Religion and American Literature Since 1950
New Directions in Religion and Literature Series
London: Bloomsbury, 2020
Hardcover. vii+267p. ISBN 978-1350123755. £80
Reviewed by Claude Le Fustec
“Suspending Disbelief”: this phrase, the title of Mark Eaton’s introduction to his Religion and American Literature Since 1950, is a good summary of this study of “American writers from the postwar period to the present who represent religion and spirituality with open-minded sensitivity and historical specificity.” In order to approach the way “religion as lived experience gets woven into narrative fiction”, Eaton makes deliberate use of four major concepts drawn from religious studies and theology: apostasy, conversion, theodicy, and eschatology, to construct four chapters dedicated to Flannery O’Connor; James Baldwin; Saul Bellow/ Philip Roth / E.L. Doctorow; and finally Don DeLillo, respectively. As he makes it clear however, Eaton’s methodology is not theological but “literary-critical” and “socio-historical” with each chapter delving into the surrounding social context pertaining to religion, on the one hand, and into the representation of religion and spirituality in the fiction examined on the other. An attempt to “coordinate the literary with the religious”, Eaton’s work claims “historical formalism” as its source of inspiration, “a method that attends to aesthetics and historical contexts to uncover the social power of forms.”
Though each chapter revolves around a different concept, a common point to all the writers under scrutiny is the complexity of the relationship their fiction bears to religion. Introduced through the narrative of religious resilience in a secularist context examined in Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, this mapping of lived religion in contemporary fiction takes various shapes.
O’Connor’s fiction, first, is characterized by its narratives of “failed apostasy,” based on “a sort of cognitive dissonance that allows someone to believe and disbelieve at the same time.” This makes sense in the paradoxical social context of her time, both marked by secularization and a search for spiritual renewal, where the author set herself the task of making belief believable to a largely unbelieving audience.
Writing from a somewhat different posture as an African American northerner who had imbibed the religious fervor that sustained the new city dwellers after the Great Migration, James Baldwin did experience actual apostasy after an initial conversion (the focus of the chapter) depicted in Go Tell It on the Mountain. However, as Eaton points out, he never relinquished religious rhetoric to express his beliefs, notably, in the most Christian one of all: the saving power of Love.
The third chapter (built around secular theodicy) is dedicated to a group of Jewish writers part of the literary renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s, who were all faced with the scandal of the Holocaust: Bellow, Roth and Doctorow are all considered “post-religious” authors obsessed with religion. Faced with the challenge of defining Jewish identity outside Judaism in a post-Holocaust context, theirs was a period marked by the death of God movement and controversy around the notion of a broken Covenant. The writers, for their part, Eaton argues, were more interested in pluralizing viewpoints from secular stances, though their underlying concern with religion produces a type of fiction constantly mixing the sacred and profane.
Finally, the last writer considered, Don DeLillo, is envisioned from the perspective of the apocalyptic vein of his fiction. However, as Eaton underlines, this often-mentioned feature in Don DeLillo’s writing still remains in need of connection with Christian eschatology.
With this essay, what Eaton manages to do is show the depth and power of literary analysis when it takes the religious into serious consideration. IIn return, theology comes out as an incredibly rich field in which to mine a vast array of concepts reflecting back on the spiritual lore of Literature, a potential response to Rita Felski's call for an alternative to the reign of suspicion as the paradigmatic academic critical stance..
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