"Religion and American Literature"

Project Leader:

Roger Lundin
Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English
Wheaton College

Click here for a list of the team members.


When Emerson delivered "The American Scholar" address at Harvard in 1837, he envisioned American culture as a center of prolific activity to be marked by a radical independence from the animating literary and theological traditions of Europe. He demanded nothing less than an American culture free of "the learning of other lands" and "other men's transcriptions of their readings" of the divine. With "The American Scholar" and "The Divinity School Address" (1838), Emerson created what was to be for more than a century the dominant paradigm for subsequent production and study of American literature.

In recent decades, the premises informing that paradigm have been challenged on many fronts. Emerson's claims to American uniqueness have been called into question by William Spengemann (A Mirror for Americanists), Robert Wesibuch (Atlantic Double-Cross) and others; the gender-exclusive nature of Emersonian individualism has been challenged by such feminist critics as Jane Thompkins (Sensational Designs); the silencing of Native American voices in American literature has been explored by Arnold Krupat (Ethnocriticism); other scholars, including Henry Louis Gates (The Signifying Monkey), have argued that the traditional paradigm of American literary history has neglected a rich African-American tradition of textual creation and interpretation.

Yet while contemporary questions of race, gender, and ethnicity have revised and deepened the understanding of American literature, the role of religion in that literature has not received similar consideration. As Emerson took theology and liturgy to be irrelevant to the creation of American literature, so have his heirs continued to do so in large measure, even after they have challenged other assumptions of the reigning paradigm.

The Literature team will seek to bring to light what has been happening in that domain since the time of Emerson. Our interest will be twofold. We will focus first on the role that religion has played in the academic study of literature in twentieth-century America. Although religion and literature has not been a dynamic or influential field of study in the American academy, assumptions of genuine theological significance about the nature of the person have informed American literary criticism and theory. Secondly, we will explore the religious dimensions of questions raised in American literature about the nature of the human person. What assumptions about human nature have driven the major poems and narrative of this culture, and, inn turn, how have those assumptions both influenced religious beliefs and been shaped by such beliefs?