HEAVEN'S INTERPRETERS: WOMEN WRITERS AND RELIGIOUS AGENCY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA by Ashley Reed, Reviewed by James Emmett Ryan
 


HEAVEN'S INTERPRETERS: WOMEN WRITERS AND RELIGIOUS AGENCY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA
By Ashley Reed
(Cornell University Press, 2020) ix + 262 pp.
Reviewed by James Emmett Ryan on 2020-09-18.

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Before about 1820, as literary historians of early America have demonstrated, American novels were interesting but rather uncommon and not widely distributed. But as the profession of authorship developed commercially in subsequent decades, American novelists grew to pursue not only the traditionally popular subjects of romance and gothic suspense but also important cultural and historical issues. In recent decades, literary scholarship has also shown how much women contributed to the development of American fiction in the nineteenth century. To define their contribution more precisely, this book aims to show how theology shaped the liberal and progressive aims of key women novelists of this period.

Reading "for religion in antebellum fiction by American women writers," Ashley Reed sets out to explain how their novels advanced "new forms of religious agency" from 1820 to 1865 (1). Unlike the men who dominated antebellum religious seminaries, the ministry, and more powerful roles in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, women had to find their own space for religious discourse. As Reed points out, not even elite white women (who are featured prominently in this book) were granted adequate venues for theological expression. But in fictional narratives, she writes, women found "a space for religious reflection and for imagining alternative ways of being, believing, and acting in the world" (2).

Besides representing mentalities useful for gauging structures of feeling and expression during the antebellum period, Reed argues, novels written by women also worked to advance social change and particular forms of human agency. Reed's tight focus on early novels by American women usefully highlights the quest for human agency charted by their religious narratives. But in focusing exclusively on women writers, she weakens the larger arguments she makes about the importance of religious thought in generating agency and understanding for people of all genders.

The novels examined here foreground women's perceptions of the Protestant Christian ideas and customs that crucially informed the development of nineteenth-century literature. Reed probes works of historical fiction such as Catherine Maria Sedgwick's A New England Tale (1822), popular sentimental novels like Augusta Jane Evans's Beulah (1857) and Susan Warner's best-selling The Wide, Wide World (1850), and a Black freedom narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1862). Exploring abolition and theological romance in the fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Reed briefly mentions Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) but examines at length her less-studied later works, The Minister's Wooing (1859) and Agnes of Sorrento (1862). Finally, in one of her strongest and most interesting chapters, Reed treats three novels about the popular Spiritualism movement: Elizabeth Oakes Smith's Bertha and Lily (1854), Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons (1862), and Kate Field's Planchette's Diary (1868).

In discussing the fiction of these antebellum women novelists, Reed argues that they used literary art to contest secular modernity, with its strongly negative assessment of religious activities, especially women's role in those religious activities. Just as religious studies scholars have in recent decades noted the continuing strength and complexity of American religious movements, Reed stresses the power and human agency that nineteenth century women found in systems and narratives of belief that have been often but incorrectly branded as disempowering, irrational, or both.

Stellar readings of Lydia Marie Child's Hobomok (1824) and Catherine Marie Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827) highlight the opening chapters. In various ways, Reed explains, these novels express a Unitarian rejection of Christ's suffering and death as righteous atonement, but they also represent the religious and cultural creativity of women. Challenging previous assessments of Child and Sedgwick as liberal and tending secular, Reed takes them at their word: Christian doctrine was central to their novels, and they used fiction to participate in debates about Christian theology. In particular, they aimed to reverse symbolically the violent terms of religious sacrifice embodied by white, patriarchal forms of Christian orthodoxy. Of Sedgwick's novel The Linwoods (1824), for example, Reed writes: "To escape the endlessly iterative ritual conditions in which women's bodies could occupy only the role of sacrificial victim and women's voices could only repeat the story of sacrificial violence, Sedgwick developed a model of spontaneous religious language --- one in which women's [spontaneous, sincere, and embodied] language gained effective power precisely by freeing itself from ritual forms" (42).

Since disputes over theologies within Christian churches inevitably led to division and the birth of new denominations, Reed usefully places these writers within the specific Protestant denominations that framed the battles over theological principles staged in their novels. Though strongly aware of the Calvinist orthodoxy against which early Unitarians were reacting, Child and Sedgwick are Unitarian. Other Protestant denominations and their respective theologies inform the perspectives of writers like Susan Warner, a Presbyterian and thus heir to predestinarian Calvinism, and Augusta Jane Evans, a Methodist writer who believed in free grace and sharply criticized both Catholics and the orthodox Calivinists she called "Puritanic locusts" (66).

Since Protestant churches in nineteenth-century America sharply differed in their theological teachings, authors of popular fiction could dramatize those differences by showing how women acted them out. Furthermore, Reed argues, the agency of the female characters in these stems not from their arguments about religious systems but from their commitment to theologies in which a woman's agency is "shaped by her belief in an all-powerful being whose will determines the possible channels through which agency may flow" (65). This belief clearly runs against the grain of secularism. Rejecting the Western feminist conviction that women must be emancipated from the "delusion" of religion (850, Reed urges literary historians "to recognize and acknowledge forms of agency enabled by religious belief and practice" (85).

Even in women's writing about enslavement, Reed argues, religious frameworks allow for human agency. In Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1862), which has become the canonical autobiographical novel of a female slave's experience, the protagonist frankly reveals that she was sexually exploited. But because her life story as a slave is also a spiritual autobiography, she follows her confession of sexual sin (as if she had sinned) by appealing to divine judgment rather than to man-made standards of women's sexual behavior. By setting aside the authority of patriarchal rules about sexual restraint, she gains "a small but not less real space for religious agency and literary authority" (93). Perhaps in part because Child influentially edited Jacobs's Incidents, the character of Linda Brent (Jacobs's fictionalized self) exemplifies the power of religion to liberate enslaved persons. "Linda and her fellow black believers," Reed writes, "appropriate the white teachings intended to pacify them and adapt them instead to their own liberatory purposes" (110).

Turning from Jacobs back to Stowe, Reed finds that her later novels, notably The Minister's Wooing and Agnes of Sorrento, exemplify what Reed calls "salvational domesticity" (129). By investing domestic objects with "the materiality of enchantment," Reed argues, and thus making them signify the "immaterial realities" of the Christian religion, Stowe re-values the much-criticized furniture of women's idealized domesticity and sentimentality: the traditional women's world of clothing, quilting, decoration, parlors, household chores. Thus incarnated and expressed through domesticity, women's emotional life gains powerful, transcendent meanings. So it is that the world of the papacy and Catholicism inflects Stowe's Agnes of Sorrento, set in Rome just before the Protestant Reformation, which typifies the anti-materialist religiosity of Stowe's later fiction. Also, while structured in some ways as an anti-Catholic captivity tale, it sympathetically embraces Roman Catholic religious themes, especially the communion of saints and their potential intercession in the lives of the Christian faithful. Summarizing Stowe's literary significance, Reed asserts that her theological romances stress the example of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a model of religious agency for women, and thus "contest two of contemporary secularism's most cherished beliefs: that those who practice religion are the victims of delusion and that the oppressed can obtain greater access to agency only if they are willing to give up their religions" (143-144). By contrast, Reed contends, the "enchanted women" in Stowe's richly spiritual later novels are "incarnated" so that "theological romance becomes the means of conveying cosmic truths and resisting the fragmentation, differentiation, and disenchantment of modern life" (149).

Among the religious practices that promised expanded agency for women in nineteenth century America was Spiritualism. Besides fascinating Stowe, who reportedly communicated with her dead son Harry by means of a Spiritualist medium, Spiritualism became an important religious practice after 1848, when the teenage Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, reported "spirit rappings" at their home and were widely hailed as spiritually gifted mediums with a startling ability to communicate with the dead. As Reed shows, the imaginative and speculative power of Spiritualism was represented in novels such as Stoddard's The Morgesons, Smith's Bertha and Lily, and Field's Planchette's Diary as noted above. Though strongly aware of the tension between Spiritualism and conventional Christian piety, women novelists highlighted "spiritualist" practices such as Spirit-rappings, communication with the dead, trance lectures, seances, and automatic writing, and thereby created "opportunities for agency in the psychic and physical spaces opened by . . . blurred boundaries [between active, speaking subject and passive object]" (174). By this means, Reed argues, women novelists resisted what she calls "Western secularity." Spiritualist writers would probably not have put it this way, and Reed admits that Spiritualism was ridiculed and debunked in some circles during its years of great popularity. Nevertheless, she argues, these women "invoked Spiritualist practice as literary practice in ways that enabled them to depict new and socially disruptive forms of female agency" (152). Heaven's Interpreters thus sheds needed light on the religious concerns of nineteenth-century women writers. But one may wonder how well their religious agendas speak to the socio-political debates of a more globally conscious twenty-first century.

Reed's final chapter turns from religion in antebellum women's fiction to the place of women's religion in 21st century politics and culture. Surveying LGBTQ identity, Islamic influences on American culture, Internet discourse on theology and religion, and the fate of newer social justice movements, Reed further examines the tension between Western secularity and religion, and particularly religious discourse (Christian and non-Christian) by women. This chapter is much less concerned with fiction than the earlier chapters, which demonstrate women's religious contribution to the nineteenth century novel. But Reed's argument that religious narrative can nurture forms of social and political agency for women, is undoubtedly relevant for the challenges of a new and rapidly globalizing century.

James Emmett Ryan is the Jean Wickstrom Liles Professor of English at Auburn University.


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