- The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture: Muslim Sources from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Jeffrey Einboden
Jeffrey Einboden's The Islamic Lineage describes the place of Arabic and Islam in the careers of five erudite Anglo-American figures: Ezra Stiles, William Bentley, Washington Irving, Lydia Maria Child, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Einboden demonstrates beyond argument that these five people, whose lives spanned roughly 150 years, took varying levels of interest in the language of the Qur'an and in the religion to which the Qur'an is central.
That Einboden has done the work of documenting and describing these [End Page 985] relationships or, as he calls them, "investments," is a significant accomplishment. Those of us who teach courses in American religious history face the perennial challenge of convincing students and the interested public that Protestant Christianity—which was itself no monolith—was never the only game in town in North America. Literature scholars who take an interest in religion struggle against similar headwinds. Einboden's book provides solid additional evidence of the complexity of white Americans' linguistic and religious interests from the colonial period forward. Practicing Muslims among the North American slave population are barely visible in his narrative or in the writings of Stiles, Bentley, Irving, Child, and Emerson, but this is a book about language and faith as written and imagined rather than as spoken and lived.
Those who take the book's title as a promise of a deep and continuous lineage or of a tight genealogy may be disappointed. Einboden has, as mentioned, found five figures who worked on Arabic, sought Arabic writings, and thought about Islam. Some of them were aware of the others' works in the way that literary elites often are. But Ezra Stiles's philological concerns, William Bentley's manuscript collecting, and Washington Irving's works of fiction and nonfiction look more like lily pads in different bays of a lake than branches of the same tree. Each grew and developed in a different location, each reached a different depth, each arose from specific circumstances for specific ends. There are similarities, to be sure, but they do not rely on each other in any demonstrable way. Still, these lily pads are important in a nation that too often imagines that America's relationship to the Middle East has always been about oil or that Islam only began to matter to Americans after 9/11.
Einboden has done valuable work discovering and describing elite interests in Arabic and Islam. His book has its flaws, though, both conceptual and stylistic. Too often in the early chapters of the book, Einboden elides Arabic and Islam, seeing interest in the former as interest in the latter. Just as widespread interest in Hebrew among New England divines was rarely indicative of interest in Judaism, engagements with Arabic, though sometimes involving Islamic texts, are not necessarily a sign of interest in Islam. Surely Einboden knows this. He could have been more explicit on the point and delved into the various types and degrees of interest, perhaps even weighing those interests in Islam against other interests in the lives and careers of his subjects. As it is, Einboden seems eager to treat evidence of [End Page 986] an "Islamic investment" as momentous, revolutionary, or, in the case of this excerpt from Lydia Maria Child's, Aspirations of the World, "audacious":
"Fair planet," thought Mary, "how various are the scenes thou passest over in the shining course. The solitary nun, in the recesses of her cloister, looks on thee as I do now; mayhap too, the courtly circle of king Charles are watching the motion of thy silver chariot. … Thou hast kissed the cross-crowned turrets of the Catholic, and the proud spires of the Episcopalian. Thou hast smiled on distant mosques and temples, and now thou art shedding the same light on the sacrifice heap of the Indian, and the rude dwellings of the Calvinist."(97)
In the United States that Child knew, sympathetic references to Catholicism, which...