The Essential Soul of Daniel Berrigan

National Review, November 9, 1973; reprinted in Walter Berns, In Defense of Liberal Democracy (Regnery Gateway, 1984).


It is Dan’s talent for publicity that accounts for the swiftness of his elevation to the ranks of the exalted. Unlike [Thomas] More, Dan has written a play about his own martyrdom—probably the first to do so—in which he is likened to Jesus Christ and Socrates. Thus he serves as his own chronicler, being unwilling, the times being what they are, to wait for an apostle or a Plato or Xenophon, or to trust them with the nuances of the material. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine has been a smash hit in theaters in Europe and Canada, as well as in the United States; and now, thanks to Gregory Peck and the actor who plays Dan, and managed to catch his “essential soul,” there is the film, capable of bringing the message to millions. The third act is the important act; here the nine defendants speak to the court and, through the agency of Dan’s poetry, to Gregory Peck and the rest of mankind. Dan sees to it that his brother Philip speaks first and that he himself speaks last, sort of wrapping it up for the defense, and not only last, but longest, getting 14 and a half pages to John Hogan’s one and a half, for example, or Mary Moylan’s three and a half. Anyone can burn a draft card, but only a poet can be trusted to immortalize the event, because only the poet, or someone like him, can see its full significance. Only the poet will know what to say in the dramatic presentation of the trial, because only the poet can see the significance of The Trial….

American Enterprise Institute
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