Tuesday, July 6, 2010

More about Father Abram Ryan

Donald Beagle has worked as a library and archival manager for 30 years and during that time has also published three books and some 30 articles, mostly for academic and professional journals. He became Director of Library Services at Belmont Abbey College in 2000.

TFAB: How did you decide to write a book about Father Abram Ryan?

DB: One day I was exploring the College library’s Rare Book Rooms when I discovered a carton of files called the “Father Ryan Archive.” I discovered several original letters written by Ryan to his mother and sister during the Civil War. There were also numerous scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, notebooks of handwritten transcriptions of his essays and lectures, magazine articles, and many pages of handwritten notes by the priest-researcher who had first compiled the archive between 1911 and 1933, Father Joseph McKey. He felt the archive should remain at some Catholic college in the South, so he offered them to Belmont Abbey. The more I studied Ryan’s letters and the hundreds of articles about him, the more I realized that his life story needed to be told. That led to the book for the University of Tennessee Press published in 2008: Poet of the Lost Cause: A Life of Father Ryan. My co-author for the book was Dr. Bryan Giemza of Randolph-Macon College.

TFAB: Why is Ryan important? What should we remember about him?

DB: Father Ryan was a unique figure in American history. He was a folk-poet who attracted an enormous popular audience during his life and for some 30 years after his death in 1886. His verses started appearing in newspapers almost immediately after the end of the war: some anonymously, some under his early pen-name “Moina,” and then by 1868, when he was editing his own newspaper, many were reprinted there under his own name. In 1879 his book of collected poems was published and immediately became a national sensation. His verses were recited in the White House by President William McKinley, and Joseph Pulitzer made a bequest to help fund the Father Ryan memorial statue that still stands in Mobile, Alabama. By the 1930s, his book had gone through 47 editions and reprintings.

But Ryan was more than a folk-poet; he was a charismatic evangelical Catholic lecturer in the late 1870s and early 1880s who was constantly on the move, packing lecture halls and churches wherever he appeared in the North and the South. He was a legendary orator, with dozens of newspaper accounts describing his extemporaneous speeches that held audiences mesmerized for two hours or more.

TFAB: Is being known as "the poet of the lost cause" a good thing?

DB: In Ryan’s case, it was (and is) both good and bad. Ryan’s work as a Civil War chaplain became the stuff of legend and myth. You can still find websites and articles that mistakenly place him at battles like Gettysburg or Chancellorsville. A fair amount of what scholars now call “Lost Cause” literature included legends about the wartime exploits of famous soldiers and generals. Some were based on fact, some were exaggerations or embellishments, and some were simply false.

Ryan was definitely at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, in late November 1864, and at the climactic Battle of Nashville the following month. We think he was probably at the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in November 1863, but the evidence here is less certain. But we also found multiple independent accounts that Ryan had popped up for brief stints as a freelance chaplain for regiments from Louisiana earlier in the war, perhaps as early as late summer of 1861. Some remain skeptical of this, but if you look carefully at his records where he was posted in those years, at St. Mary’s Seminary in Missouri in 1861, for example, you will find that his handwriting simply disappears from the seminary house diary for more than a month after the battle of First Manassas. This is significant because the Archbishop of New Orleans had put out a call for freelance Catholic chaplains in the weeks before that battle, and all of the independent accounts we found put Ryan with Louisiana Catholic troops who would have been under the purview of the Archbishop of New Orleans. So this constitutes a very interesting combination of evidence, but not proof.

But we can certainly prove that Ryan kept getting transferred without explanation from one Northern post to another during the first two years of the war, so it is reasonable to speculate that the cause of his transfers was related to those absences from his Northern posts, either authorized or unauthorized.

Ryan was a fervent secessionist, but was critical of slavery. His pro-Southern stance was deeply related to his Irish ancestry. His parents had emigrated from a small rural community called Clogheen where British oppression had been especially brutal. The oppression continued into the 19th century and was probably why Ryan’s parents immigrated to America in the late 1830s. The family moved south, from Maryland to Virginia, and Ryan seems to have been raised with the view that the industrial North was dominating the rural South in ways similar to the British domination of Ireland.

But the “bad” side of Ryan’s lost cause legacy emerged for about 10 years after the war, when he was very embittered by defeat. His newspaper editorials from the 1870s convey this bitterness, along with racial prejudice and a strain of political radicalism. But by the early 1880s, about the time he turned 40, we found clear evidence that he was becoming more moderate, and even began reaching out to the black community. In December 1880, Ryan made a very public attempt to preach at St. Xavier Church in Baltimore, which still describes itself on its website as the “first African-American Catholic Church.” And since our book was published in 2008, we discovered an interview he did with the Augusta Chronicle in 1883 that supported increased education for African Americans and even called President Abraham Lincoln “the best man the world ever saw.”

TFAB: Is Ryan's work is accessible today? What do you recommend and why?

DB: If you go to Amazon.com and see “Poems: Patriotic, Religious, Miscellaneous” you can buy a modern reprint of the 1902 edition of his book from Cornell University, or you can also read it online at places like Project Gutenburg and Google Books. The title reflects the fact that he wrote both patriotic and religious poems. His patriotic poems are still worth reading to better understand the sentiment and sorrow of the post-war South, and because they properly honor the memory and enormous sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. A few of his important poems, unfortunately, were never included in this collection, such as “Cleburne,” which memorializes the Irish American Confederate General Pat Cleburne, who fell at the Battle of Franklin, and “Requiem-Chant for the Federal Dead,” which honored the memory and sacrifices of Union soldiers. But modern readers should also look at some of his religious and lyrical poems, such as “Sea Dreamings,” which was published during Ryan’s life by the Saturday Evening Post, and “The Seen and the Unseen.” There is no question that the majority of Ryan’s verses are overly sentimental by today’s standards and sometimes downright sappy. But there are a few poems worth remembering as mentioned above, and I personally feel “Sea Dreamings” ranks among the better American religious poems produced in the 1880s.

You can order Poet of the Lost Cause: A Life of Father Ryan through Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, or directly from UTPress at http://utpress.org/bookdetail/?jobno=T01220.

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