Department Research Seminar: Smith

Jeff Smith, Ph.D.
“Perpetual Scriptures”: The Search for American Prophets and Sacred Texts in the 19th-Century United States


In the tumultuous decades of rapid expansion and change before the American Founding and the Civil War, Americans confronted a cluster of overlapping crises whose common theme was the difficulty of finding authority in written texts. The issue arose from several disruptive developments: rising challenges to the traditional authority of the Bible, in a society that was intensely Protestant; persistent worries over America's lack of a “national literature” and an independent cultural identity; and the slavery crisis, which provoked tremendous struggles over clashing interpretations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, even as these “parascriptures” were rising to the status of a kind of quasi-sacred secular canon.

At the same time but from the opposite direction, new mass media were creating a new, industrial-scale print culture that put a premium on very non-sacred, disposable text: mass-produced “news,” dispensed immediately and in huge quantities but meant only for the day or hour. My forthcoming book identifies key features of the writings, careers and cultural politics of several prominent Americans as responses to this cluster of challenges. In their varied attempts to vindicate the sacred and to merge the timeless with the urgent present, Joseph Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, Abraham Lincoln, and other religious and political leaders and men and women of letters helped define American literary culture as an ongoing quest for what Emerson called “new Bibles,” a “perpetual scripture.”

| BIO |

After an earlier career in the US, I’ve been teaching in our Literary and Cultural Studies program since 2013 and providing artistic direction for the Gypsywood Players. Early American Literature was one of my PhD “fields” in the University of Chicago’s English Department, and my interest in the questions described above also owes to two other influences: a very text-oriented Lutheran upbringing and education, and an early, pre-academic career as a newspaper reporter and media consultant. The book I will be briefly summarizing is “in press” with Bloomsbury Publishing, and is also being submitted as my habilitation thesis.


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