- The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion by Claudia Stokes
With her impressive volume, The Altar at Home, Claudia Stokes situates the burgeoning production of sentimental writers, before and after the Civil War and carried out mainly by women, within the similarly burgeoning field of Protestant religion, some of it wildcat and most of it controversial. The “Altar” in the title of Stokes’ ambitious account refers to the ways in which many writers coupled their religious fervor and piety with a domestic philosophy of influence and right feelings within the home. These authors, mainly women in this telling, drew upon the themes and teachings of various Christian sects, especially the Methodists, known in their heyday before the Civil War as highly original in their teachings about the priesthood of the individual believer and the ability of women to exercise spiritual authority. “Methodism was the antithesis of the decorum, conventionalism, and deferential obedience that have so often been attributed to literary sentimentalism,” she claims. This book thus attributes to these various emerging Protestant teachings, popularized by the Second Great Awakening, much more literary and cultural power than has previously been understood. It also documents, as James Russell Lowell wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1859, how “an author’s writing desk is something infinitely higher than a pulpit.”
In particular, Stokes situates this power precisely within the domestic sphere of the women, whose correct “feelings,” as Stowe famously put it, might allow for the purification and perfection of the Union. Charles Finney, meet Abraham Lincoln. The first chapter historicizes sentimentalism within the context of the Second Great Awakening, including such elements as its ecumenism, emotionalism, and the emphasis on private Bible study. The second chapter includes intriguing material on hymns as religious and political documents and as composed by many of the era’s most famous women writers such as Stowe, Susan Warner, Louisa May Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, and Lydia Sigourney. Hymn writing, says Stokes, enabled these women to speak publicly as religious authorities in a manner unavailable to them in the more [End Page 182] traditional forms of theology and preaching; this account is one of the book’s most exciting achievements, in my view. Chapter three shows Stowe’s strong dependence on millennialism as inspired by the everyday exploits of mothers and housewives and is both original and persuasive. Chapter four describes the ways that Mormon women writers employed elements of sentimentalism in the rhetorical project of becoming more American and more “piously” Christian, as in the neglected poetry of Eliza R. Snow.
The final chapter may be the most relevant to readers of ALR: its focus on the controversial Mary Baker Eddy as sentimentalist is refreshing in its originality. Stokes shows how writers who were Eddy’s contemporaries, including Willa Cather and Mark Twain, were scornful of her use of sentimentalism within the context of the new-fangled religion called Christian Science. Indeed, Mark Twain’s engagement with her may seem at first to epitomize his overall attack on sentimentalism: he viciously attacked Eddy’s early sentimental poetry, for example. However, this version must be balanced by much recent work on Twain that has shown the elaborate manner in which he also used sentimental modes, often to great effect. And the many fine quotations that Stokes compiles, framing the popular writers as “preaching” in their writings, resonate with some of Twain’s own pronouncements about his own compositions. Thus, one direction that this volume might offer to readers of ALR is in considering in greater detail the extent to which writers such as Cather, Twain, W. D. Howells, W. E. B. Du Bois, and many others of that era drew upon the sentimental power that Stokes describes. In going even further with the implications of Stokes’ analysis, we might discover the ways that realist writers continued to pluck at the strings of sympathy and sentiment, even as they ridiculed writers from the golden era of American sentimentalism.