- The Devil and Doctor Dwight: Satire and Theology in the Early American Republic
Readers of Early American Literature will be familiar with the work of Colin Wells from the essay he published in this journal in 1998 on Timothy Dwight's poem The Triumph of Infidelity, and its relation to what its author saw as the heretical doctrine of universal salvation. This piece, duly expanded and consolidated, now appears in The Devil and Doctor Dwight, along with more detailed explanations of the theological issues that divided Dwight from his principal foe, the Congregationalist minister Charles Chauncy. This book also contains the full text of The Triumph of Infidelity, along with explanatory footnotes and longer endnotes that do a fine job of elucidating specific historical references in the poem. Wells's book will be invaluable to students studying eighteenth-century American literature, and it should help to make this important and unduly neglected poem, first published in 1788, much more accessible to a new generation of students. The appearance of The Devil and Doctor Dwight is, therefore, very much to be welcomed.
The reservations I have about Wells's style of critical reading are relatively minor, though they do, I think, raise significant issues about approaches to early American literature in general. Perhaps influenced by his "mentor,"William C. Dowling, who is generously acknowledged in the preface—and, more distantly, by Fredric Jameson, on whom Dowling has written and whom Wells also cites—the intellectual method of this book [End Page 551] turns on what the author calls an "ideology of form" (32), an analysis of the "ideological struggles and transformations" (1) through which Dwight sought satirically to obliterate Chauncy's notion that universal salvation might be plausible or even desirable. Wells is theoretically committed to what he calls the "convergence of literature, religion, and politics" (16), the ways in which different discursive matrices "ultimately converge into a single symbolic context for understanding the significance of the Universalist controversy" (52). This means that Wells continually seeks to explain Dwight's poetry in terms of his theology, arguing that the Connecticut clergyman treated "public virtue as nothing more than an aggregate of individual moral virtue" (136), and in general adducing continuities between the self and society, between Calvinism and Augustan satire. This, of course, represents the classic method of American studies, where literature and history are brought together to form a supposedly coherent explanatory whole, an interdisciplinary continuum wherein national culture emerges synchronically as an interweaving of many different strands.
In Wells's hands, this critical method certainly illuminates the ideas informing Dwight's long poem, but it also at times has the effect of merely paraphrasing The Triumph of Infidelity, of turning it into a theological treatise in verse form. Wells emphasizes how tireless was Dwight's quest for the idea of truth—"the possibility that human beings, by clearing away the veils of self-delusion, can glimpse the truth of their own moral conditions" (91)—and it is almost as if, following what critics have called the intentional fallacy, Wells takes the Yale pedagogue at his word and attempts to shed light on the theological "truth" underlying this poem. What tends to be downplayed in this interpretation is the manic, tortuous side of Dwight, the ways in which his writings, not unlike those of Jonathan Swift, gain some of their imaginative impetus from a snorting sense of anger that cannot ultimately be contained within rationalistic categories. It may seem to us a touch bizarre that Dwight should have felt so vengeful toward Chauncy because of his belief that the latter erroneously "relies mainly on interpretations of Paul's epistles" and "overemphasizes this one part of the Bible" (242) in his views on the Scriptures, but it is worth remembering that these kinds of bitter academic disputes, with all of their finicky hairsplitting and potential for black comedy, are not exactly unknown in our own day. Dwight, then, may not be quite...