- The Peculiar Life of Sundays
Stephen Miller’s The Peculiar Life of Sundays is a general-interest book that provides snapshots of the Sundays of a handful of Anglo-American figures based on their personal diaries and public utterances. The title refers to Wallace Stevens’s characterization of Sunday in a personal letter. The book opens with a description of Billie Holiday’s classic rendition of “Gloomy Sunday,” but then contrasts Sunday gloom (and even suicide) with a recent poll’s discovery that more than three-quarters of Americans find Sunday “the most enjoyable day of the week”(p. 2). The introductory chapter moves without resolution between tropes of Sunday Gladness and Sunday Gloom, a pattern that characterizes the book as a whole. Woven into the book is an overview of the civic and religious regulation of Sunday since Constantine. The book’s central chapters survey the Sundays of a dozen or so historical figures, wherein Miller demonstrates his strength as a gentle interlocutor and synthesizer. The final chapter, about contemporary Sundays, quietly laments the loss of the Sabbath.
The Peculiar Life of Sundays is not a book that scholars should add to their shelves, as it makes no new contribution to our scholarly understanding of Sunday, religion, Sabbatarianism, or Anglo-American culture. What is more, it is peculiar in its preoccupation with all things “pagan.” The book is laced with the word: for example, “Emersonian paganism” (p. 247),“a pagan great awakening” (p. 197), and Stevens’s embrace of “paganism” (p. 214). The lengthy list of entries under paganism in the index, at three-and-a-half inches long, outstrips the other entries, including those for Lord’s Day, Sabbatarianism, and Puritanism. It seems that Miller is aware that “pagan” is inaccurate: he notes that it “was initially a pejorative term” that “some historians are wary of using” (p. 58). Would that he had been.
Nevertheless, Miller is a sympathetic reader of diaries, letters, essays, memoirs, and poetry. His discussion about Samuel Johnson’s Sunday dilemmas, including a transcription of 1755 resolutions forming, in Johnson’s words, “a scheme of life for the day” (pp. 101–02), is fascinating. However, Miller’s interpretations founder because he employs a typology of Christian commitment that in the end does little to explain why Sunday poses so much hope and so much despair for so many people. In his view, those who despaired in Sunday had little faith and were even pagans. Had Miller looked [End Page 580] more carefully at the rhythm of work and rest that his historical subjects encountered, rather than at where they belonged on a calculus of Christian commitment, he might have been better able to explain their particular outlooks concerning Sunday. For example, doing so likely would have enhanced Miller’s interpretation of Thoreau’s sly affront to the Sunday-Sabbath, for in nearly every written word, Thoreau challenged the American devotion to a narrowly defined field of work.
In all, The Peculiar Life of Sundays exemplifies one problem with nonfiction trade publications, particularly those undertaken by university presses: because the authors do not know enough about the subject that they have decided to write about, they lean too heavily on inappropriate sources (The Wall Street Journal for ideas about religion, for example), borrow too liberally from the work of others, and use anachronistic terms. None of these alone is a grievous misstep, but in the end together they point to the failure of an underprepared author and a profit-driven press to do justice to a subject and thus to the reading public as well as the scholarly community.