English Literature

Literary Scripturism

The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Character” (1866)
If there is anything in art that can take the place of religion, we should
like to see it.
Josiah Gilbert Holland, Every-Day Topics, 2nd series (1882)
That American thought before 1865 was markedly religiocentric is a
scholarly commonplace. Such was especially true of New England, owing
to the Puritan imprint, which Enlightenment rationalism did not
erase.1 Indeed, since the Reformation no region of the English-speaking
world has probably come closer to producing a body of writing that
bears out Northrop Frye’s dictum that the Bible is the master text to
which all Western literature may ultimately be referred.2 To affirm this is
not necessarily to insist that religious motives were the sole or the primary
determiners of human behavior even in the most pristine era of
New England’s settlement. Revisionist historians have argued with some
cogency that the documents on which intellectual history a la Perry
Miller has based its theologically oriented reconstructions of the New
England mind are a “rarefied form of cognitive speculation conducted by
the members of a specially trained elite”3 that understate the importance
of other motivating factors, social and economic, even for the elite itself.4
This argument, however, though valuable as a corrective, is even less
satisfactory as a comprehensive formulation of Puritan thought. “Compared
with Americans of the 18th or the 19th century,” Daniel Boorstin
commonsensically remarks, “the Puritans surely were theologyminded.”
5 The same can be said of the contrast between the 1850s and
today. In order for an Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be the national best-seller of
the 1980s, its diagnosis of American social ills would need considerable
secularization, unless students of contemporary religious preferences
have grossly underestimated the evangelical presence.6 Particularly in the
formulation of the “American way” for public purposes, including programs
for the development of national letters, Christian ideology was the
central animating, formative element down through the Civil War and
Julia Ward Howe’s unionist paean “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”7
Christian ideology was so pervasive, indeed, that a single chapter cannot
possibly explore all its literary ramifications. For convenience’s sake,
we shall concentrate on the single and most central topic of the use of
Scripture as a structural and thematic model for New England writers,
broadening our rubric a bit to admit Herman Melville, in line with the
ancient if debatable practice of appropriating him as an exhibit of certain
New England traits.
Between the Revolution and the Civil War, the relationship between
New England writing and New England piety became increasingly
complicated. The period saw a proliferation of literature using biblical
themes and models that, however, took place within the context of a
softening of theological rigor and in some ways accelerated that process
though in other ways seeming to reverse it. As we began to see in Chapter
2, the institutionalization of American belles lettres was accompanied and
facilitated by a shift in biblical studies, led by New England scholars,
from something like universal agreement among professing Christians
that the canonical Scriptures were inspired, historically accurate writings
to something like the present state of controversy, in which the traditional
view had to contend against varying shades of liberalization, including
the claim that the Bible was no more inspired than any other document.8
Recent scholarship has shown that these two trends interrelate as follows.
First, the erosion of the Bible’s privileged status acted as a literary stimulus
insofar as it prompted creative writers to think of secular literature
as a legitimate and even rival means of conveying spiritual experience.
During the Romantic period especially, the distinction between sacred
and secular writing was not just blurred but sometimes even inverted by
such claims as the argument that Scripture is only a form of poesis, hence
dependent for its authority on inspired vision, which artists have in greatest
measure. Consequently, a number of Anglo-American writers, starting
with Blake in England and Emerson in America, took the position
that the poet has the right, indeed the duty, to reconstruct mythology for
himself and his era.9 In the second place, the decline of scriptural authority
was symptomatic of a general softening of dogmatic structures, particularly
in mainline Protestant sects, that had the effect of pushing homiletics
and apologetics themselves in a more literary direction, away from
the systematic presentation of doctrine and toward impressionistic ap
peals to intuition and experience. One notable trend in Protestant preaching,
for example, was the changing ratio of doctrinal exposition to elaboration
of narrative and descriptive elements, as we move from the
sermons of the disciples of Jonathan Edwards to the sermons of Lyman
Beecher, in the next generation, to the sermons of Beecher’s son Henry
Ward and the other late nineteenth-century “pulpit princes.” The new
style partly just represented a pragmatic accommodation to what audiences
seemed to demand, but partly it marked a deeper change in theological
outlook, faith increasingly being defined in experiential as opposed
to creedal terms.10
The net effect of these changes was, at least superficially, to interlink
the domains of religious and belletristic enterprise more closely. Secular
literature acquired greater spiritual legitimacy as the propagation of religion
came to be seen as dependent upon verbal artistry and as the record
of revelation itself was seen to be a verbal artifact. Thus the young Emerson’s
Calvinist Aunt Mary, ever suspicious of newfangledness, could begin
to conquer her distaste for her nephew’s short-lived daydream of reviving
the drama in a chastened form fit for New England by reminding
herself of Eichhorn’s theory that the Revelation of St. John itself was expressed
in dramatic form (JMN 2:375). Thus by 1850 one of the leaders
of the liberal wing of Congregational orthodoxy could go so far as to
assert (though not with impunity) that “poets . . . are the true metaphysicians.”
11 The interpenetration of religion and literature also had its risks,
however, in that the erasure of the old line of distinction between sacred
and secular writing bespoke and also furthered an association of spirituality
with the process of perception or expression, as opposed to the
content of Scripture or doctrinal codification thereof. Ultimately this
drift toward subjectification threatened to deprive the would-be believer
of any objective referent for the “religious sentiment” and indeed of any
secure criteria for determining whether a given utterance, scriptural or
secular, was or was not inspired. This is the Trojan horse of the higher
criticism. “The pleasures of interpretation,” as Frank Kermode observes,
“are henceforth linked to loss and disappointment.”12 The emergence of
this awareness is one of the most important ways in which antebellum
New England literary thought seems modern, for hermeneutics – both
biblical and literary – still wrestles with the same problem today.

4 thoughts on “Literary Scripturism

  1. Still don’t get the tattooing of entire passages on ones body. Those are the same people who highlight everything in the book.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.