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New Biography of Peter Maurin in French

Jean Francois Salles, Peter Maurin l’appelait la Green Revolution (Mende, France : L’ours de granit 2021. https://www.loursdegranit.fr.

Reviewed by Allison Clifton

            When Jean-François Salles, a photographer in Lozère in southern France, met an American Catholic Worker looking for traces of Peter Maurin in the region, he knew little about the man they were seeking. For the first time, he heard about Maurin’s importance in the United States as a founder, with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker movement. Salles became particularly interested when he learned that he and Maurin had studied at the same school, Saint Privat, run by the Christian Brothers in the small town of Mende. Salles began to research him, explaining in his book: “I wanted to discover this person, who, across the Atlantic, had become a prophet who remains unknown in his own country…I became passionate about this unusual man. I tried to know him in order to better understand the actions that he undertook for the poorest among us. And also to make him known.”

            In his brief biography, Peter Maurin l’appelait la Green Revolution (Peter Maurin Called It the Green Revolution), Salles traces Maurin’s life, education, and work. The book, published in French by l’ours de granit, a new regional publisher based in Mende, is abundantly illustrated with black-and-white photographs and includes a bibliography and notes. Very little has been written in French about Maurin. Drawing extensively on English-language biographies and scholarship about Maurin, Salles gives the French reader a compelling overview of his life and its impact.

            Born in 1877 on a farm in the village of Oultet where enough food was grown to feed the family’s twenty-one children, Peter was raised in the strong Catholic faith of his parents and grandparents, all of whom instilled a love of charity and the poor in the boy. He first attended the village school, then Saint Privat, where he discerned a vocation, entering the Christian Brothers’ novitiate, first in Buzenval, then in Paris. He studied the Bible and Church Fathers and trained as a teacher, eventually teaching in several Christian Brothers’ schools. While in formation, he joined Le Sillon, a lay Catholic movement for workers, and began his military service. At the age of twenty-six, just before taking his final vows, Peter left the order, wanting not only to teach the poor, but also to find out about the source of their poverty. He worked, joined literary circles, read extensively, and continued as an active member of Le Sillon while still having to do periodic military service.

            By 1909, as France was becoming increasingly anti-religious, Peter decided to resist his next stint of military service by emigrating to Canada, which had no conscription. There he tried farming, but by 1911, he had moved to the United States, where he spent years working in construction, on the railroads, and finally as a teacher of French to soldiers about to enter World War I. Peter gave private French lessons, improved his English, opened a school, and for a time, lived a relatively comfortable life. Later, Peter said that during that time he felt removed from the Church and wasn’t living as a Catholic should. Eventually he began to give away his money, told his students to pay only what they wanted to, and began writing what would later be called his “easy essays.” He moved to New York and spent five years reading in libraries there: his own period of “clarification of ideas,” when he studied Karl Marx, Peter Kropotkin, papal encyclicals, Léon Bloy, and many others. Peter began to speak in public, trying to put his ideas into action.

            Salles cites previous biographers of Peter Maurin, including Arthur Sheehan, Marc Ellis, Lincoln Rice, Richard Wolff, and Richard Devine, as well as the historian of the Catholic Worker movement, William Miller. He also relies on writings of Dorothy Day in recounting Peter’s collaboration with her in founding the Catholic Worker movement. His purpose is to familiarize French readers with the story, not to propose a new version. He briefly recounts Dorothy’s life before her meeting with Peter, her work as a journalist, her conversion to Catholicism, and then goes on to describe the beginning of the Catholic Worker newspaper. Salles explains Peter’s idea of a Green Revolution (as opposed to the red revolution of Marxists and communists and the white revolution of fascists), referring to the green pastures for all the sheep of the Good Shepherd. As Peter envisioned it, there were three elements: Cult (religion), Culture (houses of hospitality), and Agriculture (farm communities). He was influenced by Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, Nicholas Berdyaev, and Charles Péguy, and shared their ideas during the programs of round-table discussions that he started in cities all over the country.

            Peter’s “Easy Essays” began appearing in the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933 and were collected in a volume in 1936. Sometimes called a troubadour or a modern Saint Francis of Assisi, Peter wrote these prose poems to be recited. Salles attributes Peter’s simplicity of expression and his repetition of key ideas and phrases to Peter’s training in the pedagogical techniques of the Christian Brothers, where concision and directness were valued. The essays are still widely read and have been published in many editions and translated into many languages.

            Salles writes of Peter’s close association with Dorothy, of their work together, and of her care for him during his final years, from his stroke near the end of 1944 until his death in 1949. He talks about the numerous houses of hospitality that still exist today and the lasting importance of Peter’s ideas, and concludes by arguing that he should be considered for canonization along with Dorothy Day. Salles includes in the appendix a French translation of the Houston Catholic Worker article published in July 2010 by Mark and Louise Zwick, “Why not Canonize Peter Maurin?”

            Despite a couple of inaccurate dates in the photo captions and a few typos, this very appealing volume provides a fine introduction in French to Peter Maurin’s life and work.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XLII, No. 2, April-June 2022.