Thesis ID: CBB912517304

Science, Secularism, and Literary Form in Antebellum America (2023)


During the antebellum period, as new scientific theories made their way to the US from Europe and the hold of established religious doctrines began to wane, American beliefs were constantly shifting. Science was starting to institutionalize, but speculative and untested theories flourished. Evangelical preachers and visionary prophets were replacing established doctrines and the old clerical order, bringing about the renewal and reinvention of Christianity. Natural philosophers introduced new modes of scientific thought that fused empiricism and romanticism, and their theories often claimed a territory ceded by religion. Experimental sciences drew upon the excitements of religious revivals—faith healing, conversion, revelation, and prophecy—for spectacular demonstrations that redefined the limits of consciousness. It was a time when belief became unmoored from doctrine, opening a new space for literary texts to lay claim to untested and experimental forms. My dissertation argues that American authors challenged, problematized, and reimagined the structures of belief. In the mid-nineteenth century, a wave of religious revivals, the rise of natural philosophy, and the emergence of experimental science produced a widespread dispute over the disciplining of belief. While many saw the period’s transformation of belief as a threat to established doctrine, American authors embraced new forms of knowledge, perceiving their potential to recalibrate traditional systems of thought. Historians often see the period’s flourishing of undisciplined belief as bunk, pseudoscience, and zealotry—a period sometimes called “the mad forties”. But literary works during this time tell a different story. Rather than dismissing new and experimental systems of belief, American authors gravitated toward them. And as belief became increasingly undisciplined, its unstable properties began to shape literary form. Focusing on the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, my dissertation explores how these authors draw upon modes of knowledge that appear to be contradictory. Because their experimentations with literary form directly respond to the age’s transformations of belief, these authors raise fundamental questions about the relationship between science and religion and the emergent problem space of belief. These literary experiments point to a wide range of challenging historical questions. How do scientific theories inflect and echo the revival’s decentralization of doctrine and its emphasis upon revelation? How might the porousness of the boundaries between science and religion alter how we adjudicate truth? What does the loosening authority over belief offer for art, self-expression, and individual faith? These authors insistently ask how we know what we know when knowledge is constantly in flux. In the first part of the dissertation, I focus on how the rise of totalizing scientific theories of life, nature, and the universe contributed to a widespread restructuring of belief. Systems of natural philosophy—from scientists such as Alexander Von Humboldt, Louis Agassiz, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Jena school—introduced a scientific vocabulary through which authors began to express customarily religious concerns. At the same time, scientific demonstration began to draw upon the revelatory rhetoric and exciting performances from the religious revivals. Scientists dazzled popular audiences with displays of clairvoyance, traveling somnambulism, revelatory lectures, outrageous hoaxes, wonder cabinets, anatomical oddities, and prehistoric fossils. But many worried that these spectacles and untested theories were supplanting legitimate religion and relocating science’s authority into the hands of an unruly public. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures and essays, he relied upon scientific theory and natural history to reimagine Christianity. And yet, Emerson’s disciplining of non-doctrinal belief brought about a broader recalibration of authority over belief. For Edgar Allan Poe, the shifting terrain of belief brought about strategies of enticing and alluring his readers with provocative tales that hinged upon the reader’s credulity and skepticism. In each of these chapters, I will explain how the disputation over belief and ongoing efforts to discipline untested systems only further destabilized an already unstable terrain. In the second part of the dissertation, I examine how Hawthorne and Melville experimented with literary form to grapple with the age’s transformations of belief. In Hawthorne’s early tales, he blends the parable’s hidden messaging with storytelling modes ranging from the folkloric to the novelistic. Likewise, in Moby-Dick, Melville often adopts empirical description, but he tempers this analytic mode with speculative digressions. Rather than dismantling religious beliefs or challenging the authority of science, their novels are repositories of the conflicts, imaginings, and disciplinary features that underscore discourses of secularization. However, this is not to suggest that Hawthorne and Melville sought to create an agnostic imaginary or encouraged a withdrawal from religious and scientific problems. Instead, their novels equipped their readers with a new sense of knowledge’s horizons, a redefinition of the sacred, and an increased sense of the tumultuous changes that had taken place alongside America’s upstart religious movements.

Citation URI

This citation is part of the Isis database.

Similar Citations

Book Numbers, Ronald L.; (2007)
Science and Christianity in Pulpit and Pew (/p/isis/citation/CBB000931076/) unapi

Article Kosits, Russell D.; (2004)
Of Faculties, Fallacies, and Freedom: Dilemma and Irony in the Secularization of American Psychology (/p/isis/citation/CBB000501055/) unapi

Article Muravchik, Stephanie; (2012)
“Be the Love of God Rather Than Talk about It”: Ministers Study Psychology (/p/isis/citation/CBB001210164/) unapi

Article Jaume Navarro; (2017)
Promising Redemption. Science at the Service of Secular and Religious Agendas (/p/isis/citation/CBB802509283/) unapi

Chapter Endersby, Jim; (2014)
Odd Man Out: Was Joseph Hooker an Evolutionary Naturalist? (/p/isis/citation/CBB001422050/) unapi

Book Gosling, David L.; (2007)
Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore (/p/isis/citation/CBB000830169/) unapi

Book Harrison, Peter; (2010)
The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (/p/isis/citation/CBB001031846/) unapi

Book Randall Fuller; (2018)
The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (/p/isis/citation/CBB541408015/) unapi

Thesis Vox, Lisa Roy; (2010)
The Death Wish of Humanity: Religious and Scientific Apocalypticism in the United States, 1859--2001 (/p/isis/citation/CBB001567184/) unapi

Book Lisa Vox; (2017)
Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era (/p/isis/citation/CBB228106791/) unapi

Thesis Tindol, Robert; (2007)
The Impact of Science on the American Literary Jeremiad (/p/isis/citation/CBB001561368/) unapi

Thesis Vandome, R C; (cited 2010)
Intellectual Transformations in American Geology, Palaeontology and Anthropology, 1850--1900 (/p/isis/citation/CBB001567249/) unapi

Thesis Turco, Jeffrey; (2009)
Encyclopedic Aesthetics: Science, Salvation, and Storytelling in the Thirteenth Century (/p/isis/citation/CBB001560729/) unapi

Book Donald A. Yerxa; (2016)
Religion and Innovation: Antagonists or Partners? (/p/isis/citation/CBB363877764/) unapi

Thesis Vermij, Rienk H.; (9-9-1991)
Secularisering en natuurwetenschap in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw: Bernard Nieuwentijt (/p/isis/citation/CBB155878646/) unapi

Article Feingold, Mordechai; (2002)
Science as a Calling? The Early Modern Dilemma (/p/isis/citation/CBB000202837/) unapi

Book Miles, Margaret R.; (2008)
A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350--1750 (/p/isis/citation/CBB000774278/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Vox, Lisa Roy
Barton, Ruth
Berkel, Klaas van
Endersby, Jim
Feingold, Mordechai
Gosling, David L.
History of Psychology
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Science in Context
Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture
Cambridge University
Cornell University
Universiteit Utrecht
Cambridge University Press
Bloomsbury Academic
Oxford University Press
Science and religion
Science and literature
Naturalism (philosophy)
Darwin, Charles Robert
Boas, Franz
Cope, Edward Drinker
Fuertes, Louis Agassiz
Green, William Henry
Hodge, Charles
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
17th century
18th century
16th century
21st century
United States
Great Britain
Jesuits (Society of Jesus)

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment