Thursday, July 14, 2005
After reading PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson, I thought: well, these books sound remarkably familiar--in fact, I’ve got more of them than you can shake the proverbial stick at, except that they happen to have been written in the nineteenth century and not our own. I then toddled over to Douglas Kennedy’s original article in the Guardian, which prompted another thought: wait a moment, something’s not right here. Specifically, this:
Peretti was working in virgin territory, as one of the first born-again novelists to use popular genres. Indeed, if you trawl through American literary history, you will find it difficult to discover a previous school of evangelical fiction. Though the US has always had its profoundly religious aspects - as befits a country that started as a Christian experiment - the Massachusetts Bay puritans didn’t initially bequeath the world any novelists. And American literature from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter onwards has always been rooted in a deep religious scepticism - one which also, in part, reflects the secularism of the framers of the American constitution.
In fact, the only real American Christian novel of the 19th century was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous Uncle Tom’s Cabin - an anti-slavery tract that now reads like a black-and-white minstrel show ("I s’pect I growed. Don’t think nobody ever made me")....
I normally hang out on the other side of the pond, it’s true, but even so, this is an odd interpretation of American literary history. Candy Gunther Brown would, I suspect, be somewhat puzzled. In fact, nineteenth-century American publishers printed mass quantities of Christian fiction, evangelical and otherwise. Novelists like Elizabeth Prentiss, Susan Warner, Edward Payson Roe, Lew Wallace, and Lucy Ellen Guernsey (scroll down) all enjoyed international success; in addition, American publishers reprinted--legally and otherwise--popular British Christian novelists from a variety of denominations, like Elizabeth Rundle Charles, Emily Sarah Holt, Emma Leslie, George MacDonald, George E. Sargent, and Mary Martha Sherwood. There was a flourishing trade in anti-Catholic fiction ("Helen Dhu," Henry Morgan, Julia M’Nair Wright), as well as in Catholic fiction (e.g., the prolific Anna Hansen Dorsey). Children, of course, were a popular target audience, and publishers like the still-extant American Tract Society and the Presbyterian Board of Publication printed both American and (often adapted) British novels.
It’s true that many of nineteenth-century America’s great writers were unorthodox believers or downright skeptics; a survey of canonical nineteenth-century British fiction would turn up just as many Christian novelists whose Christianity was unsatisfactory by the lights of their more orthodox contemporaries, let alone contemporary fundamentalists or evangelicals. If tried by the standards of Denominational Correctness, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Thackeray, Disraeli (whose idea of Christianity was, er, odd), and Collins would find themselves in hot water. Nevertheless, they sold. (Never mind that one of the acknowledged great moral novelists of the age, George Eliot, was not only an extremely lapsed Christian, but also a woman living in compromising circumstances.) Similarly, a market for Twain and Hawthorne co-existed with a market for E. P. Roe; the two hardly cancelled each other out.
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
Nancy Bentley has somewhere an essay on late 19th century Mormon and anti-Mormon fiction centering on the issue of polygamy.
Ah, journalism, where “history” consists of what one personally recalls and “science” consists of what one can derive from a press release....
I very much enjoyed seeing your list. As someone who’s more interested in anticipations of late twentieth century science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism than late twentieth century religious fiction, I’d like to ask: Have you encountered any books which (like the “Left Behind” series) use explicitly fantastic conventions to advance their agendas?
Most likely, I’d bet, would be stories resolved in miracles (anticipating the secular mystical revelations of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Theodore Sturgeon, or the secular semi-horrific angel novels by Barbara Comyns and M. John Harrison), or “It CAN Happen Here!!” dystopias depicting a Papist-ruled North America. Do I win?
"Ah, journalism, where “history” consists of what one personally recalls and “science” consists of what one can derive from a press release....”
That passage that Miriam quotes half-snagged my attention when I first read the article - I half-thought (wait - that’s not right - HBS wasn’t the only - that’s absurd - ) but I had other fish to fry so I rushed ahead to fry them in a very hot pan with a splash of calvados.
Anyway if I had paused, I would only have waved my hands around and said there were lots more, lots; I wouldn’t have provided the specifics that Miriam did.
I can’t think of anything equivalent to the “Left Behind” series in Victorian Britain, although Elizabeth Harcourt Mitchell’s late-19th c. The Church in the Valley uses a time-travel device.
Thanks, Miriam. I see from my otherwise fruitless Googling that you mentioned it in one of your Week’s Acquistions posts. Didn’t make it to the rowdy University of California collections, I’m afraid, but the important thing to know is that I lost my bet. And I must admit to being intrigued by the title of Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell’s Death by Hogarth, so maybe it won’t be a total loss.
(It was English and published in 1904, but I can’t help but throw in the wild card of Baron Corvo’s secular-religious-Catholic-anti-Catholic power fantasy, Hadrian the Seventh, although I guess its foundation nuzzles the Decadent-Satanist-Catholic-conversion subgenres.)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous Uncle Tom’s Cabin - an anti-slavery tract that now reads like a black-and-white minstrel show
Doesn’t suggest the best judgment or most up-to-date knowledge either. I think the current prevalent view is that UTC is a great novel, and one of moral grandeur, if also marred by some of its main strategies and some of its unresolved ambivalence about the future for freed slaves.
Sean, if you value the sentimental as an aesthetic, it’s a great novel. Period. Elizabeth Dillion rounds up the recent reevaluation of “sentimental aesthetics,” but I can reduce the argument even further: the “aesthetic” value of a work is determined by whether it’s ideologically complicit in the repressive culture of the time or “progressive.” If it’s progressive, there can be little doubt as to its “aesthetic” qualities, and vice versa. (That’s not Dillion’s argument, but what I take as the implications of the works she discusses.) Any idea of a universal aesthetic’s dismissed, replaced by a contemporary judgment based not on the qualities of a work but on its flattery of or concord with the contemporary ideologue’s assumptions. Not that there’s anything wrong with that...except that it’s not an “aesthetic.” Just don’t tell Them that.