Sacred Spaces, Secular Fictions: Nineteenth-Century American Domestic Literature
Underland, Susanna Compton
Levine, Robert S
MetadataShow full item record
Sacred Spaces, Secular Fictions puts the feminist study of domestic literature in conversation with the study of religion and literature in order to better understand the place of secularity in nineteenth-century American domestic literature. Authors such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Herman Melville, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper represented the space of the home, among other sacred spaces, as a place to navigate a dynamic relationship between religious and secular realms. While we often think of domestic literature as a didactic mode employed to promote Christian doctrine, a significant strand of this literature encouraged readers to consider how certain secular discourses shaped and was shaped by religious belief. A novel like Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), for example, stages debates about African American national belonging that incorporate religious, legal, political, and domestic discourses. Attending to the (sometimes unruly) reciprocity of these discourses is crucial for better understanding the Christian faith that Harper was known for, and which often characterizes Iola Leroy’s moral ethos. As the title of Sacred Spaces, Secular Fictions suggests, this project asserts the importance of space to domestic literature, as well as the impact of fiction on nineteenth-century religious culture. Domestic spaces, including but not limited to the home, were crucial for representing and negotiating conflicts between religion and such secular issues as sexuality, racial hierarchies, science and medicine, and political citizenship. From Sedgwick’s Puritan homestead to Phelps’s imagined houses in heaven or Harper’s living-room salon, these sacred spaces merged the religious and the secular in ways that modeled a secularist morality for nineteenth-century readers. Domestic fiction, I show, could instruct readers on moral issues without proposing a single (presumably Christian) doctrine or viewpoint. While the authors in this study believed in the importance of literature for cultivating moral readers, they did not necessarily believe that Christian faith was the only worthy mode of morality. Instead, readers could take in different sources—religious and secular—in order to best navigate a modern world.