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The introduction to the volume canvasses the history of studies of American literature between 1820 and 1860 and makes a case for a singular endurance: that it is a literature dedicated to democracy. The introduction also frames the volume’s contribution as pointing to new directions in the field and summarizes the essays.
This essay probes secularism’s normative sociality and its cracks or fault lines, the everyday ways of being that defy its logics. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, white Protestantism became infused into the US public – not as a religion, per se, but as a set of deeply felt social formations, moral norms, and practices of the self. While a secularized Protestantism made the world feel right for some, though, it created exclusions that made it feel wrong for others – made others feel, in fact, like they were wrong in it. This essay attends to secularism’s fissures as a means of confronting nineteenth-century Black and indigenous people’s experiences of the everyday world, carved out of landscapes rife with racial and religious prejudices and violence.
Armies prepare to fight the last war, or so the adage goes. Napoleon, for instance, won great battles attacking with tight formations of troops, and mid-nineteenth-century military leaders emulated his tactics, even as advances in bullet and rifle technology rendered them increasingly ineffective. This became brutally apparent in the American Civil War as defenders capable of shooting more quickly and accurately at longer distances decimated charging formations. The problem of predicting the nature of future wars by looking to past conflicts can be more generally summed by another adage, this one traceable to Søren Kierkegaard in 1843: life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.1
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