God and the Novel: Religion and Secularization in Antebellum American Fiction
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My dissertation argues that the study of antebellum American religious novels is hindered by the secularization narrative, the widely held conviction that modernity entails the decline of religion. Because this narrative has been refuted by the growing field of secularization theory and because the novel is associated with modernity, the novel form must be reexamined. Specifically, I challenge the common definition of the novel as a secular form. By investigating novels by Lydia Maria Child, Susan Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Hannah Bond, I show that religion and the novel form are not opposed. In fact, scholars' unexamined and unacknowledged definitions of religion and secularity cause imprecision. For example, the Marxist definition of religion as ideology causes misrepresentations of novels with evangelical purposes, such as Warner's <i>The Wide, Wide World</i> and Bond's <i>The Bondwoman's Narrative</i>. Both novels feature protagonists who submit--one to patriarchy and the other to slavery--a stance that appears masochistic to feminist scholars and critics of slave narratives, respectively. However, attending to the biblical allusions, divine interventions, and theological arguments that saturate these texts places them in another framework altogether and reveals that they are commenting not on one's relationship with other humans but with God. Likewise, unexamined definitions of the secular are problematic because critics often conflate two definitions: the etymological sense of "earthly" and the modern sense of "anti-religious." This slippage underlies the view that religious literature of the nineteenth century became less religious, when it simply became more grounded in daily life. Therefore, to label as "secular" an author like Stowe, who promoted an earthly, lived Christianity, is only accurate if one means "mundane." Finally, my dissertation demonstrates that literary criticism itself relies on the secularization narrative, perceiving itself as modern and progressive. This reliance obscures the role literature has played in constructing this narrative. For example, colonial novels like <i>Hobomok</i> and <i>The Scarlet Letter</i> rewrite American religious history to exclude Calvinism. Noting how our investment in secularity has delimited interpretive possibilities, this project opens the way for increased clarity in the study of religion in literature.