Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own. This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced. The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane. Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson. And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.
“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.” As evidence, Sheed could cite much. By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s, American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day. In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.” Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.” In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.” In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”
[Please continue to page 2 of the post]