Religious healing in the progressive era : literary responses to Christian Science




Squires, Laura Ashley

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This project examines the impact of Christian Science on American culture through the interventions of three major literary figures—Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and Theodore Dreiser—in the major debates that surrounded the movement. I argue that both Christian Science itself and the backlash against it were responses to the shifting conditions of modern life, that Christian Science and public discourse on it laid bare distinctly modern tensions and anxieties about changes in U.S. culture. Recent scholarship has pointed to the durability of the secularization thesis in the study of American literature despite the easily discernible impact of religion on American culture more broadly throughout the history of the U.S. This critical perspective has been particularly difficult to dismantle in the study of post-Civil War American literature. While it is true that Protestant Christianity lost some of its dominance in the late nineteenth century, this period also saw the rise of various influential heterodox religious groups, including Christian Science. This dissertation will make sense of why and how Christian Science captured the imaginations of so many Americans, including some of the greatest storytellers of the day. Christian Science was not the story of how a group of deluded fanatics attempted to turn back the tide of modernity. Instead, Christian Science was a product of modernity that provided a unique and, in its particular context, scientifically plausible response to the problem of human suffering. Furthermore, the controversies that surrounded Christian Science crystallized anxieties about the fate of individual autonomy in the modern U.S., the exercise of therapeutic and religious freedom, the concentration of individual wealth and power among a privileged few, the extension of American power abroad, and sexuality. Each chapter will examine a narrative or set of narratives that demonstrate how the Christian Science debates heightened and spoke to those concerns.




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