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The improbable career of Mr. Blue
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Photographs of 4 copies or Mr. Blue


BY JOHN BRESLIN, SJ

When I was a kid at Regis High School in New York City during the late 1950s, a number of us eager types read a small book called Mr. Blue on the recommendation of a Jesuit scholastic or two. First published in 1928, Mr. Blue was the fictional creation of Myles Connolly, a 1918 Boston College graduate who went on to make a respectable mark in Hollywood writing screenplays.

Connolly wrote scripts for, among others, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Durante, and June Allyson, and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the 1944 wartime tearjerker Music for Millions. He produced or wrote 40 films in all, but when he died in 1964, his single greatest legacy was generally acknowledged to be Mr. Blue. The book remained in print for most of 60 years. Nothing Connolly published subsequently--he wrote three more parable novels--came close to being as popular.

Besides being brief, at 152 pages, Mr. Blue featured what adolescents are most likely to be drawn to in a novel: a youthful protagonist who can thumb his nose at the establishment and get away with it. The book is about a young man--the eponymous Blue himself--who decides to take Christianity seriously as a layman, not as a chore but as a challenge. He chooses poverty. He lives variously in a festively painted packing crate on the roof of a skyscraper (where he flies kites and frees balloons); in mansions, thanks to a surprise inheritance that he soon dispenses; in the spartan garret of a Boston lodging house; and in the ward of a city hospital, where, in the end, he dies. He works "here and there," at shoveling snow or chopping wood, surviving on "backdoor begging" for meals. He speaks of Christ to anyone who will listen and to some who won't.

And he prays passionately, alone in his attic, before a massive cross. Blue intrigues, awes, and troubles the narrator, a somewhat older man caught up in the workaday life of a businessman, his feet squarely planted on the ground.

As young Catholics, my high school friends and I were captivated by the idealistic rebel in Mr. Blue. He reminded us of Holden Caulfield and perhaps a bit of Dorothy Day, the only clear American saint of our generation. To our teachers, the book formed a continuum with the robust, paradoxical defense of Christianity laid out by the British author G. K. Chesterton, beginning with his Orthodoxy, published in 1909.



Excerpt: Mr. Blue beholds the heights


We were tramping out in the Newtons, out around the twin reservoirs which they call lakes. Dusk was sifting out of Boston and giving the massed trees--of which there are plenty in Newton--that stealth and secrecy which is their pretense at night. Boston College, with its solid Gothic tower, stood black against the last smoking flame of the November sunset. We were down in the dark. But no one could mind the dark, even of November, with the Gothic that dominated the hill. Blue caught his breath at the magnificent silhouette.

"That gives me courage," he said, with his face up toward the hill crest. "Of late, I have been melancholy with autumn--a sign of adolescence or old age. But I couldn't be melancholy with that above me. Not that I care for the Gothic, but for what it represents. Sunsets may flare, and the blackness of hades eclipse the earth, but that will endure."

"An earthquake could toss it into the lakes," I objected.

"And so could the cataclysm at the end of the world. . . . But where that stands there will always be something, though no stone is left upon a stone."

Blue is a mystic, and mystics while they appear crystal-clear are sometimes difficult to understand. He saw my shrugged shoulders.

"No great battle for a great cause can ever be forgotten. That up there is no mere group of college buildings; that up there is a battlefield, a sanctuary; that up there is a hearth and home for the Lost Cause that is never lost, the citadel of a strength that shall outlast the hill and rock it stands upon. . . . Once heroes built fortresses against the Mongol and the Saracen; now they must build fortresses against the whole world. . . .

"I tell you I know what I am talking about. Once they--the believers, the students, the scholars, the soldiers, the saints--could fight heresies and heretics. Today they have to fight a state of mind."

Excerpted from Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly. Copyright 1928 by the MacMillan Company; copyright renewed 1956 by Myles Connolly. Reprinted with the permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.



Recently, I read Mr. Blue again, and I have come to realize that the character of Blue must also have appealed to us all, and to countless other readers, because he was a uniquely American personality. As Myles Connolly wrote him, J. Blue was the man that the ambitious Jay Gatsby might have become had he steered by a higher truth than the sound of money in Daisy Buchanan's voice.

It is hard to overestimate G. K. Chesterton's effect on several generations of young Catholic intellectuals-in-the-making. He took on the modern world with all its scientific works and philosophical pomps in the name of a reimagined Christendom, alive with story and redolent of paradox. "To have fallen into any of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame," he wrote in Orthodoxy. "But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. . . . There are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands."

Chesterton's method was simple but brilliantly realized: One by one he raised and demolished, often through ridicule or humor, the suppositions of pseudoscience and the secular nostrums of the educated classes. In response to the Freudian notion that Gothic spires were phallic symbols, Chesterton sagely agreed; otherwise, he deadpanned, they would surely have been built upside down.

Chesterton saw himself as an apostle of affirmation in a world gone gray. At the same time, he threw open doors and windows in a Church that seemed cautious to a fault and not very interested in new ideas. The Council of Trent had settled all the important questions four centuries before, but G. K. made orthodoxy exciting, even dangerous. Rather than viewing it as a straitjacket that stifled Christian theology, he preferred to see orthodoxy as a glorious balancing act and spoke of its "romance." Myles Connolly made young Mr. Blue its ardent embodiment.

In 1924, just four years before Mr. Blue appeared, Chesterton published his version of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, another brief book with great staying power. Did Myles Connolly, then 27 years old, read it? I think it more than likely. Central to Chesterton's understanding of Francis is the notion of seeing the world with a God's-eye perspective. He imagines Francis going down so deeply into his cave of prayer that he comes up, as it were, on the other side:

[Francis] sees things go forth from the divine as children going forth from a familiar and accepted home, instead of meeting them as they come out, as most of us do, upon the roads of the world. . . . He who has seen the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God has seen the truth; we might almost say the cold truth. He who has seen the vision of his city upside down has seen it the right way up.

Connolly set Mr. Blue in Boston, his hometown, but also in New York City, because that metropolis of strivers was exactly the right venue for Blue and his Roaring Twenties restaging of the St. Francis story. From atop the skyscrapers of Kenneth Clarke's "heroic materialism," Blue shouts his challenge to the modern world and its hubris, much as Francis did to the burgeoning market economy of 13th-century Assisi. And he does so with the same dramatic panache, for Blue is a poet as well as a mystic, a man, like Francis, with a sense of play and a talent for the grand gesture.

Blue is always gesturing. He loves marching music, delights in color, the brighter the better, and thinks of money only as something to be spent, quickly, generously, and extravagantly, so that he can be without it. There is no middle ground for him, and this makes the narrator uncomfortable and wary--surely, life is about getting a job, settling down, having a family. But Blue is a misfit; he craves nothing.

Of course, he is also a challenge, like Francis. For the narrator and, I suspect, for many readers of Connolly's book, Blue represents the folly of the saints, to be admired if not exactly imitated. On the narrator's first meeting with Blue, he confesses: "The more I listened to Blue the more I liked him. I liked his looks, to begin with. Anybody would. But besides that there was a certain spectacular quality, one might call it a certain spectacular sanity, beneath all his ideas that was novel and stimulating to me."

Spectacular sanity: the echo of Chesterton is unmistakable. Blue's ideas are infectious, and his theology entirely orthodox: The Incarnation is what makes the immense power and beauty of creation bearable to him. But for Jesus, Blue says, "I would be crushed beneath the weight of all these worlds." Opposed to such sanity stands the more ordinary kind that the narrator can't seem to get beyond: "the attitude," he says, that "was the attitude of everyone everywhere. Blue, I'm afraid, was not marked out for success."

In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby appeared, a year after Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi and three years before Mr. Blue. The brief novel, now an academic classic, recounts the story of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who takes his place, somewhat brashly, among the moneyed aristocracy of eastern Long Island in pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, the love of his impoverished youth.

In the very first sentence of his novella, Myles Connolly identifies his hero as J. Blue. Could that be a coincidence? Hardly, for someone as well read as Connolly. Jay Gatsby stands for everything that Blue, three years later, rejects: the pursuit of great wealth, the willingness to do whatever it takes to win, the craving for status and acceptance. Gatsby is also, as Blue turns out to be, bigger than life, lavish in style, doomed to die young, a striking figure who fascinates and puzzles his own half-admiring chronicler, the reserved future journalist Nick Carraway.

Can we imagine Gatsby and Blue inhabiting the same space in the Jazz Age before the Crash? Despite their commitments to radically different value systems, these two might have hit it off. Certainly, the view from the skyscraper would have stirred Gatsby; he might even have been able to pick out the light on Daisy's dock in East Egg, with the help of binoculars. And certainly the lavish style Blue takes up briefly on inheriting a fortune--multiple houses, limousines, world trips--would have appealed to Jay Gatsby. But Blue's true delight in his wealth is in giving it away as fast as possible, hiring servants and then setting them up in their own homes, keeping his fortune in over a hundred checking accounts so he can write checks at any time.

There is a startling echo of Jay Gatsby in Connolly's book. Halfway through Gatsby, Nick Carraway reveals the millionaire's origins as Jay Gatz, the son of a shiftless farmer, who re-created himself as the worldly Jay Gatsby, sprung "from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God, a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that, and he must be about his Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty."

Contrast that with Blue's apostrophe to the stars from the roof of his Manhattan skyscraper: "God is more intimate here. . . . Don't you find Him so? This is height without desolation, isolation without emptiness. . . . I think my heart would break with all the immensity if I did not know that God Himself once stood beneath it, a young man, as small as I. . . . I'm no microcosm. I, too, am a Son of God!"

Blue and Gatsby clearly serve different Gods, who nonetheless lead each of them to an early grave. Their deaths, however, could hardly be more different. Worshiping mammon and his memory of Daisy, Jay Gatsby finds himself defeated by both. Daisy refuses to admit that she never loved her husband, Tom, thereby destroying Gatsby's romantic dream. Moreover, her willingness to let Gatsby shoulder responsibility for her reckless driving--which killed Tom's mistress--costs Gatsby his life, at the hands of the victim's aggrieved husband.

J. Blue also dies because of the reckless driving of the rich. And like Gatsby, he dies protecting someone else, pushing a homeless black man out of danger and taking the blow from the speeding limousine himself. But there the parallel stops. What propels Blue, like Gatsby, is a dream, but a selfless one, founded on the gospel example of Jesus and renewed in a quite literal way a millennium later by the man from Assisi. Blue has chosen a way of life that startles, challenges, and puzzles the people around him just as thoroughly as Jesus and Francis did in their times.

What was Myles Connolly's aim in writing Mr. Blue? Like Chesterton he wanted to confound the materialists and the skeptics, to proclaim a Christianity full of romance and gusto, to launch a challenge to the materialism Jay Gatsby so reflexively embraced. But after Connolly's death, in 1964, his wife suggested that the story was also autobiographical. The young Connolly himself had loved kites, balloons, brass bands, the movies, and the Mass; Mr. Blue was his youthful challenge hurled at the world.

In 1954, when Connolly was in his late fifties and the father of five children, he backed off a bit from the message of Mr. Blue in a foreword to the book's silver anniversary edition: "I also feel that Mr. Blue, like Thoreau, failed to make the deeply important distinction that what is sauce for the bachelor may not be sauce for the married man and father at all." Wiser? Sadder? Perhaps just older. Which is why Jesus always insisted that the kingdom of God belonged by natural right to the young and the poor. The rest of us are allowed in on sufferance.

John Breslin, SJ, is the rector of the Jesuit community at Lemoyne College, in Syracuse, New York.

Photo: editions of
Mr. Blue from 1990, 1965, 1954, and 1928, the year of its first printing


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