- Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century
John Corrigan has written a rich and complicated book about the tangled subjects of religion, emotion, and the marketplace in the nineteenth-century United States. He begins his study with the Boston “Businessman’s Revival” of 1858, but he is interested in something far larger than those spring prayer meetings. The revival serves as a sort of peephole into the inner lives of Protestant white men. As they prayed and watched themselves praying, wept and controlled their weeping, they helped construct our modern world of contracts, commodities, and emotional exchange. In their public prayers, these New England Protestants found a balance between excessive excitement and cold calculation and offered emotional appeals to their God in hopes of receiving divine favors in return. They learned to imagine emotions as commodities, things to be bartered, bought, and sold. As Corrigan writes, the “Businessmen’s Revival in Boston was the assertion of Protestant identity vis-à-vis other groups through the mass performance of emotion as a commodities transaction, regulated in specific ways, and carried out under the authority of contractual obligation.(251)”
While Corrigan’s argument lacks the great elegance of Max Weber’s description of the Protestantism’s role in the rise of capitalism, he does capture something of the peculiar American obsessions with God and business. He has read widely in the primary sources produced at mid-century by middle-class Bostonians. He uses sermons, magazines, diaries, and letters to reconstruct their emotional lives and theoretical writings from the behavioral and social sciences, literary theory, philosophy, gender studies, and theology to figure out what larger significance we might attach to a city filled suddenly with praying white men.
We learn first that these white Boston businessmen have been living in unhappy and unsettled times. The financial crisis, that followed the Panic of 1857, [End Page 1075] had done them no good, and their once splendid city seemed as much a scene of corruption, crime, poverty, and unemployment as a new Athens rising on the banks of the Charles River. Nor were their churches centers of stability. An expanding and apparently ever-changing population of young men kept moving to Boston from the countryside. These young men did not necessarily promise a city of filled churches and fixed congregations. But they did make a city rich in spectacles and performances. Bostonians, rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native born, male and female, turned out for fires, fireworks, executions, and stage plays. At public spectacles Bostonians practiced the proper forms for public displays of emotion.
Public displays of emotion lie at the heart of Corrigan’s book. Emotions, not ethics or economics, he argues connect Protestantism to the marketplace. Corrigan considers his book a contribution to the history of “emotionology,” a term he borrows from the work of Peter N. and Carol Z. Stearns. The Stearns suggest we study what are the cultural conventions for the display or concealment of emotion.
Corrigan argues that Americans living in the middle years of the nineteenth century experienced a crisis in the cultural conventions governing emotional expression. He finds evidence of the crisis in writings that described urban crowds as given to riot and disorder and in descriptions the market where too much excitement led to panic and collapse and too little led to stagnation. A crisis in emotional expression appeared in churches where lack of constraint led to the irrational excesses of spiritualism. And, according to Corrigan, when middle-class white women worked to soften husbands’ hearts hardened from days spent in the counting house, they addressed the crisis in emotions.
Each piece of this story has been told before. Corrigan’s accomplishment here is to weave the pieces together and produce from the connections among them a different way of thinking about white male life in New England at mid-century. Put simply, struggles to express and to govern emotion shaped public and private life. Emotional exchange affected business, just as it did...