The morning watch

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Houghton Mifflin, 1951 - Fiction - 120 pages
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User Review  - janemarieprice - LibraryThing

A young boy is in boarding school, struggling with his religious (Catholic) identity, trying to fit in with the other boys. There were some really interesting parts dealing with ritual and dogma. Highly recommended. Read full review

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Several reviewers have said this book is about a "Catholic boy" or "Catholicism" but in fact it is about "Anglo-Catholicism," i.e. very High-Church Episcopalianism, the faith in which Agee was brought up and which also figures in A Death in the Family. Both books are transparently autobiographical, revealing the devastating emotional impact of his father's sudden death and his mother's extreme and morbid piety on the highly sensitive and gifted young Rufus, as Agee was known as a child (he is pseudonymed "Richard" in The Morning Watch, but referred to by his real name in A Death in the Family). In The Morning Watch, he is about eleven or twelve, in contrast to the much younger Rufus in A Death in the Family.
The central portion of the book is a tour de force of spiritual writing, relating literally moment by moment Richard's stream of consciousness as he struggles to pray during his appointed hour of night vigiling before the Reserved Sacrament during the pre-dawn darkness on Good Friday, at the religious boarding school he is attending. The descriptions of the candle-lit, flower-packed chapel, stuffy and perfumed, through the sleepy but alert eyes of the earnest, devout child, represent some of the richest, most evocative, and incredibly precise prose-poetry that Agee, a master of that genre, ever wrote. Readers who themselves have struggled to stay focused in prayer will recognize many of Richard's frustrations and distractions, and be moved to compassion and rueful bemusement at the acute and sympathetic accuracy of Agee's anatomization of both the process of prayer and the inner workings of the pre-adolescent psyche.
The enigmatically allegorical last third of the book narrates an off-campus escapade undertaken by Richard and several other boys when they should have been returning to bed after their turn at the chapel vigil. The writing is still masterful and beautiful, but the significance of the episode, with its obviously sexual undercurrents, is so open-ended -- so tenuously integrated with the central portion of the book -- as to leave the reader wondering whether Agee himself quite knew what he was attempting to convey by juxtaposing these two narratives.


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