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44 - Religion and the twentieth-century American novel

from PART THREE - MODERNISM AND BEYOND

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2011

Leonard Cassuto
Affiliation:
Fordham University, New York
Clare Virginia Eby
Affiliation:
University of Connecticut
Benjamin Reiss
Affiliation:
Emory University, Atlanta
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Summary

One of realism's founding fathers – Gustave Flaubert – proclaimed that “the artist in his work should be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Whatever god-like status turn-of-the-century American realists cherished with respect to their creations, the more mundane aspects of religion also appeared occasionally in their works. Religious practice was part of the landscape of social life that concerned novelists such as Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Sinclair Lewis. A signal – and early – example is Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), which stands out for its dramatic focus on religious change at the end of the nineteenth century and for its simultaneous critique of and respect for the religious worlds embedded in American society. The Damnation of Theron Ware announces the continuing significance of the American novel's relationship with religious life and religious discourse throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, even while it registers changes in emphasis – from Protestant to Catholic models of religious thought, from moral message to ritual form, from sectarian conviction to pluralist doubt, from catechism to mysticism.

The changes in emphasis on display in Theron Ware, already palpable in the early century, solidify into a dominant strand of American fiction after 1960. In that strand of fiction, religious thought entwines in new ways with the highest ambitions of literary art.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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