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Calvinist Humor in American Literature

Michael Dunne

Publication Year: 2007

Though the phrase "Calvinist humor" may seem to be an oxymoron, Michael Dunne, in highly original and unfailingly interesting readings of major American fiction writers, uncovers and traces two recurrent strands of Calvinist humor descending from Puritan times far into the twentieth century. Calvinist doctrine views mankind as fallen, apt to engage in any number of imperfect behaviors. Calvinist humor, Dunne explains, consists in the perception of this imperfection. When we perceive that only others are imperfect, we participate in the form of Calvinist humor preferred by William Bradford and Nathanael West. When we perceive that others are imperfect, as we all are, we participate in the form preferred by Mark Twain and William Faulkner, for example. Either by noting their characters' inferiority or by observing ways in which we are all far from perfect, Dunne observes, American writers have found much to laugh about and many occasions for Calvinist humor. The two strains of Calvinist humor are alike in making the faults of others more important than their virtues. They differ in terms of what we might think of as the writer/perceiver's disposition: his or her willingness to recognize the same faults in him- or herself. In addition to Bradford, West, Twain and Faulkner, Dunne discovers Calvinist humor in the works of Flannery O'Connor, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. For these authors, the world—and thus their fiction—is populated with flawed creatures. Even after belief in orthodox Calvinism diminished in the twentieth century, Dunne discovers, American writers continued to mine these veins, irrespective of the authors' religious affiliations—or lack of them. Dunne notes that even when these writers fail to accept the Calvinist view wholeheartedly, they still have a tendency to see some version of Calvinism as more attractive than an optimistic, idealistic view of life. With an eye for the telling detail and a wry humor of his own, Dunne clearly demonstrates that the fundamental Calvinist assumption—that human beings are fallen from some putatively better state—has had a surprising, lingering presence in American literature.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

This is not my first encounter with what I am calling “Calvinist humor.” In the summer of 1990, I attempted to derive a seminar from my musings on some bleak American authors. The title I chose, “The Power of Blackness,” was stolen from Harry Levin’s 1958 study of Poe, Hawthorne, and ...

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1. Calvinist Humor

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pp. 1-21

For many years I have been interested in a concept that I am calling “Calvinist humor.” I know! I know! Like most people who hear the term for the first time, you are eager to point out that the term Calvinist humor is something of an oxymoron. Actually, this is itself an example of...

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2. Calvinist Humor and the American Puritans: “The Just Hand of God”

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pp. 22-42

It is impossible to think about the history of the United States of America without thinking about the Puritans who settled New England in the seventeenth century. The Pilgrim fathers, the first Thanksgiving, John Alden and Miles Standish—all are ineradicable parts of the American ...

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3. Nathaniel Hawthorne: “That Would Be a Jest Indeed”

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pp. 43-63

In her very aptly titled book Hawthorne: Calvin’s Ironic Stepchild, Agnes McNeill Donohue writes, “In spite of Hawthorne’s ambivalence toward the Puritanism of the American past, especially that of his own ancestors, his artistic imagination, creative consciousness, and conscience were conditioned...

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4. Herman Melville: “In No World but a Fallen One”

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pp. 64-81

James E. Miller, Jr., claims, in A Reader’s Guide to Herman Melville, that “Melville’s primary works clearly place him, alongside Hawthorne, in the Calvinistic tradition of American literature . . .” (20). Melville’s membership in this Calvinistic fraternity is thus a matter of record. Lawrance...

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5. Mark Twain: “The Trouble about Special Providences”

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pp. 82-100

Nearly everyone agrees that distinct traces of Calvinist thinking linger in the undeniably humorous writings of Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). H. L. Mencken can speak for many when he observes that “[i]t is, indeed, precisely in the works of such men as Mark Twain that one finds the best proofs of the Puritan influence of American letters, for it is ...

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6. William Faulkner: “Waiting for the Part to Begin Which He Would Not Like”

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pp. 101-127

Critics generally concede William Faulkner’s involvement in Calvinist habits of mind. Cleanth Brooks, who charted Faulkner’s career for many years, identifies “Faulkner’s Puritanism” (45) outright in The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963). The French critic François Pitavy shows his agreement in Faulkner’s “Light in August” (1973): “[T]he great importance attached to...

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7. Ernest Hemingway: “Isn’t It Pretty to Think So?”

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pp. 128-144

Even though he is usually assumed to embrace no orthodox religious affiliation, Ernest Hemingway definitely belongs to the fraternity of Calvinist humorists. Hemingway’s biographer, James Mellow, says simply that “[a] routine piety prevailed in the Hall-Hemingway household” (12) in which Ernest spent his formative years. Julanne Isabelle adds—more in ...

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8. Nathanael West: “Gloriously Funny”

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pp. 145-161

In Nathanael West’s play Good Hunting, Brigadier General Hargreaves says to Captain Stuart Steward Kilbrecht, the Laird of Ladore, “You carry your Calvinism too far, really” (502),1 thereby testifying at least to the author’s familiarity with the subject I have been discussing in this book. Admittedly, it is surprising that a writer born with the name Nathaniel...

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9. Flannery O’Connor: “Funny because It Is Terrible”

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pp. 162-183

In a highly influential essay entitled “Flannery O’Connor’s Devil” (962), O’Connor’s friend and fellow novelist John Hawkes connects the young, Roman Catholic southerner’s work to the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nathanael West, both of whom have been discussed earlier in this book. Hawkes is clearly onto something. There can be no doubt that Flannery...

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10. Calvinist Humor Revisited

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pp. 184-194

To catch the spirit of Calvinist humor as it has been expressed by the authors treated here, we might consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s comment, in his late essay “Chiefly about War Matters,” about the very idealistic behavior of John Brown: “Any common-sensible man looking at the matter unsentimentally, must have felt a certain intellectual satisfaction in seeing...


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pp. 195-204

Works Cited

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pp. 205-216


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pp. 217-219

E-ISBN-13: 9780807135365
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807132609

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2007