Marvin R. O’Connell. Telling Stories that Matter: Memoirs & Essays. Edited by William G. Schmitt. Forward by Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC. Afterward by David Solomon. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2020. Hardback $35.00, E-book $22. ISBN: 9781587318658.
Marvin R. O’Connell (1930–2016) was an American historian, who focused on ecclesiastical history. A prolific writer, O’Connell was responsible for (at least) two paradigm shifting monographs: 1) The Oxford Conspirators: A History of the Oxford Movement, 1833–1845 (Macmillan, 1969), and 2) Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis (CUA Press, 1994), which received the American Catholic Historical Association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize in 1995. While there are many others, these two works strike closest to the heart of Newman studies.
The current book entitled, Telling Stories that Matter: Memoirs & Essays, is naturally unlike any of his other books (at least the first part). This is a book comprised of O’Connell’s late-in-life memoirs of how he became interested in the academic study of history, as well as some of his shorter essays and book reviews. The first part, “memoirs,” consists of twelve chapters. Each of these chapters describes an episode in O’Connell’s life that shaped him in some way as an historian. The second part is a compilation of “essays” (thirteen total), which are mostly short book reviews and self-reflective essays that help the reader better understand the person and inspiration of Marvin O’Connell.
As is noted in William G. Schmitt’s preface, the guiding editorial process of this book is governed by three principles. The first is that O’Connell’s voice is allowed to shine through: “Readers will find here O’Connell’s voice, enhanced only from friends and touched only by occasional editing for readability, clarity in references, and format continuity, lest the insights lose any of their power to reflect the author and instruct the audience” (xiii). This is directly in line with how Ralph McInerny, a friend of O’Connell’s since childhood reflects on O’Connell’s writing: “Few writers have the ability of locate the reader more surely in place and time, to give a sense of the human beings whose deeds and antics are the stuff of history. The historian dotes on the particular; the great historian makes it shine with a more than particular import” (xiii). The second guiding principle refers to the notion of “telling stories.” Schmitt writes, “O’Connell was a master story-teller whose passion for compelling content and context about people and circumstances was sparked in his youth while enjoying the genre of historical fiction” (xiv). Again, as McInerny notes, “An historian like O’Connell becomes perforce a bit of a biographer, and there is always a soupçon of the novelist in his style now” (xiv). The third guiding principle deals with the notion of “stories that matter.” Schmitt notes that “O’Connell sought out not only the multi-faceted but the deeply meaningful. This priest-scholar is not patient with wasting his or others’ time” (xiv).
This third principle brings us to the question: Why should we read the memoirs of an academic historian? The short answer is, if an historian as prolific and influential as Marvin O’Connell provides insight into his career, inspiration, and/or methodology, it can only enhance our outside understanding of the historical narratives he provides in his books such as The Oxford Conspirators and Critics on Trial. Whether we admit it or not, all historians and historical theologians view history through their own lenses. What I mean by this is not the relativistic notion of individual and varied “truths,” but rather that what an historian reads becomes evidence and grounds for arguments. Similarly, one’s experience of the world can equally shape how one understands and views the available evidence. In other words, knowing the historian can only aid a reader in understanding the historical narrative, which is narrated by the historian.
This book is both engaging and accessible. It is inspirational to be provided a glimpse into the mind of one of the most influential ecclesiastical historians of the last few decades. Anyone invested in O’Connell’s work should be at least marginally interested in his personal story concerning how he became interested in his field of study and how he navigated the often-tumultuous waters of historical narration.
Elizabeth Huddleston is Head of Research and Publications at the National Institute for Newman Studies and is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Catholic Studies at Duquesne University.