If Graham Greene hadn’t called Shirley Temple a “totsy,” one of the 20th century’s greatest novels wouldn’t exist.
In the fall of 1937, the British magazine Night and Day published a review of the Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie. The author of the review was Graham Greene, a relatively unknown novelist and the magazine’s literary editor.
Greene hated Wee Willie Winkie, a doltish adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story set at the height of the British Raj. But he saved special enmity for Temple’s fans, whom he described as lecherous “middle-aged men and clergymen.” Temple, then 9 years old, had been trussed up by the producers to look like a “complete totsy.” Witness, Greene suggested, the “sidelong searching coquetry” of her eyes or “her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance.”
Just a few weeks later, Greene and Night and Day were slapped with a libel suit for damaging the names of Temple and the film’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox.
Temple “is going to cost me £250 if I’m lucky,” Greene wrote to his brother. She cost him more than that: Night and Day, which had been plagued by financial problems since its inception, crumbled in the face of the libel suit, leaving Greene without a day job. In March, the King’s Bench heard the case. Calling Greene’s libel “a gross outrage,” Chief Justice Gordon Hewart awarded Twentieth Century Fox £3,500 in damages, £3,000 of which was to be paid by Night and Day and the remainder by Greene himself.
But Greene wasn’t around to hear the ruling. Weeks earlier, on January 29, he and his wife, Vivien, had fled London on the hulking cruise liner Normandie. It was the start of a journey that would take Greene from Manhattan to New Orleans to San Antonio and then deep into the jungles of Mexico—and eventually, after much suffering and pain, provide him with the material needed to write The Power and the Glory, his masterpiece.
For many of Greene’s readers, it’s surprising to learn that the Catholicism-obsessed writer was actually a late convert. He was raised Anglican in Berkhamsted, a cloistered town in the east of England. In his early twenties, while working as a journalist in Nottingham, Greene met Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a poet of minor acclaim. In order to please his future wife, in 1926 Greene agreed to be baptized in the Nottingham Cathedral.
His decision to travel to Mexico in 1938 was no accident, nor was it spontaneous. The West had fascinated Greene for years—in particular, a pair of states in the Mexican highlands, Tabasco and Chiapas, where a long anti-clerical campaign had left hundreds of priests dead, all but eradicating any trace of Catholicism. Greene wished to chronicle what he called, “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.”
The shuttering of Night and Day and the libel suit were all the impetus he needed. He convinced his publisher to give him a modest advance for a travelogue, then set about planning his itinerary, a short stay in Mexico City and a tour of Tabasco and Chiapas, ending in the mountain town San Cristóbal de las Casas, where he had heard Catholicism was being practiced in secret. After several weeks, he would return to London, where he could publish his observations.
The first leg of the journey passed uneventfully. Greene left Vivien in New Orleans and crossed the border near Laredo, Texas. He stayed in Mexico City briefly—just long enough to admire the “great bold thighs” of the local dancers—before sailing to Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco.
Greene found the dirt and heat of Villahermosa unbearable. Everywhere, he was watched by police, who “ambled drearily across in the yard in the great heat with their trousers open.” Greene equated these horrors with the absence of faith. “One felt one was drawing near to the center of something,” he wrote, “if it was only of darkness and abandonment.”
With the help of a few friendly locals, Greene chartered a plane for Salto de Agua, in Chiapas. He remained intent on seeing San Cristóbal de las Casas. But upon landing in Salto de Agua, he found endless expanses of jungle, perforated by rutted and overgrown trail. His only option was to hire a mule and a guide and ride some 100 miles north, to San Cristóbal.
The trip was torturous. His guide spoke little and had a nasty habit of trotting off into the distance without his charge. Greene begged frequently to stop; the guide politely refused. By the time he entered San Cristóbal a few days later, Greene’s entire body was in revolt. He was tick-bitten, sore in his legs and back, and afflicted with terrible stomach pains. Still, he was pleased to be among the faithful again. On his first day in San Cristóbal, he attended mass in a low-slung house on the edge of town. The priest wore a motoring coat, a tweed cap, and amber-tinted glasses.
“Mass was said without the Sanctus bell,” Greene noted. “Silence was a relic of the worst penal days when discovery probably meant death.” Now, Catholicism was practiced quasi-openly—although a complex system of bribes was required to keep police at bay. After the ceremony, Greene hobbled across the plaza and ducked into the Santo Domingo cathedral. At the altar knelt an Indian couple. As Greene watched, the pair sang a slow duet in a language that he did not understand.
“I wondered,” he later wrote, “ what prayers they had said and what answers they could hope to get in this world of mountains, hunger and irresponsibility.” That question was still on his mind a year later, as he sat at his London desk to write a novel that would capture what he had witnessed.
The Power and the Glory is Greene’s most deeply Catholic novel and also his most thrilling. On its face, it is a novel of simple contrasts. The hero is a nameless priest who wanders the jungles of Southeast Mexico on muleback, chased by a nameless lieutenant and his henchmen. The relentless lieutenant, a socialist, finds the idea of God repugnant. He has “a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”
The priest, on the other hand, believes there is nothing but God: “God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge,” he concludes. The priest knows of what he speaks. He is a criminal himself: a drunkard, the father of an illegitimate child, a coward—afraid of being captured and equally afraid to push onward.
“Let me be caught soon,” he prays.
The allegory—the fallen but steadfast believer versus the vicious atheist—is sustained until the final pages, when the priest is shot dead in a prison yard. He collapses into a “routine heap beside the wall—something unimportant which had to be cleared away.”
But the book also suggests that there was nothing routine about his death. “He was one of the martyrs of the church,” a local woman proclaims after he is gone. In fact, despite the booze on his breath—or perhaps because of it—he may be a “hero of the faith.” Greene likely believed as much himself. In an essay years later, he wrote that the “greatest saints have been men with more than a normal capacity for evil.”
Most writers, if they are exceptionally lucky, produce one good book in a lifetime. In the space of two short years, Graham Greene completed three. The first—the one actually under contract, detailing his Mexican travels—was apparently the easiest to write. Titled The Lawless Roads, Greene finished it in just a few short months. The proofs arrived from the publisher in Christmas of 1938 and were sent back the following March, by which point Europe was enveloped in war. London suddenly took on the appearance of an armed camp. There were trenches dug in the parks and anti-aircraft guns in the squares.
Greene was worried. He’d had to pay out £500 for the Shirley Temple fiasco—not enough to bankrupt him but enough to leave his family in relatively dire straits. To earn some extra money, Greene decided to churn out a thriller, The Confidential Agent, yet he could not lay down a second fiction project, which he was already calling The Power and the Glory. (The title comes from the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”) Greene decided that he would simply write both books at the same time.
“I see no further for the next twelve months than the grindstone,” he pronounced. In order to gain a modicum of peace, he rented a studio in Mecklenburgh Square, far from his wife and their two small children. Still, distractions abounded. Chief among them: Dorothy, the daughter of Greene’s new landlady. Dorothy was stout and a little plain—a friend of Greene’s described her cruelly as “absolutely a non-starter” in terms of attractiveness. But Greene was smitten, and he and Dorothy were soon sleeping together. It was an affair that was to last several years, eventually destroying Greene’s marriage. It was his great sin—his own “spot of decay.”
In the evenings, Greene would visit with Dorothy. During the day, he worked on his two books: The Confidential Agent in the morning, sometimes 2,000 words at a stretch, and The Power and the Glory in the afternoon. To keep up the pace, he consumed massive amounts of Benzedrine, a fast-acting form of amphetamine. He finished The Confidential Agent in a stunning six weeks, in an “automatized Blur,” but it was The Power and the Glory, published in 1940, that was to make his name, bringing Greene the kind of recognition he had always craved. It was “his finest novel,” John Updike wrote many years later, “full of energy and grandeur” and “compassion.” It won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in 1941, and John Ford later adapted it for the silver screen.
Greene himself loved it greatly. In an interview with The Paris Review, he placed it alongside Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair—a group of novels that shared, in his reckoning, a Catholic concern. The protagonists in those four books, he told his interviewer, “have all understood in the end.” They are redeemed, in one way or another.
Some in the Catholic Church didn’t see it that way; initially the Church condemned Greene’s book. “Novels which purport to be the vehicle for Catholic doctrine frequently contain passages which by their unrestrained portrayal of immoral conduct prove a source of temptation to many of their readers,” wrote Cardinal Griffin of the Vatican’s Holy Office.
But years later, during an audience with Pope Paul VI, Greene brought up Griffin’s words. The Pope, who had read The Power and the Glory, reportedly smiled.
“Mr. Greene,” he said, “some parts of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”
For Greene, it must have been the ultimate blessing.
The article above, written by Matthew Shaer, is reprinted with permission from the October 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!
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