- Speaking of Religion in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
The nineteenth-century American novel is sufficiently saturated in religious discourse that criticism often begins by taking the religious dimensions of novels from this period for granted, or else by observing religious allusions in passing on the way to more pressing matters. Dawn Coleman’s Preaching and the Rise of the American Novel, Martin Kevorkian’s Writing Beyond Prophecy, and Shari Goldberg’s Quiet Testimony all consider how religious discourse provides both subject matter for nineteenth-century novels and also sources for emulation and competition. In each of these fine studies, the authors also attend to the ways in which nineteenth-century American novels interrogate discourse itself, reflecting self-consciously on the meaning of speaking and writing in religious and fictive contexts alike. The sermon and its novelistic representations and analogues loom particularly large for Dawn Coleman and Martin Kevorkian, while Shari Goldberg relies on the related, though not entirely coterminous, category of testimony to structure her study.
The novel and the sermon can function as rivals for preeminence in nineteenth-century American literary culture, as Dawn Coleman points out in her illuminating study Preaching and the Rise of the American Novel, but as she goes on to suggest, they also interpenetrate each other and inform each other on multiple artistic and conceptual levels. The sermon, as Coleman points out, had a great deal more cultural authority for [End Page 116] many Americans than did the novel, and indeed, Coleman provides a useful corrective for our present tendency to assume that the mid-nineteenth century is simply the era of the novel’s triumph.
Coleman deals deftly with the central challenge that she identifies in writing about preaching: how to capture the particulars of a performance that necessarily involves both communal context and the personal charisma and even physicality of the preacher. While acknowledging that much of the experience of hearing a nineteenth-century sermon is inaccessible to us, Coleman makes extensive use of manuals for the preparation and presentation of sermons to show the affective responses that preachers strove to cultivate and the methods that they used to stimulate these responses. Coleman shows that the ethos of the preacher was central to the authority of the sermon, and that increasingly during the nineteenth century, preachers depended on a relationship with their audience to shape their sermons, with ministers ranging from Henry Ware, Jr., to Charles G. Finney arguing for an extemporaneous mode of address that would allow the preacher to play off the cues of a congregation rather than remaining tethered to a manuscript.
After discussing the structure and significance of the nineteenth-century sermon, Coleman brings together a diverse cast of characters to illustrate the cultural struggle between novelists and preachers in the nineteenth century: George Lippard, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Wells Brown. Coleman shows how the novel competes with the sermon for cultural authority and addresses various aspects of the experience of lived religion in the nineteenth-century United States.
The working class radical George Lippard is the least well-known of the figures Coleman discusses, and she ably extends the case that has been made for Lippard’s place in the nineteenth-century American canon by David S. Reynolds, Shelley Streeby, and Samuel Otter, among others. Lippard frequently parodies and critiques preachers and preaching, but as Coleman acutely suggests, his voice in The Quaker City: Or the Monks of Monk Hall (1845) and other novels is also shaped by the forms of sermonic discourse. Lippard thus appears as both a critic of preaching and a preacher in his own right. Coleman suggests for several of the novelists she considers a seemingly unlikely sermonic source for...