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John O'Brien

Brownson's Quarterly Review, Janurary, 1851

1. John O'Brien, or the Orphan of Boston: a Tale of Real Life. Bv Rev. John T. Roddan  Boston: Donahoe. 1850. 12 mo. pp. 264.

THE change which has taken place in the tone of our American Catholic literature during the last few years is not a little encouraging. It is more thoroughly Catholic, more manly and indepen­dent, more bold and energetic, and at the same time none the less really civil to those of our countrymen who are attached to heretical communions. There is no lack of charity or of civility in the faithful utterance of the Gospel, and in plainly telling those who are outside of the Catholic Church that they are out of the :uk of safety. It is not we who say it, on our personal authority, as our private opinion or belief, but it is the Church who says it, on the authority of Him who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Nor do we say it in wrath, or in hatred or ill-will towards the heretical and unbelieving; we say it because it is God's truth, because it is of the last consequence to them that they should know it, and because we love them for God's sake, and in our charity would save them from the fearful doom to which we see that they are ex­posed.
We arc glad to see that our authors are less anxious about de­fending the Church than they were, - that they are less disturbed by the various objections urged or calumnies vented against her, and more in earnest to make Protestants aware of their own slip­pery foundation, and their absolute need of the Catholic faith and Sacraments. The Church is safe. The wrath of man and rage of devils cannot attack her. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more they of his household? In religious matters Protestants are neither candid nor well informed. To honorable controversy they are ill disposed, and ill qualified for it. They heed nothing we say in our own defence, and to our arguments for the Church they can never be induced to attempt a sober and candid reply. They have never learned to reason, are incapable of reasoning in religious matters, and, let us say what we will, they continue merely to declaim and vituperate as if we said nothing, and to repeat ridiculous slanders a thousand times denied and refuted. The only way in which we can reach and do them good is to press them hard on their own principles and doc. trines, and by our vigorous and well.aimed attacks make them feel their own nothingness. We must put them on their defence, and drive them from their last intrenchments. In this way we may shame them out of their absurdities, and force them to listen to the truth which saves.

These reflections are suggested by the little work before us, which, though not in all respects perfect, is a masterly production, and written on the principle we most heartily approve, by one who knows whereof he affirms. It is an original work, - original in its conception, its plan, and its style. Its style is peculiar, and not precisely to the taste of every reader, and by some will be reo garded as deficient in dignity and polish; but it is free, bold, dash­ing, clear, and simple. It is not the style most approved by critics, but it is the style which experience in all ages and countries proves to be tbe most natural and eflective. If we wish to reach and move the heart, we must never stand on our own dignity, or waste our strength in efforts to conciliate the good will of the fastidious. We must break through many a conventionalism, and forget ourselves in turbulance we would produce. We may easily be too correct, too polished, and too dignified, to be effective. The saints often appear singular, not to say eccentric, to those not saints. Mr. Roddan writes without any thought of himself, with entire self forgetfulness, and seeks only to convey the thought and produce
the impression he wishes, without the least reference to his own reputation. His mind is remarkably active, fresh, and vigorous, and he transfers it with unrivalled felicity to his glowing pages. In them all is life and movement, and the reader cannot but read on, carried away by a power he sees not, and captivated by a charm he does not once think of stopping to analyze.

Mr. Roddan is remarkable for the ease with which he grapples with the most difficult problems of philosophy and theology, and brings them within the reach of the ordinary mind. His book can be read with interest by the mere child, and with instruction by the man of mature intellect. In this respect he has scarcely an equal. He is not less remarkable for his graphic power. His de· scriptions are unrivalled, and in reading them we see the objects described, and live the scenes presented, His story is a simple story of a poor orphan boy, nnd in no instance transcends ordinary life; it is told in the simplest manner imaginable, and yet it has all the interest of an exciting romance. It apparently owes lillie to the imagination, and taken in detail it indicates little of a poetic temperament, and yet we have found few works of imagination or creations of the poet equally effective in chaining the attention, and keeping alive the interest of the reader. Humble us are its pretensions, it is a work of real genius, as well as of consummate skill and ability, and must place the author with good judges in the front rank of our best American authors.

John O'Brien is not a model character, and is by no means held up, or to be held up, for imitation. This perhaps is a defect. Taking him as the ideal, the ideal of the book is not high enough, and this would be our sole objection, if the work were intended to be read solely by the boys of the class to which John belongs. No boy will rise as high as he aims, and everyone should therefore be taught to aim at the highest, lest in practice he fall too low. But the author had another purpose in view; he wrote, not only for the instruction of boys, but still more for the instruction of parents and guardians. He did not aim at setting before the young a model for them to imitate, so much as he did at making us acquainted with the real character of the class of boys who throng our streets, trouble our police, fill our Houses of Reformation and Refuges for Juvenile Offenders, and are not seldom regarded as utterly hardened and incorrigible. Owing to the poverty of a large class of all people, their little acquaintance in their own country with the dangers of town life, and their neglect or inability, from various causes, to educate their children as they should be at home, there is in all our cities an undue proportion of Catholic children, orphans, or worse than orphans, that crowd our streets, and grow up rowdies. There is no denying the fact, whether we speak of Boston or any other of our larger Atlantic cities. These boys are the principal subjects of our petty police, and as they grow up furnish a formidable number of subjects for the higher police. The evil ill both a religious and social point of view is great, and cannot by any person of right feelings be regarded with indifference. That these boys are bad enough nobody denies, and that Catholics have by no means done all they could, and all they were bound by their religion to do, to collect and save them, nobody can pretend. We have much in this respect to answer for.

But Mr. Haddan has undertaken to show, and no one was more competent to do it, that these boys are by no means so depraved as is commonly supposed, and that, with a little vigilance and a little judicious kindness, they might easily be made an honor to our community, instead of being its plague-spot. The Catholic population, again, are far less inexcusable than might seem at first sight. They are to a great extent strangers in the country, ignorant of its peculiar temptations and dangers, and for the most part poor, and obliged to strain every nerve in order to live. They have good intentions and exhaustless charity, but they lack means. The wealth that should supply the means is not in their hands, and the charitable institutions of the country are not under their control. Here is the difficulty.
There is, no doubt, ample provision made in our Boston com­munity for the maintenance and education of orphans and unprotected boys, but this provision, so far as made by the public or private charities of Protestants, and which sumices in great measure for Protestant boys, who are not expected to have any other virtues than thrift and public decorum, is so made that our children can­not avail themselves of it without extreme peril to their souls. The difliculty is, not that Protestants are not liberal enough with their means, that they are not ready enough to contribute both time and money, but it is that they will furnish their aid only in such a way as to prevent our boys from growing up Catholics. They will not cooperate with our clergy and our Religious, and leave them to look after the faith and morals of Catholic children, but will operate in their own way, and make all their institutions and charities the means of providing for the body at the expense of the soul. Here is the reason why we regard, and cannot but regard, your Reverend Velleses, Barnards, and Bigelows, and your Deacon Grants, with their associate philanthropists, as practically the emissaries of Sa­tan, the prime conspirators against the souls of our poor boys. We impugn not their motives nor their liberality, but we tell them very plainly that the practical effect of their efforts is, when not to train our children to the dungeon or the scaffold here, to deliver them over to eternal damnation hereafter, and hence we regard their labors and charities with horror rather than with gratitude.

The boys we speak of must either be trained up Catholics, or be the pests of society. This may be regarded as a "fixed fact." They will either have the Catholic religion or no religion. The simplest and most effectual way of remedying what we all, Catho­lics as well us Protestants, regard as a great evil, would be for the public authorities, private associations, and liberal individuals, to aid our clergy in training up these children in the religion of their parents, that is, to relieve the Catholic poor as Catholics. Our clergy should have free access to all those public institutions which receive our unfortunate, vicious, or criminal Catholics, whether old or young, and private associations ancl individuals should make the Catholic clergy and the Sisters of Charity their almoners, as far as the Catholic poor are concerned. In this way the evil could be re­moved at one half the expense of the present Protestant charities, which serve only to increase that evil. The most scrupulous Protestant might with a good conscience consent to this, for no Protestant doubts, or pretends to doubt, that salvation is attainable in our Church, or dares maintain that it is necessary to become a Protestant in order to be saved.

But we have opened too vast a subject to be discussed in a brief literary notice. John O'Brien will be found to contain many valu­able hints on it, and some suggestions of great importance, es­pecially to Catholics. The author is master of the subjects on which he touches, and he gives us lessons from experience that we shall do well to heed.

We have spoken of the Catholic boys that throng our streets, but we are far from regarding these boys as worse than Protestant boys, or, in fact, as half so really vicious. The characteristic of Protestants is to display their virtues and conceal their vices; that of Catholics, especially of Irish Catholics, is to display their vices and to conceal their virtues. In the former expect no more virtue than you see, in the latter no more vice than appears at first sight. Our poor Irish Catholic boys have no hypocrisy, and are very careless as to appearances, but they have warm hearts, affectionate dispositions, and good principles. They are rarely led into vice except through their love of fun and their fine social feelings. Then, again, far more is laid to their charge than they ore guilty of. A Protestant boy, cool, calculating, hardened, and hypocritical, often commits an offence, and then charges it upon some poor Irish boy, and appears in the Police Court as a witness against him. What avails it that this poor Irish boy protests his innocence? Who believes him? Was a Yankee boy ever known to tell a lie? We are Yankee born and bred, with probably not a drop of Celtic blood in our veins, but we confess that familiar acquaintance with these poor Irish boys, even those regarded as abandoned, has made us well nigh ashamed of our Yankee descent. We know what Yan­kee boys are, and they are not to be named in the same day with these poor Irish Catholic boys in our streets.