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Literature and Spirituality in the English-Speaking World

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Edited By Kathie Birat and Brigitte Zaugg

This collection of essays focuses on the role of spirituality in American literature through an examination of the multiple ways in which a deep engagement with the spiritual has shaped and affected literature in the Americas (three of the essays involve Canadian and Caribbean literature). The essays in the first section explore the intimate links between the spiritual and the social as they are manifested in forms of fiction like fantasy, science fiction, and the Christian fundamentalist fiction of Jerry B. Jenkins. The second section looks at the ways in which poetry has allowed writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Ellen Glasgow, Fanny Howe and Leonard Cohen to use language as a tool for exploring their complex relation to the spiritual seen in terms of radical otherness, or of exile, or of the search for common ground as human beings. The final section approaches spirituality as a defining element of the American experience, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Toni Morrison and Paul Auster.
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Literature and Spirituality in the English-Speaking World

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Introduction

In 1836 the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his journal an aphorism that captures the complex relation between literature and spirituality in the American context. He wrote:

Make your own Bible. Select and collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul. (quoted in Richardson 241)

His oxymoronic formulation expresses the fundamental contradiction underlying the advice of a cultivated and widely-read scholar who preached a personal and intimate relation to the deity and yet could not help seeing the Bible, a text shared by the Christian community, as a model for the power of language to express the spiritual. Emerson’s remark reminds us above all that spirituality is often a question of words, that it is in words that the spiritual is captured, however inadequate the spoken or written word may be to grasp all that the term “spirituality” implies. The image of the “blast of trumpet” suggests the force of the spiritual in American life, reminding one of the poetess from Amherst who, although she could not bring herself to believe in the conventional sense, attempted to reproduce the “blast” evoked by Emerson in much of her poetry. The presence of the Bible as text in American literature, through a dense web of intertextuality, can be explained by the role of the Bible in Protestant religious practice. But the involvement of...

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