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Missionary Positions

Evangelicalism and Empire in American Fiction

Albert H. Tricomi

Publication Year: 2011

"Valuable for scholars across disciplines including American literature, cultural studies, religious studies, and more. Missionary Positions identifies a new sub-genre in American literature--the missionary novel--and then examines key works to gauge cultural debates over America’s role in the world."--Tisa Wenger, Yale Divinity School

The central premise of Missionary Positions is that missionary evangelicalism has been an integral feature of American imperial ventures since the founding of the Republic. Albert Tricomi demonstrates that from the early nineteenth century to the present, American fiction writers have often sought to represent--and critique--America’s missionary identity in their work. In the process he defines the missionary novel as a distinct sub-genre of fictional narrative, explains how it came into being, and identifies its primary characteristics.

From Melville’s Typee and Omoo to Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, from Michener’s Hawaii to LaHaye’s Left Behind series, Tricomi traces the various manifestations of the missionary novel over time. His close readings of individual works also treat selected novels of Sedgwick, Cooper, Hobart, McKay, and Lewis, as well as several examples of Twain’s short fiction.

Weaving together political, theological, and literary analyses, this original, thought-provoking investigation examines a broad range of works, featuring both those that celebrate and those that criticize American missionaries at home and abroad. Tricomi illuminates fascinating relationships between Christian evangelicalism and American destiny, including cultural and religious imperialism, and concludes with a disturbing judgment on the limitations of contemporary versions of the genre.

Published by: University Press of Florida


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

There are many personal debts I have accumulated in the course of writing this book. For her helpfulness and professional advice, I would like to express my gratitude to Jana Argersinger, editor of ESQ—Journal of the American Renaissance. I also wish to thank the readers of Studies in American Fiction and its editor, ...

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pp. 1-18

Henry Steele Commager introduced his book In Search of a Usable Past with the striking observation that “Americans had no need of a past because they were so sure of a future.”1 This prospective habit of mind, which Commager attributed to citizens wishing to slough off their European past, ...

Part I. Nineteenth-Century Beginnings: Missionaries on the American Frontier: Mythmaking

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pp. 19-20

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1. Remaking the Myth of a Chosen People in Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie

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pp. 21-40

Published in 1827, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie is a foundational missionary novel. While it does not feature a missionary as a principal character, as Cooper’s own mythmaking novel was to do in The Oak Openings a generation later, it is the first by an American novelist to treat critically the religious conversion ...

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2. Evangelizing the Indians under Manifest Destiny in Cooper’s The Oak Openings

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pp. 41-62

In 1823, four years before Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie appeared, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers had depicted a frontier clergyman named Parson Grant, but he is not a central character and his congregation is white, except for one Moravian convert, Indian John, who goes to his death practicing his ancient tribal rituals. ...

Part II. Mid-Nineteenth to Twentieth Century: Missionaries Abroad: Contested Ideologies

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pp. 63-64

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3. Melville’s Indictment of the Missionaries in Typee and Omoo

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pp. 65-88

Although the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions began its work in 1810 establishing a strong presence on the American frontier, the Board and many missionary societies began to perceive the inefficacy of trying to convert relatively small numbers of American Indians, ...

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4. The Missionary Novel in Decline, Mark Twain, and America’s Second Manifest Destiny

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pp. 89-106

Despite the fact that Melville and Cooper occupied completely different positions in respect to America’s civilizing role as a Christian nation, both authors were part of a heated debate in the 1840s on American expansionism. Two generations later, in the 1890s through World War I, a resurgent, more imperial ...

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5. Revival: Missionary Reform in Alice Hobart’s Yang and Yin and Missionary Rebuke in Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom

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pp. 107-130

The American missionary novel, qua novel, did revive. It did so more than a generation after Twain’s anti-imperialist essays appeared, when in the 1930s Christian missions all over the world were being scrutinized by humanists and even socialists who questioned the ideology of the missionary enterprise. ...

Part III. Mid-Twentieth Century to the Present: America’s Missionary Identity: Retrospectives and Reimaginings

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pp. 131-132

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6. Contesting America’s Missionary Destiny in Sinclair Lewis’s The God-Seeker

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pp. 133-151

The novels in this third part, Lewis’s The God-Seeker (1949) and Michener’s Hawaii (1959), are retrospective assessments of America as a missionary nation advancing religious and political ideologies. Both were composed in the years following World War II, after the United States had become the world’s leading ...

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7. The Reluctant Embrace of American Missionary Imperialism in James Michener’s Hawaii

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pp. 152-175

Published in 1959, the same year as Hawaii’s long-anticipated entrance into the Union as the fiftieth state, James Michener’s Hawaii is as much a narrative of American triumphalism as it is a narrative of Hawaii’s people. A number one best seller from a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, the novel has been published ...

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8. Contemporary Developments: Hersey’s The Call, Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, Grisham’s The Testament, and LaHaye’s “Left Behind” Novels

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pp. 176-196

In the preceding chapters I have sought to establish The God-Seeker and Hawaii as retrospective fictions that employ nineteenth-century missionary settings to assess, each in ideologically divergent ways, the spirit of America as an evangelizing nation. Taken together, they embody two major orientations ...

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pp. 197-200

So states Tracy Fessenden in Culture and Redemption in describing America’s reluctance to critically assess deeply held religious beliefs in the classroom.1 To be sure this same reluctance has also impeded the reading and teaching of literary texts treating America’s evangelizing identity. This study of the missionary novel ...


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pp. 201-226


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pp. 227-248


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pp. 249-263

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About the Author

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p. 264

Albert H. Tricomi is a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the department of English at Binghamton University (SUNY). He describes himself as a cultural-historicist and is the author of several books on the early modern period, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045719
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813035451
Print-ISBN-10: 0813035457

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 8 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 801846108
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Missionary Positions

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Subject Headings

  • Nischik, Reingard M.
  • Evangelicalism in literature.
  • Missionaries in literature.
  • Literature, Modern ‡x History and criticism.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
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