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Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Duration and Depravity identifies a temporality of “sinful feeling” operating in the archive of Puritan writings of personal piety, such as diaries, autobiographies, conversion narratives, and sermons, and persisting into early American gothic literature. This temporality of sinful feeling is an attempt to discipline the self through temporal projection oriented towards the theological fact and religiously experienced feeling of sinfulness. Duration and Depravity engages with the proliferation of postsecular criticism in American literature studies generally, and Puritan studies more specifically. Postsecular criticism in literary studies is a style of historicism that reconsiders its primary archive’s position in newly complicated narratives of secularization provided by such thinkers as Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. This project’s identification of a temporality of sinful feeling in the Puritan archive and in the early American gothic both builds on and complicates Charles Taylor’s proposition that secular modernity is defined by the assumption of Walter Benjamin’s “homogenous, empty time” as the primary source of modern disciplinary culture. Charles Taylor believes that Puritanism is paradoxically responsible for producing this modern secular phenomenological condition. In contrast, I argue that, while the Puritans did indeed assume time as a homogenous empty medium and “precious resource, not to be wasted” in the quest for personal self-discipline and religious industry, they also defined themselves according to a temporality of sacramentalism, repetition, and queerness that resisted this homogenous disciplinary time and oriented itself around recurrent experiences of personal depravity—or sinful feeling. This temporality of sinful feeling persists in the early American gothic not as something which the “secular” novel form critiques, but which it proposes as a morally desirable component of citizenship in the early American republic.

Among other theoretical approaches, Duration and Depravity engages the Puritan archive with postsecular theory (Talal Asad, Charles Taylor), queer temporality theory (Elizabeth Freeman, Lee Edelman), phenomenology of time and affect (Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Charles Altieri), and pain studies (Elaine Scarry). The first seven chapters examine the formation of a New England Puritan tradition of a temporality of sinful feeling in Puritan authors (Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Michael Wigglesworth, and Jonathan Edwards). Through a reading of Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 gothic novel Wieland, chapter eight contends that the gothic tragedy of the novel transmits a Puritan lesson about the need for responsible American citizens to embrace rather than repudiate a temporality of sinful feeling as a method of judgement and self-discipline. Duration and Depravity concludes by suggesting that the early American gothic style portrays a depraved temporality which it inherits from Puritanism and transmits in “secular-religious” form as an important source of responsible republican selfhood. The early American gothic is not so much a secular critique of Puritan origins as it is a carrying forward of Puritanism as itself a necessary form of self-critique and democratic citizenship.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation is about a group of colonial settlers in the New England region who came to the area in 1630 from England to form a system of church and government that they believed was more faithful to true Christianity than the Church of England system, which they saw as too Roman Catholic. These settlers are commonly known as the Puritans, and they have become famous for founding a supposed “City on a Hill” in New England: a form of church and government that they hoped would be an example of purity to the Church of England. These Puritans are often viewed as anti-literary, since they opposed plays and secular literature. However, this dissertation observes in the Puritans an obsession with the maximization of guilty feelings that was in fact a source of creative expression for them. This obsession with guilty feeling as a source of creativity in novels persists in American literature long after the Puritans fade away, and becomes a cultural form through which to criticize the naiveté of Enlightenment faith in the rational innocence of American citizens.

I connect the Puritan creative obsession with maximizing guilty feelings to their obsession with maximizing every moment of time. Scholars have traditionally thought of the Puritans as aiming to live lives as holy as possible in order to use all of their time to demonstrate that they were saved by God. However, this dissertation counters that the Puritans were actually interested in connecting their sense of the passage of time to their heavily indulged feelings of guiltiness, which they took pleasure in expressing.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.