Calvinist Humor in American Literature
Publication Year: 2007
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
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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 ...
1. Calvinist Humor
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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...
2. Calvinist Humor and the American Puritans: “The Just Hand of God”
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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 ...
3. Nathaniel Hawthorne: “That Would Be a Jest Indeed”
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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...
4. Herman Melville: “In No World but a Fallen One”
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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...
5. Mark Twain: “The Trouble about Special Providences”
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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 ...
6. William Faulkner: “Waiting for the Part to Begin Which He Would Not Like”
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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...
7. Ernest Hemingway: “Isn’t It Pretty to Think So?”
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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 ...
8. Nathanael West: “Gloriously Funny”
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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...
9. Flannery O’Connor: “Funny because It Is Terrible”
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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...
10. Calvinist Humor Revisited
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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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Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2007