Culture and Redemption

Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature

Tracy Fessenden
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 352
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sdhr
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    Culture and Redemption
    Book Description:

    Many Americans wish to believe that the United States, founded in religious tolerance, has gradually and naturally established a secular public sphere that is equally tolerant of all religions--or none.Culture and Redemptionsuggests otherwise. Tracy Fessenden contends that the uneven separation of church and state in America, far from safeguarding an arena for democratic flourishing, has functioned instead to promote particular forms of religious possibility while containing, suppressing, or excluding others. At a moment when questions about the appropriate role of religion in public life have become trenchant as never before,Culture and Redemptionradically challenges conventional depictions--celebratory or damning--of America's "secular" public sphere.

    Examining American legal cases, children's books, sermons, and polemics together with popular and classic works of literature from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries,Culture and Redemptionshows how the vaunted secularization of American culture proceeds not as an inevitable by-product of modernity, but instead through concerted attempts to render dominant forms of Protestant identity continuous with democratic, civil identity. Fessenden shows this process to be thoroughly implicated, moreover, in practices of often-violent exclusion that go to the making of national culture: Indian removals, forced acculturations of religious and other minorities, internal and external colonizations, and exacting constructions of sex and gender. Her new readings of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Stowe, Twain, Gilman, Fitzgerald, and others who address themselves to these dynamics in intricate and often unexpected ways advance a major reinterpretation of American writing.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3730-4
    Subjects: Religion, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-12)

    I discovered early in my work on this book that the short answer I usually gave to the polite question of what I was writing about—“American literature and secularization”—invariably failed to conjure, in the listener’s imagination, a vivid panorama of persons, events, and literary works that might unfold under that rubric. (I typically drew a puzzled silence, followed quickly by a compassionate redirection of the conversation along different lines.) But neither did the alternate answer I sometimes gave to the same question—“American literature andreligion”—succeed any more in conveying a world of vibrant and many-layered possibility,...

  5. Part One: Protestantism and the Social Space of Reading
    • Chapter One LEGIBLE DOMINION: PURITANISM’S NEW WORLD NARRATIVE
      (pp. 15-33)

      When Cristóbal Colón arrived on the shores of the Bahamas in 1492, he staked his claim to their possession in a flourish of Catholic theatricality, calling members of his expedition duly to witness his consecration of the land “in the name of our most illustrious Monarch, with public proclamation and with unfurled banners.”¹ Some fourteen decades later, the English Puritans who arrived in the New World territories they seized as their refuge from popish and prelatical worldliness described their taking of the land as initiated simply, as John Winthrop put it in hisHistory of New England from 1630 to...

    • Chapter Two PROTESTANT EXPANSION, INDIAN VIOLENCE, AND CHILDHOOD DEATH: THE NEW ENGLAND PRIMER
      (pp. 34-59)

      “Tis not only . . . aCivil Educationthat you must give unto your children,” Cotton Mather wrote in his 1702 sermon, “Cares About the Nurseries,” but also “that which is peculiar to aChristian”:

      Here is theBest knowledgethat our children can have. . . . He knows the bestRhetoricthat knows how toPersuadehis own Heart unto the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. He knows the bestLogicthat knows how to conquer theDevilin disputing against hisTemptations. He knows the bestArithmeticthat knows how toNumber his dayes with...

    • Chapter Three FROM DISESTABLISHMENT TO “CONSENSUS”: THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY BIBLE WARS AND THE LIMITS OF DISSENT
      (pp. 60-83)

      The civil and spiritual maturity to which theNew England Primernurtured its generations of readers came by the end of the eighteenth century to entail independence not only from British rule but increasingly also from established American churches.¹ Just prior to the Revolution, religious establishment was the rule in nine of the thirteen colonies. Soon after, New York’s state constitution of 1777 abolished establishment, South Carolina’s in 1778 for the first time required it, and other states proceeded unevenly to codify their relationship to established churches.² The decisive blow to religious establishment came in 1786, when a coalition of...

    • Chapter Four CONVERSION TO DEMOCRACY: RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE
      (pp. 84-108)

      Nineteenth-century attempts by Catholics and others to remove the King James Bible from the public school curriculum were derided in the national press both as “secularizing” (for promoting godlessness) and as “unsecularizing” (for introducing sectarianism). Such characterizations suggest at once how resourceful and how vexed were efforts to maintain the Protestant “consensus” as the invisible, organizing center of American democratic culture. In the 1870 Thomas Nast cartoons that commented obliquely on Cincinnati’s Bible-reading cases, the multicultural circle in which children of visibly different groups join hands mutes the specificity of Catholic-Protestant conflict by imaging the public school as a robustly...

  6. Part Two: Secular Fictions
    • Chapter Five FROM ROMANISM TO RACE: UNCLE TOM’S CABIN
      (pp. 111-136)

      Simon Legree’s taunting invitation to “join [his] church” reminds us that the novel routinely credited with abolishing slavery relied for at least part of its force on anxieties surrounding religious conversion.¹ While conversion as the emotional surrender to clarified faith under one or another form of Protestantism remained the norm when Harriet Beecher Stowe was writingUncle Tom’s Cabin, as many as seven hundred thousand Americans did join the Roman Catholic Church as converts in the nineteenth century. The middle third of the century also saw the arrival of nearly three million Catholic immigrants, whose perceived intemperance, sexual license, and...

    • Chapter Six MARK TWAIN AND THE AMBIVALENT REFUGE OF UNBELIEF
      (pp. 137-160)

      In 1983 a black administrator at the propitiously named Mark Twain Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia produced an edition of theAdventures of Huckleberry Finnfrom which the words “nigger” and “hell” were removed. John H. Wallace urged that Twain’s novel be “listed as racistand excluded” from middle and high school classrooms, and intended for his altered version to be used only in schools where it remained required reading. Arguing that the experience of being made to readHuckleberry Finnaloud could be “devastatingly traumatic” for black pupils, Wallace insisted that those pupils not be forced by “so powerful...

    • Chapter Seven SECULARISM, FEMINISM, IMPERIALISM: CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN AND THE PROGRESS NARRATIVE OF U.S. FEMINISM
      (pp. 161-180)

      How might a theory of secularization serve to unite the seemingly disparate discourses of feminism and racial imperialism? This is a question that might fruitfully be put to a promising departure in the writing of U.S. women’s history, which has sought to place the American women’s movement in the latter nineteenth century within the contours of a broader, social-evolutionary discourse of civilization. InWhite Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States—which can stand in for much of the best of this work—Louise Newman calls attention to the ways that nineteenth-century appeals on behalf of...

    • Chapter Eight F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S CATHOLIC CLOSET
      (pp. 181-212)

      In a luminous essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, Mitchell Breitweiser suggests that Fitzgerald’s gift for rendering that epoch lay in his ability not only to get the details just right but to make even the most localizing of details seem to burn with the brightness of national energies, to participate sacramentally, as it were, in the nation itself. Fitzgerald’s America, Breitwieser writes, “is where the Eucharist couples with the commodity fetish,” the author’s “spiritual and libidinal nationalism appropriating the emotional and theoretical energies of his Roman Catholic upbringing” to bestow “the kiss of worth on objects...

    • Afterword AMERICAN RELIGION AND THE FUTURE OF DISSENT
      (pp. 213-218)

      I began making plans for this book as President Bill Clinton was battling impeachment and finished a draft just as President George W. Bush was elected to a second term. Roughly midway between these events came the September 11 attacks, whose reverberations in our global and domestic policy continue to rob what solace might otherwise be had in the arc of events from the harrowing back to the merely dispiriting. During this time it occurred to me more than once that whatever social capital might remain to left-leaning academics surely ought not to be squandered in calling even the progressive...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 219-288)
  8. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 289-322)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 323-337)