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Title:Novel faiths: nonsecular fiction in the late-nineteenth-century U.S.
Author(s):Hedlin, Christine
Director of Research:Murison, Justine S.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Murison, Justine S.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Ebel, Jonathan; Foote, Stephanie; Hutner, Gordon
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):American literature
U.S. literature
nineteenth century
American literary history
Social Gospel
African American
women's fiction
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Henry James
William Dean Howells
Charles Sheldon
Kate Chopin
Harold Frederic
Pauline Hopkins
John Bruce
Sutton Griggs
Abstract:My dissertation, “Novel Faiths: Nonsecular Fiction in the Late-Nineteenth-Century U.S.,” presents a new theory of the novel genre using an archive seldom put to such ends: late-nineteenth-century America’s outpouring of popular religious fiction. For many scholars, the novel form and the period after the Civil War share a defining trait: they are uniquely modern, and that modernity rests in part upon their secularity, or turn away from shared religious worldviews. I argue instead that the mid- to late-nineteenth-century U.S. novel could be, and often was, consciously oriented toward modernity and the nonsecular. My theory of the novel centers on the genre’s formal and epistemological flexibility, its ability to represent characters’ experiences of multiple possible realities, both worldly and transcendent. I contend that, for this flexibility, the novel was a key testing ground for new Protestant beliefs emerging in the late nineteenth century—beliefs that responded experimentally to social and intellectual upheavals like the rise of Darwinian evolution, the death toll of the Civil War, and the social ills of industrialization. Using the characters’ patterns of belief as models, the religious novels taught their readers how to move between faith and empiricism, straddling knowledges and hybridizing worldviews that might otherwise seem at odds. These arguments about religious fiction have two implications for literary study. First, my project underscores how white Protestant traditions have historically asserted—and still assert—exclusionary power in the U.S. public sphere. I ask literary study to confront the reasons that the Protestant center of U.S. culture and literary-religious histories has endured for so long. At the same time, I also consider nineteenth-century religions as meaningful generators of worldviews, whose political consequences and cultural resonances were far from uniform. To this point, my project showcases how marginalized demographics, including women and racial minorities, have long used faiths to resist oppressive social structures and build communities. In Chapter One I examine Protestant responses to midcentury theories of natural selection through novels published just before and after Darwin’s _On the Origin of Species_ (1859) by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In these two texts, questions of theological and genetic determinism intertwine. I analyze the complex storytelling techniques that allow the texts to promote liberal Protestant over orthodox Calvinist responses. In Chapter Two, I focus on Spiritualism, an immensely popular movement devoted to speaking with the dead that gained new appeal after the Civil War. I read the sequels to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s Spiritualist bestseller _The Gates Ajar_ (1868) alongside novels on Spiritualism by canonical realists Henry James and William Dean Howells. I argue that Phelps reworks conventional theories of literary realism to acknowledge both material and spiritual realities. In Chapters Three and Four I shift my focus to the turn of the twentieth century. As I show in Chapter Three, American literary histories often present a personalized, eroticized “spirituality” as the modern alternative to organized religion. I counter this picture of religion in the U.S. by confronting, through Charles Sheldon’s bestselling Social Gospel novel _In His Steps_ (1896), the sociopolitical power of organized Protestantism and Protestant fiction at the turn of the century. Finally, as a counterpoint to this focus on white Protestantism’s power, in Chapter Four, I theorize a popular African American religious movement, Ethiopianism, as it responds to questions about turn-of-the-century African Americans’ fitness for future leadership. The Ethiopianist novels I analyze imagine the glorified Africa of biblical tradition being radically restored in their own day. In doing so, I argue, they present a radical alternative to visions of the U.S.’s secularization, creating a nonsecular basis for African American pride and solidarity.
Issue Date:2018-07-05
Rights Information:Copyright Christine Hedlin 2018
Date Available in IDEALS:2018-09-27
Date Deposited:2018-08

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