E 395M • American Lives of the Word
3:30 PM-5:00 PM
In the contemporary United States, the vocations of literary intellectual, religious leader, and progressive political activist (or the spheres of thought, faith, and action) tend to be distinct from one another, their boundaries policed by mutual distrust, disappointment, or defensiveness of varying degrees of strength. The project of this seminar will be to explore the historical and cultural divergence of these three vocations or spheres from an arguably common source: the "lives of the word" (meaning, the permutations of founding American religious, political, and cultural discourses and principles) in early to mid-19th century New England.
In particular, we will focus on the words and works, and on the unlikely careers and constituencies, of three controversial and consequential representatives--perhaps even patriarchs--of American intellectual, religious, and radical political vocation: poet, philosopher, and lecture circuit professional Ralph Waldo Emerson; Joseph Smith, founder and prophet of the Church of the Latter Day Saints; and "race traitor" and militant abolitionist John Brown. The three men were all born between 1800 and 1805 into New England families steeped in the histories, discourses, and sensibilities of Protestant congregationalism and the American Revolution. Each floundered in his youth and struggled with issues of vocation, authority, piety and filiopiety, and masculinity in the age of emerging industrial capitalism. All became powerful rhetoricians and mythmakers, founding (respectively) the idealist and pragmatist schools of American philosophy and the modern vocation of the public intellectual; the most successful religious sect in US history, now a bastion of American conservatism; and an American tradition of militant civil rights activism. Each of these pioneers, it is possible to imagine, might have been any of the others, yet the cultural roles and commitments that each shaped and exemplified have diverged sharply. As a matter both of cultural history and of contemporary cultural insight and empowerment, the common origins and different trajectories of these American lives of the word seem worth examining.
Primary readings will include letters, essays, sermons, and personal narratives by Emerson, Smith, and Brown, as well as writings by some of their associates and disciples, and sections of The Book of Mormon. Secondary sources will include biographical essays or chapters on the three principals and selected essays in 19th century and contemporary American religious, cultural, political, and intellectual history.