Dissertation Abstract

Dissertation Overview

Committee: Stephen Railton (director), Jerome McGann, Victoria Olwell, Heather Warren

In my dissertation, “That Great Burning Day”: Apocalypticism in Antebellum Literature and Culture, I investigate the intersections of apocalyptic rhetoric and symbolism in literary and popular fiction (Stowe, Hawthorne, Cooper, Thoreau, Melville, Poe, and Lippard), theological texts, sermons, and religious newspapers before the Civil War. Most literary studies of antebellum American apocalyptic have neglected its immediate historical and cultural roots in nineteenth-century evangelical eschatology, while most studies of nineteenth-century evangelical eschatology have neglected the imaginative engagement of period writers with the apocalyptic. I attempt to amend both oversights, using the prominence of the apocalyptic across period genres, authors, and ideologies to think about how scholars understand and constitute boundaries between sacred and secular texts‐boundaries that are unclear in nineteenth-century works. I argue that apocalyptic rhetoric and symbolism bleed in, among, and between nearly all aspects of antebellum written culture, and that antebellum authors and preachers interpreted emerging secular dogmas such as nationalism, reform, technology, and progress through apocalyptic “signs of the times.”

Dissertation Abstract

“That Great Burning Day”: Apocalyptic in Antebellum Literature and Culture

To the consternation of many thousands of Americans, the world did not end on October 22, 1844—but there was reason to believe that it might, as did perhaps 50,000 followers of Baptist pastor William Miller.  The “signs of the times” were then, as they are in every age, abundant: wars and rumors of wars abounded, prophets and messiahs multiplied, earthquakes and hurricanes rampaged, and sinners scoffed at apocalyptic warnings. My dissertation takes seriously Michael Kaufmann’s recent claim in New Literary History that “the difference between the religious and secular cannot be assumed uncritically” by literary scholars, focusing on the apocalyptic mood that fired religious and artistic imaginations in the United States before the Civil War. By focusing on the texts of believers and secular writers within a short time span (1835-1859), I offer a correction to broad theoretical readings of apocalypse by Frank Kermode and Douglass Robinson, readings that overlook how writers reshape apocalyptic discourse to respond to their historical moment and local culture.

Most studies of antebellum apocalyptic literature neglect its immediate roots in evangelical eschatology, while most studies of antebellum evangelical eschatology neglect imaginative engagements by period writers with its rhetoric and symbols. I attempt to amend both oversights, arguing that antebellum authors and preachers interpreted emerging secular dogmas such as nationalism, reform, technology, and progress through apocalyptic “signs of the times.” My project expands the work of cultural critics such as David Reynolds, who argue convincingly that the popular must be central to literary history but who nonetheless neglect popular, but conservative, religious movements. It also brings the work of important religious historians (Mark Noll, Charles Taylor) into conversation with literary scholars (Jenny Franchot, Candy Gunther Brown) who insist that serious consideration of religious belief and practice must inform studies of antebellum America.

My first chapter, “‘Take ye heed’: Eschatology in American Fiction,” tries to redefine the cultural context in which mid-nineteenth-century writers worked. Most readings of antebellum religion and literature mistakenly focus on mainline Protestantism, the legacy of Puritanism, or liberal denominations such as Unitarianism. I show that, in reality, by 1830 most Americans belonged to evangelical churches that were sectarian, emotional, and apocalyptic. I use evangelical membership data, apocalyptic periodicals, and contemporary accounts of apocalyptic movements to argue for the centrality of the interplay between apocalyptic thought and the period’s representative literature.

My second chapter correlates the attempts of evangelical and secular writers to read religious meanings in the natural world. Apocalyptic writers saw “signs of the times” in natural phenomena, world events, or religious and cultural changes that seemed to enact biblical prophecies. Apocalyptic newspapers such as the Midnight Cry! listed such signs in every issue, detailing biblical correspondences and laying out a “prophetic map” of the age. I argue that a similar tendency underlies Emerson’s assertion that “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” Juxtaposing Thoreau’s “Spring” with William Miller’s apocalyptic sketch “A Scene of the Last Day,” I demonstrate how transcendentalism invoked the transformative power embedded in apocalyptic signs. This tendency is, to be sure, questioned by Melville, Poe, and Lippard, who ironize both eschatological and transcendentalist sign reading in Moby-Dick, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, and The Quaker City. I nevertheless contend that these ironized symbols depend on and generate the same modes of reading and interpretation established in more pious evangelical literature.

My third chapter contests Benedict Anderson’s claim that, by the mid-nineteenth century, political authority had largely usurped religious authority. Antebellum Americans often cast political and social questions in frankly eschatological terms, and I suggest that apocalyptic discourse is not necessarily anti-nationalistic, but rather a-nationalistic, positing a spiritual narrative that eclipses national narratives. Apocalyptic believers saw political injustice as the result of spiritual deficiency and believed—along with sentimental writers—that true reform should not be about passing laws but about saving souls. To illustrate these points, I compare two sets of texts: Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust” and Cooper’s The Crater against Lippard’s The Quaker City and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All four texts locate evil and injustice in the individual rather than the group or nation. I argue that these religious assumptions lead Hawthorne and Cooper towards political skepticism. In “Earth’s Holocaust” and The Crater, reform manifests human pride, compounds the ills reformers seek to remedy, and leads toward apocalyptic judgment. Lippard and Stowe, by contrast, prod their readers’ consciences through warnings of God’s judgment, offering hope of reprieve through repentance, which they see as a necessary prelude to real, lasting, reformative action in the world.

My fourth chapter builds on chapter three, arguing that attempts to construct an American nationality were hooked directly to eschatological concerns. Evangelical sermons and newspaper articles worried that churches unwittingly debased Christianity through bickering and uncritical modernization, that such disarray allowed Catholics a spiritual foothold in the country, and that these trends together delayed the coming of God’s new heaven and new earth in God’s chosen nation. As Charles Taylor suggests in A Secular Age, immigration, denominationalism, and the rise of secular social organizations competed for the nation’s attention during the 1840s and 50s, compounding such anxieties. Comparing Lyman Beecher’s pamphlet A Plea for the West with newspaper articles decrying Catholic immigration as a national apocalypse, I propose that  in The Minister’s Wooing Stowe attempts to revise her father’s apocalyptic discourse by portraying Catholicism as one denomination among many in the American religious market. Cooper’s The Crater, however, disavows such pluralism as insidious. I argue that Cooper ties episodes of religious disagreement directly to the violent dissolution of the novel’s island—a metaphorical United States—equating Christian disunion with national disunion.

I conclude by suggesting that the print history of Hawthorne’s short story “The Celestial Railroad” encapsulates the major issues raised in previous chapters. Merging the insights of Meredith McGill, Candy Gunther Brown, and my own discovery of many evangelical reprintings of “The Celestial Railroad,” I argue that Hawthorne’s text fit snugly into the informal evangelical canon that circulated through antebellum periodicals. Focusing on three reprintings from apocalyptic publications, I show how Hawthorne’s satire trumpeted their concerns about political and religious reform. I also argue that the cuts and additions that apocalyptic editors made to the story demonstrate an anxiety about whether symbols could be correctly identified and interpreted across denominational lines. Their textual “improvements,” I contend, stand in peculiar tension with the central moral they invited their readers to draw from the work: namely, that modernizing, denominational “improvements” desecrated the universal, apocalyptic truth of biblical Christianity.