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Jason W. Stevens
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Warding off innocence: Original sin and American culture in the Cold WarJason W. Stevens
My dissertation argues that key writers and filmmakers played crucial roles in shaping and challenging a theological critique of America's mythic innocence which evolved in the early years of the Cold War. In the shadow of concerns about the spread of totalitarian systems, the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin was refurbished and then mobilized in a variety of cultural discourses that aimed to shore up democratic society against threats preying on the nation's internal weaknesses. As the concept of Original Sin migrated, it generated accounts of evil in which the idea of innocence took on a counter-intuitive meaning; instead of signifying clear conscience or guilelessness, innocence became instead a synonym for totalitarian ideologies of the fascist right or the Communist left, with which certain veins of America's heritage---those descending from the millenarian sides of Enlightenment and liberal Christianity---were said to share a dangerous affinity. In the logic of the era's many admonitions tracing chiliastic ideologies to illusions of moral purity, the responsible citizen was one who humbly disclaimed any pretenses to freedom transcending sin. My work combines cultural and intellectual history with close formal analysis of specific narratives to explore how Americans represented both private and public life through a language of iniquity, guilt, and expiation that intentionally echoed the nation's past religious awakenings. As I explain in the Introduction to the dissertation, the theological substance of this discussion centered on the renunciation of Protestant modernism, a provocative movement from within liberal Christianity, lasting from the 1870s into the 1930s, which rejected the teaching of a corrupt human nature and proclaimed the divinity ofman's own cultural progress. By mid-century, these assumptions were being repudiated by influential counter-modernists, including Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham, who agreed there were Christian values implicit in democracy worth defending, but vigorously differed over which aspects of American culture could be requisitioned to support these values and which were sinfully antithetical to them. In three main areas, religious spokesmen and secular intellectuals, each desiring to correct frailties internal to democratic society, formed controversial alliances: (1) in politics, to thwart the possibility that subjects might invest authority in ideological mass movements rather than in nation-states, (2) in the domestic sphere, to protect children's moral development from parents who deviated from gender norms, (3) in cultural criticism, to stop mass tastes from collapsing "highbrow" and "lowbrow" distinctions. Skeptical writers and filmmakers intervened in each of these areas by adapting an array of generic forms which gave them imaginative vehicles to produce studies of evil that questioned whether the Cold War religious revival had succeeded in producing a less innocent nation. Chapter I, "Dissent within Counter-Modernism: The Rivalry of Niebuhrian Liberals and New Evangelicals to Define Christianity, American Character, and the Enemies of Democracy," examines Cold War tropes of evil and innocence as these were applied in discourses that distinguished the national character from its ideological enemies. The centerpieces of this discussion are Whitaker Chamber's confessional autobiography Witness (1952), and Lionel Trilling's semi-autobiographical novel of ideas, The Middle of the Journey (1948), which contains a major character modeled on Chambers. A comparison of Middle of the Journey with Witness illustrates the political pressures that made some meeting ground between secular neo-liberals and theological counter-modernism not only desirable, perhaps, but also expedient. Chapter II, "Highbrow and Kitsch Faith: Religion and Cold War Cultural Politics," queries the intellectual elite's equation, on one hand, of modernist art with ideology-free spirituality and, on the other, of middlebrow popular culture with religious fundamentalism and authoritaria ideology. Key intellectual figures, in addition to Paul Tillich, include T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, and William McLoughlin. Billy Graham is also spotlighted here, both as a cultural critic (who appropriated modernist texts for his own admonitions about the mass society) and as an object of attack. His commercialized revival crusades and his right-wing politics made him a ripe target for dubious theories describing an underlying totalitarian character in both mass entertainment and mass evangelicalism. The chapter is framed by close analyses of two anti-evangelical films, Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind (1960) and Richard Brooks' Elmer Gantry (1960). The third chapter, "William March's and Shirley Jackson's Revolt Against Therapeutic Religion," analyzes March's innovative and popular genre piece, The Bad Seed, as well as several Gothic romances by Shirley Jackson, including The Bird's Nest and The Haunting of Hill House. For the sake of mental health and anti-totalitarian social planning, therapists sought to snip hypertrophied guilt-consciousness at its neurotic root, in the psycho-social dynamics of the family. March and Jackson, both of them too haunted by recent history to accept therapeutic optimism, connect barbaric violence to domestic origins, the area which psychoanalysis had isolated for rational medical control. Both March and Jackson are criticize therapeutic models, but they do not agree on the period's compulsory gender formations, which churchmen and psychiatrists alike had countenanced. In Chapter IV, "The Suffering Innocent and the Psychopathic Persecutor: McCarthyism through Sentimental Melodrama and Film Noir, I examine The Night of the Hunter (1955), James Agee and Charles Laughton's highly original genre experiment about a psychopathic evangelist whose manipulation of a rural hamlet parodies Senator McCarthy's attempt to turn anti-Communism into a religious crusade. I show that the film combines D. W. Griffith-style sentimental melodrama with film noir. The noir passages project a revivalistic community where the deranged evangelist hunts down evil secrets and exempts only himself from guilt, while passages owing to sentimental melodrama invert the revival community's warped theology so that true virtue can be distinguished from the false prophet. The noirish evocation of a fallen society is so powerful, however, that it finally undermines the redemption narrative adapted from Griffithian melodrama. The fifth chapter is "O'Connor, Warren, Baldwin, and the Styles of Post-War Prophecy." Building figural, thematic, and rhetorical analogies to Old and New Testament examples, the three authors write of impassioned prophets, coming from socially disinherited groups, who try to stir decisive changes in cultural attitudes or social structure by appealing to transcendental laws. Besides fiction, I also examine Warren's "Holy Writ" poems and his neglected Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965), as well as stylized uses of prophecy in Baldwin's essays on Civil Rights and Black Power. With his innovative revisions of the Puritan Jeremiad sermon, Baldwin turned the Cold War-era's "end of innocence" language against white Americans whose Christian culture, he charged, had not saved them from damning illusions of purity. Whereas Warren and O'Connor protest modern America's sinful fusion of temporal and eternal aims, James Baldwin's re-formulation of the problem of innocence recommends a tempered union of religion and political activism. The Epilogue looks ahead to the sixties' widespread rejection of the earlier religious revival before I narrow to the transitional figure of Norman Mailer, hailed in his own time as a prophet of the counterculture as well as a precursor to the Death-of-God theologians.
I conclude by reflecting on the continuing implications of Cold War era for the culture wars between liberalism and fundamentalism now.
Philosophy, religion and theology; Communication and the arts; Language, literature and linguistics; Cold War; Culture; Innocence; Original sin; Religious history; American literature; Motion pictures; 0900:Motion pictures; 0591:American literature; 0320:Religious history
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