Conversion, revolution and freedom: the religious formation of an American soul in Edwards, Melville and Du Bois




Stewart, Carole Lynn

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This dissertation brings together two well known interpretative problems in the understanding of the formation of the American nation and self how a meaning of an American self arises as different from traditional cultures, and how religion is understood in the formation of the American national self. Since the 1950s in the works of Will Herberg, Sidney Mead, Robert Bellah, and Catherine Albenese, there has been a continuing discussion about the meaning of the American Republic in the terms of a “civil religion.” Several other works in literary criticism from Perry Miller to Sacvan Bercovitch have explored the religious dimension in the structuration of the American self from the point of view of literary texts. My dissertation falls within the context of these two problematics. I work within the context of an American civil religion and specify the meaning of civil religion in the terms of Conversion, Revolution, and Reconstruction. The chapter on Jonathan Edwards deals with the structure of conversion and community in pre-Revolutionary Northampton. The chapter on Herman Melville addresses the options and dilemmas—the “ambiguities”—in the attempt to construct a post-Revolutionary self. The chapter on W. E. B. Du Bois reflects on the recurring meaning of revolution as a confrontation with a limit, re-birth and reconstruction, following the Civil War, America's Second Revolutionary War. I follow Hannah Arendt's political theory on Revolution and provide a commentary on the cultural and philosophical meaning of the revolution as a basis for a civil order. Although the dissertation makes use of a notion of civil religion and the American “self,” unlike other exemplars of these issues, I address a civil religious self as processual and consistent with a revolutionary formation, rather than with an established master narrative. I find that many uses of the “ironic” in American criticism presuppose the origin of the American Republic as normative instead of invoking the meaning of a revolutionary democracy. The inclusion of Du Bois enables new and different readings of both Edwards and Melville, and because all three are placed together, Du Bois is not a marginal figure, but rather, his work is essential to understanding an American soul.



Great Awakening, Religious formation, Social sciences