Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

January 11, 2016
MIKE MASTROMATTEO
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Author Thomas Fleming was surprised to be solicited for a profile about how being Catholic influences a writer's work.

The author of more than 50 published works, Fleming described his relationship with the Church as "combative."

Despite a push-back attitude that led him to question a lot of what his priest-teachers imparted over the years, the now-88-year-old historian, novelist and investigative reporter has mined his Catholic experience for a wealth of storytelling narrative in his 23 novels.

He is also author of 22 histories, biographies, children's books and a memoir about growing up in Jersey City.

As an historian, the longtime New York City resident has a special interest in the American Revolution and the events leading up to the Civil War. And as a novelist, Fleming has woven Catholic themes into many of his works, despite his ambivalent attitude toward the faith.

A prevalent theme in many of Fleming's novels and histories is the place for an American ethos in the 20th century and beyond.

With a personal backstory steeped in the rich traditions of Irish-American politics, Fleming takes pains to make clear he is not just an Irish-American writer.

"From the start, I wanted to write novels," Fleming said in an interview. "But I first enrolled in the Fordham school of social work. It was an attempt to combine my latent Catholic idealism and my father's experience as a politician in Jersey City."

Fleming attended New York's Fordham University and graduated in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in the arts. Previously he had studied at a Catholic school in Jersey City, where a priest tried to steer him on to the religious life.

That experience, compounded by what he felt was a "censored" education at Fordham, led Fleming to contemplate some of the restraints of a Catholic education.

"I was taught Catholic culture was better than American culture, the United States of America was synonymous with the world, that evil place through we must tiptoe humbly toward heaven."

HISTORICAL NOVEL SUCCESS

His first non-journalistic published effort was the historical work, Now We Are Enemies (1960), an account of the Battle of Bunker Hill in the U.S. Revolutionary War. It proved an immediate success; it was reviewed in more than 75 newspapers.

Fleming's first attempt at fiction, a novel titled Joy of Our Youth, did not meet a similar fate.

"It wasn't published," Fleming said, "largely because the Catholic wife of the editor thought it was too critical of the Catholic Church." The story eventually appeared in 1970 with a new title, The Sandbox Tree.

Over the last 50 years, Fleming has combined production of novels and histories in almost equal measure. His best-selling novel, The Officers' Wives (1981) sold more than two million copies, while the best received nonfiction book, Liberty! The American Revolution (1997) became the basis for an award-winning TV show.

Through it all, Fleming has railed against - but not completely abandoned - his faith.

CATHOLIC CHARACTERS

So what might account for the wealth of Catholic characters, including priests, confessors and lapsed, cynical laypeople who populate and enliven Fleming's fiction?

One answer might reside in the author's appreciation for the redemptive power of the Catholic faith.

In a poignant scene from the First World War novel, Over There, Fleming describes how jaded Catholic Gen. Malvern Hill Bliss harkens back to essentials on the battlefield: "Bliss took the five-dollar bill and tore it to shreds. He seized (Chaplain) Kelly's arms and reached back to words they both shared, the opening line every penitent speaks in the confessional. 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.'"

By the mid-1970s, Fleming's attitude to the Church had changed "from hostility to acceptance of its importance in the world's spiritual life."

"I have long since gotten beyond this worry and become, I hope, an American writer who draws on his Catholic spiritual background at times to enrich his insights into our national journey."