.
Web. 12 Nov. 2012.