PREACHING AND THE RISE OF THE AMERICAN NOVEL by Dawn Coleman, Reviewed by Robert Ellison

By Dawn Coleman
(Ohio State, 2013) ix + 293 pp.
Reviewed by Robert Ellison on 2013-05-18.

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Canonicity can be a moving target. While some authors, texts, and genres form a relatively stable core, others come and go, and sometimes, like old styles in the fashion industry, come back into favor again.

The two genres under consideration here--the sermon and the antebellum American novel--are excellent examples. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the sermon was considered mainstream while the novel was somewhat marginalized. In the criticism and scholarship of our own time, the sermon has been long since marginalized by the novel--as well as by many other topics such as American Studies, British Studies, Women's Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies. Only recently have we begun to see the emergence of Sermon Studies.

Dawn Coleman is an exemplary tiller of this new field. Besides the present book, she has published articles on sermonic elements in Daniel Deronda and Uncle Tom's Cabin, and her essay in A New History of the Sermon: The Nineteenth Century (Brill, 2010) examines the idea of "lived religion" in William Buell Sprague's Annals of the American Pulpit (1865-1869), a nine-volume encyclopedia / memorial tribute to the foremost pulpiteers from colonial times to the middle of the nineteenth century.

The present study is founded first on the concept of "lived religion," which Coleman defines as "a field of inquiry that looks beyond the official theologies and institutional histories of religious movements to analyze the practices that shape people's actual religious lives" (9). The other key concept of this book is "sermonic voice," or "novelistic speech that mimics the sound of the sermon," attempting to capture its "syntactic structures," "biblical and theological diction," and other rhetorical and religious features (18).

Beginning with an overview of the nineteenth-century pulpit, Coleman considers the structure of a sermon, the "rise of extemporaneous preaching" (36), and the differences between hearing a sermon delivered to a church congregation and reading one privately at home. Sermons forged a bond between pastor and people. Churchgoers, Coleman says, expected their ministers to be good preachers, and preachers in turn used their sermons to assert and exercise "moral authority" over their flocks (24).

Coleman then chronicles "the slow rise of the novel in America" (46). Fiction was condemned for being "mental junk food" (46), for encouraging escapist attitudes and creating "dissatisfaction with the actual world" (58), and even for endangering readers' spiritual health. Nevertheless, though people sometimes felt guilty about reading novels, they did so, and by the early 1850s cultural attitudes had changed enough that the genre was at least tolerated, if not fully accepted.

The rest of the book considers how the novel conversed with the sermon in the years before the civil war. In surveying a range of authors and texts, scholars often face the challenge of shaping something more than a collection of independent essays, of crafting a sustained narrative and a cohesive argument. Coleman has proved herself equal to this task. It may not be entirely clear at first why she begins with the rather obscure George Lippard, a onetime aspirant to the Methodist ministry whose literary career spanned just 3 years, from 1851 to 1854. But the organizational scheme quickly becomes clear when Coleman turns to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shared Lippard's "two-pronged strategy of humiliating clerical characters and presenting moral visions in sermonic voice" (105). In the following chapter on Father Mapple's sermon in Moby-Dick, Coleman shows that "Melville was influenced by, and also trying to one-up, Hawthorne's representation of Dimmesdale's Election Sermon" in The Scarlet Letter (147). Finally, Coleman links Harriet Beecher Stowe to William Wells Brown, the African-American author of Clotel, whose "canny rhetorical strategy" of linking Christianity and abolitionism was "inspired by the unprecedented success of Uncle Tom's Cabin" (175). In the conclusion, Coleman recaps her arguments and applies them to the years after the war, when William Dean Howells' The Minister's Charge (1886) shows again how a novelist could use "lived religion" and "sermonic voice."

In these chapters, Coleman explains not only how these novels relate to one another, but also how they demonstrate their authors' engagement with the pulpit. Each of the novels she discusses features a preacher as a leading character, often one modeled after an actual clergyman. Lippard's Reverend Pyne is based, at least in part, on Benjamin T. Onderdonk, an Episcopalian bishop in New York; Arthur Dimmesdale is drawn from Salem minister John Emery Abbot, and Mapple from Boston's Edward Taylor. A number of Stowe's characters often function as lay preachers, and the preachers in Brown's Clotel defend as well as attack slavery, often borrowing their words from actual sermons. In Coleman's words, Brown's novel is a "complex tapestry of verbatim excerpts from dozens of nineteenth-century sermons, lectures, pamphlets, periodical essays, and other previously published writing" (177).

Melville and Lippard remained fairly faithful to their models. Re-enacting the "authoritative yet common-man demeanor" of Edward Taylor (141), Mapple's sermon on Jonah radiates the same "grandiloquent style" that made Taylor something of a "tourist attraction" in Boston (141, 144). Lippard's Pyne likewise re-creates a very different kind of minister. As a "liar," sexual predator, and "full-blown scoundrel," he seems a faithful representation of Onderdonk, who scandalized New York by engaging in "unwanted sexual behavior with several women in his church" (81). On the other hand, Hawthorne made a fictional villain from a real-life hero: while Abbot was a "beloved minister" and an "icon of liberal faith" in Salem, Dimmesdale is "a hypocrite and a coward, a variant of the 'reverend rake' type" so often seen in the novels of the day (111).

The preachers in these novels also personify their creators' love-hate relationship with the clergy and their pulpits. Like most of their contemporaries, the authors Coleman discusses were steeped in Christian culture: Brown waited with the horses outside the church while his master was inside, Hawthorne and Melville heard sermons starting at an early age, Stowe's father and brothers were preachers, and Lippard came close to becoming a minister himself. But none of these authors wholeheartedly admired ministers. The moral failings of the ministerial characters wrought by Lippard and Hawthorne reflect what Coleman calls their "antagonism toward the clergy" (111). Though Melville's Mapple may be more sympathetic, how should we read his sermon? "Many readers," Coleman writes, "seem uncertain whether Melville meant to make fun of it or to revel in it"; she herself suggests that the sermon combines both "self-parodying exaggeration" and "the Miltonic sublime" (144, 147).

Yet whatever these novelists may have felt about individual preachers, they evidently envied preachers' access to crowds of listeners. While novelists could reach their readers only individually and at a distance, ministers spoke directly to their congregations.

Print, however, gave writers a wider audience--"Novels," Coleman notes, "had wings as sermons did not" (172)--and novelists took a variety of steps to make their fiction appropriate the power of preaching. In what Coleman calls "counter-sermons" (81)--discourses delivered by women, former soldiers, and others who lacked ordination or other formal credentials-- novelists asserted "the superiority of all heartfelt, untutored sermonic rhetoric over professional sermons" (169). This strategy is especially apparent in Clotel: the proslavery sermons, delivered by preachers who are "dubious" at best and outright "hypocrites" at worst, are countered by the abolitionist rhetoric of 18-year-old Georgiana, who embodies "the right of a woman to preach to men and to play a role of moral leadership in the antislavery movement" (178, 183).

In many cases, novelists also adopted the "sermonic voice" as their own, as in the "didactic digressions" (86) made throughout Lippard's Quaker City and Memoirs of a Preacher and in the narratorial commentaries at the end of The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like the "counter-sermon," this strategy is especially evident in Clotel: having begun with the narrator's anti-slavery views, Brown ends by casting off "his borrowed robes and preach[ing] without mediation," calling on American slaveholders to "proclaim the Year of Jubilee" and grant freedom to everyone in chains (194).

Though these novelists used sermons in different ways, their purposes were much the same. Lippard, Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, and Brown all believed that novels could be at least as edifying as sermons, and in many cases, could actually enjoy a kind of "moral superiority" over them (91). They were therefore "unwilling to cede an inch of moral or theological ground" to ministers, especially to men as reprehensible as Onderdonk, and set out to take the "ministerial role" upon themselves (90, 99).

As Coleman convincingly argues, they were largely successful in their efforts. But this does not mean that they were playing a zero-sum game. "In assessing the competition between novelists and preachers for moral authority," she concludes, "one might well ask who won" (206). Her answer, in short, is "both": while the novel now takes precedence within "the literature classroom," the sermon remains popular "outside the academic enclave," with a large majority of people identifying themselves as Protestants attending church services--and therefore listening to sermons--"at least a few times a year" (206). To put it another way, "these two cultural forms...are now recognized as belonging to distinct cultural realms" where, rather than competing in some kind of Darwinian struggle for existence, they "have continued to flourish alongside one another" (206).

Much has been written about the "post-Christian" state of the American academy and of Western culture as a whole. In her introduction, Coleman herself suggests that the "scholarly neglect of nineteenth-century American preaching reflects the implicit secularism of the humanities and the related disinclination to study religion or religious genres" (4). Yet this "disinclination" has by no means driven all study of religion from the academic scene. This is evident in the slow-but-steady emergence of sermon studies I mentioned earlier, and also in the series to which this project belongs: it is the third of four titles in "Literature, religion, and postsecular studies" that examine "the influence of religion on literature and of literature on religion from the sixteenth century onward." Coleman's book dovetails nicely with the other books in the series, with David Dickinson's new study of preaching in contemporary fiction, and with other work currently being done in Britain and North America. It is thus a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship on a kind of discourse whose importance it is high time to rediscover.

Robert H. Ellison is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

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