Berrigan & Sheen & Churchill for One Night Only

I can only imagine what Winston Churchill would have made of Daniel Berrigan. I do find it rather poignant to recall Father Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and peace activist, who died last Saturday at 94 and whose funeral Mass is today in New York City, descending on Chartwell Booksellers, my little Winston Churchill bookshop, in April 1988 to read from his then-just-published memoir, To Dwell in Peace. Given Churchill's initial feelings about Gandhi ("a...half-naked... fakir"), I would hazard that his gut take on Berrigan would not have been appreciative. At first. But Churchill did admire persons of action and conscience and Berrigan certainly was both. I bet they would have enjoyed each other.

Father Berrigan arrived at Chartwell Bookseller on the evening of April 4, 1988 in the company of two celebrity supporting guest readers, the actors Martin Sheen and Edward Hermann. Berrigan had become quite a celebrity himself protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s -- stoking huge anti-war rallies, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and getting himself arrested with gaudily theatrical acts of civil disobedience, in tandem with his brother Philip, like the napalming of draft records at a Catonsville, Maryland draft board in 1968. By the 1980s, though, the Berrigans were retreating from celebrity to focus on smaller (however still noteworthy) protests opposing nuclear armament and advocating for peace.

Chartwell Booksellers was barely five years old in 1988 and, in my mind, still very much a general interest bookstore. The impending arrival in the marketplace of the behemoth Barnes & Noble superstores, followed by the behemoth itself, Amazon, would soon divest me of this illusion, making it crystal clear that focusing on Winston Churchill as a singular specialty was the only way to assure Chartwell Booksellers' survival.

In the store's formative years, however, I enlisted "celebrity" in the service of literature as a means of promoting my new enterprise. In our second year of existence, I created a reading series that I called "First Readings at Chartwell Booksellers: A Fanfare for New Fiction," bringing in distinguished actors to read from newly published novels and short story collections. Elizabeth McGovern (best-known today as Cora Crawley on Downton Abbey) was our first guest reader on April 1, 1986. She delivered a riveting performance and a suitably big crowd for Bobbie Ann Mason's magnificent post-Vietnam-era novel, In Country. Judd Nelson (then of "The Brat Pack"), Brooke Adams, Kate Nelligan, Judith Ivey, David Alan Grier and a newbie Alec Baldwin, were just a few of the big names who drew throngs to Chartwell Booksellers in those first years.

I came to Father Berrigan by way of Martin Sheen, not the other way around. Sheen was set to open in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Julius Caesar, playing Brutus to Al Pacino's Antony and Edward Hermann's Cassius, when I approached him about doing a Chartwell reading. Sheen readily agreed but specified that the book he wanted to read was Daniel Berrigan's new memoir... alongside the author himself. Sheen's history as a member of Berrigan's Catholic activist flock ran deep. He had been arrested in a demonstration with Berrigan in New York City in 1986 and would be arrested with him again in the future.

I had already begun experimenting with Non-Fiction "First Readings" in our series. The prospect of a Berrigan and Sheen non-fiction evening was sweetened by Ed Hermann's offer to join the proceedings. The turnout, unsurprisingly, was tumultuous.

In listening today to our recording of the event (you should too, just click HERE), I'm struck by the resonances that Berrigan's writing reverberates with for our own troubling moment in time. He opens by dedicating the reading to the memory of Martin Luther King, whose twentieth assasination anniversary was, in fact, that very day. Income inequality, the inequitable political power of the moneyed few in our democracy, and the specter of prisons overpopulated by the minority poor, were among Berrigan's targets that night. His prescience, and the intransigence of these issues in America still, are reason enough to read Daniel Berrigan and To Dwell in Peace today. I'm proud to say that, once upon a time, Father Berrigan came to Chartwell Booksellers and spoke to us. I do believe that Churchill would have listened. I'd like to think he might even have approved.

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