Sunday, April 21, 2013

How the American Novel Lost Its Religion

American fiction was once inseparable from proselytizing. How did it become the anticlerical, ego-theistic literature of today? Cultural historian Philip F. Gura looks at the evolution.

From a piece in the Daily Beast...

The early 19th century was characterized by major transformations of traditional patterns of belief. In 1800 the overwhelming majority of Americans defined themselves as subjects of a distant, all-powerful God. A quarter century later, as the secular, republican beliefs of the revolutionary generation took deeper root, religious belief moved hesitantly and not without conflict toward the idea of free will. Then, in the two decades prior to the Civil War, there occurred a momentous shift from free will to self-consciousness. As Emerson put it, “the mind became aware of itself.” To him, to like-minded contemporaries, and to many if not most Americans since, the once-accepted notion that a person should spend his time on earth building his Christian character was obsolete. Instead, each American should spend his days cultivating his individualism, his selfhood.
As it developed, the American novel embodied these monumental changes in belief and consciousness. At the start of the century, novelists often took religious tracts as the models for their fiction. These were short allegories and parables aimed at the pious Christian that circulated widely due to enterprising clergymen and the advent of new publishing technologies. Sarah Savage’s Factory Girl (1814), one of the first novels set in a manufacturing village, made a statement about the rewards of patient and pious suffering that would have resonated with readers of religious tracts.

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