Essay / Theology

Nathan Chapman Kouns, Author of Arius the Libyan

Arius the Libyan: An Idyll of the Early Church (NY: Appleton, 1884) was a work of historical fiction that portrayed Arius as the real hero of the fourth century. To portray Arius as the good guy requires a complete re-imagining of what Christianity is all about, and that’s what Arius the Libyan attempted. Read my summary and analysis of the book’s theology in a previous post.

Reception of Arius the Libyan

How was the book received? Did people like it?

Arius the Libyan sold well and was reprinted several times, down into the 1930s. The book was well-received by the general public. Harper’s Magazine said the book succeeds in “Portraying the life and character of the primitive Christians with great force and vividness of imagination.”  The Continent wrote,

It is a story of the development of religious thought; the conflict between early Christianity and idolatry, the sharp struggles of doubt in minds that could feel the beauty but dreaded the leveling influence of the new creed. The passage of the little Theckla from the faith in Egyptian idols to that in the Christ is most delightfully told, …  There is a most masterly portrait of the Emperor Constantine, and the crowd of lesser actors are all faithfully drawn. From the martyrdom of Theckla, just as life opened most brightly, to the quiet passing of Arius long years afterward, the picture is a noble one. Nothing sweeter and purer in tone has been given for long, and the most indifferent reader must feel the intense inward force which has governed the author and made in Arius a book of deep and permanent value.

The New York Observer said it was “a work of great beauty and power, and with fascinating style and intimate knowledge of the history of the early centuries of the Christian era.” And the Boston Globe said, “The noble plan, the grave importance of the questions that agitate its characters, its religious interest to believer and skeptic, its historical learning and thought, its dramatic construction and force, its beautiful style, combine to make the work a powerful and valuable production, without a rival in its field.”

The 1928 reprint features an introduction by Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Butler admits, “when Arius the Libyan was first published, nearly forty years ago, I was one of its most eager and most interested readers.” He commends the book wholeheartedly;

It is significant and most hopeful that after forty years there is again demand for an edition of this book.  Let us hope that it means that among the youth of this generation are also to be found many who find intellectual satisfaction and stimulus to wise and continuing reflection in this most important part of the story of the beginnings of what we call civilization.

Butler does, at last, register a little warning about the historical inaccuracies and fabrications of Arius the Libyan. “To enjoy and to profit by this striking book one need not place too implicit a faith in its historical exactness. Still less need one accept, or even sympathize with, its extreme communistic and mystical interpretation of early Christian doctrine.” Well, what should we place some implicit faith in? Butler answers, “the reader will like to dwell rather upon the charming picture of the Christian family between mountain and strand and Baucalis…” Fans of the book seemed to be drawn to its descriptive charm, and were able to ignore historical questions. That may seem an odd way to approach a work of  historical fiction, but more recently the fans of The DaVinci Code were equally capable of making a distinction between historical accuracy and an engaging story.

Novels of the Early Church

Arius the Libyan belongs to a particular genre, and one that was very popular in the nineteenth century. Curtis Dahl  points to “a long and special tradition of English and American historical fiction set in the early days of Christianity, based on antiquarian research, concerned with moral, philosophical, and religious ideas, and dealing in historical disguise with religious and philosophical issues of the nineteenth century” (in “Pater’s Marius and Historical Novels on Early Christian Times,” in Nineteenth Century Fiction Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jun., 1973), pp. 1-24)) Walter Pater’s  Marius the Epicurean (1885) is “culmination and apogee” of the tradition, and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880) is the breakaway best seller for these Bible-time prose costume dramas. The genre developed in “several sharply differentiated yet related directions…” reports Dahl.

One direction was toward the Gothic novel of violent action and terror with only slight ideological content. Typically in these novels an evil Egyptian priest of Isis, seconded by the diabolic incantations of a hag witch, lustfully drags the innocent heroine into secret vaults beneath a pagan temple to rape her. The hero rescues her only to face horrible death with her from the jaws of ravening beasts in an arena or colosseum. At the very last moment, according to the usual scenario, the good characters are saved by a miraculous cataclysm or the heroic fidelity of their friends, usually Christians. Pirates, sea fights, buried treasure, battles, and agonizing sieges are sprinkled in for condiment.

Notable examples of this type include Edward Bulwer’s Last Days of Pompeii (1834), and books like Fall of Rome, The Gladiators, and of course Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880).

There were also many early church novels written by theologians and clergy with didactic purposes. John Henry Newman wrote Callista: A Tale of the Third Century in 1855; and his nemesis Charles Kingsley wrote Hypatia: A Novel (about the fifth century) in 1853. Cardinal Wiseman wrote Fabiola, or Church of the Catacombs, in 1852. These are important authors, and the historical novel was an influential way of communicating a vision of early Christianity.

Nathan Chapman Kouns

Such fame as Kouns ever had rested on this one successful novel. A 1930 article in the Missouri Historical Review says “his wide learning and literary attainments entitle him to a lasting place on the scroll of Missouri authors,” but  adds that his “crowning work, and the one which should entitle him to immortality with the lovers of literature and those interested in the early history of the Christian church, is Arius, the Libyan.” (Robert F. Walker, “Nathan Chapman Kouns,” Missouri Historical Review 24/4 (July 1930), 516-520).

Kouns, born in Missouri in 1833, was educated by private tutors and graduated from St. Charles College in 1852. He studied law, and was admitted to the bar. “He practiced law intermittently, giving more of his time until the Civil War to the classics and to treatises upon government and patristic literature.” He was devoted to Calhoun’s doctrines about states rights, and when the Civil War came, he enlisted in the Confederate army. “He opened a law office in Fulton upon his return but devoted, as he had always done, more time to Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and Horace, than Blackstone and Kent. Persons seeking legal aid sought other counsel,” notes his biographer Robert Walker.

Failing at the law he established a newspaper at Fulton, called ‘Fair Play.’ The prejudices engendered by the Civil war had not sufficiently subsided to enable one to successfully conduct a paper in this locality, the editorial expressions of which ran counter to public opinion. His personal views, therefore, as to what he deemed fair play, especially when he devoted more time to his individual ideas, as to religion and politics than to current events and live issues, soon resulted in his venture proving a failure.

Kouns moved to Jefferson City where he was elected librarian of the Supreme Court law library. Among the personal effects he left at his death was the manuscript of an unpublished dramatic poem in blank verse entitled Benedict Arnold. The author who depicted arch-heretic Arius as a hero later took up the cause of arch-traitor Benedict Arnold. The result was apparently not exactly a picture of  Benedict Arnold as the real hero of the American Revolution, but a sympathetic account of him as a complex and conflicted tragic figure.

Biography and Motivations

It is always easy to see another person’s bias, and hard to see our own. Without claiming to see straight through Nathan Chapman Kouns, we can still point to some of the most obvious ways that his life and interests motivated his storytelling.

Kouns was an attorney. With literary clients like Arius and Benedict Arnold, he may have been a defense attorney. At least he seems to have had a knack for championing the underdog, or the people who history remembers as the villains.

Kouns’ position in nineteenth century America was a distorting influence on his reconstruction of the third century. Just picture the events of Arius the Libyan against the background of America in the 1880s. Three major trends dominated American life at the time of Kouns’ writing: Urbanization, industrialization, and the post-Civil War reconstruction.

The urbanization of this time period was often an ugly thing, and might well make one long for a more idyllic setting. The industrialization of this period was also fairly grim in the city centers, and would certainly lead one to economic reflections on the alienation of productive, meaningful work from the daily activity of making a living. The 1880s are precisely the years when the labor movement in America began to develop an organized reaction to the plight of workers. Kouns imagined a perfect alternative world: a rural setting in which private property was abolished and everything was held in common.

As for the pressure of reconstruction, Kouns was a proud Missourian who enlisted in the Confederate army when the war came. By 1877 the United States was finally beginning to experience some political healing between North and South, but Kouns was an opinionated man who had lived and worked through the entire Civil War, and carried on life in a defeated, reconstructed South. It’s tempting to see Kouns’ Confederate sympathies at work behind a lot of the political vision in Arius the Libyan. In particular, it’s hard to read his imaginative portrayal of Constantine without seeing Lincoln, or at least a Southern perspective on Lincoln, in the background. The greatest obstacle to the ideal life was a personally charismatic chief executive who was willing to do anything to preserve and extend political unity.

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