Doctor of Philosophy
I propose a new intellectual history of how the aesthetic obtains religious value in the American literary tradition. According to the account that prevails from Perry Miller to Tracy Fessenden, the Transcendentalists collapse scripture and literature into a single secular category. I argue instead that the Transcendentalists redraw the distinction along aesthetic criteria. A text’s sacred status has little to do with who wrote it when, and everything to do with a particular aesthetic quality expressive of divine inspiration. Scholarship has neglected two concepts instrumental to this development: the religious sentiment and atmosphere. Unitarian and Calvinist norms held all religious practice to the test of scripture and empirical reason. The Transcendentalists found scripture too polyvocal, reason too limited, to ground religion. They championed an alternative standard: the religious sentiment, an intrinsic spiritual impulse. Like other impulses, the religious sentiment compels expression and satisfaction, both of which proceed not only from devotional practices, but from divinely inspired literature as well. The second concept, atmosphere, develops primarily through Emerson’s essays and lectures to explain how the religious sentiment manifests in aesthetic form. Inspired literature is intensely atmospheric. And only intensely atmospheric literature can satisfy the religious sentiment. Ultimately, I hope to lay the methodological foundations necessary for a robust scholarly inquiry into atmospheric form among such twentieth-century poets as Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery, all of whom continue to associate atmosphere with a heightened clarity of mind and depth of experience.
Summary for Lay Audience
The Transcendentalists make literature religious. First, they say that we all have a faculty called the “religious sentiment.” The religious sentiment is like hunger, except where hunger makes us crave food, the religious sentiment makes us crave spiritual fulfillment. Just as we get more and more hungry the longer we go without eating, so the religious sentiment craves more and more the longer we go without spiritual fulfillment. Prayer satisfies the religious sentiment. So does reading the Bible. But what makes the Transcendentalists so revolutionary is that they say art can satisfy the religious sentiment, too. Not all works of art—only art that is divinely inspired. To make this argument, they needed a new concept for some aesthetic quality that only inspired art can have. They found their concept in “atmosphere.” By “atmosphere,” they meant more or less the same thing we mean today when we say, “this restaurant has a nice atmosphere,” or “old houses have more atmosphere than the new cookie-cutters”: a feeling, a mood, haunts about a certain place or object. For the Transcendentalists, atmosphere is not spiritual. Neither is it material. It is both spiritual and material. Just as a prism refracts a beam of light into shapes and colours that play upon the wall, so matter refracts spirit into atmosphere. Just as the shapes and colours are not just light or just prism, so atmosphere is not just spirit or just matter, but something that happens when spirit and matter come together. Now, the Transcendentalists wrote a lot of literature. And they wanted their literature to satisfy the religious sentiment. So they developed ways of writing atmospherically. I consider what some of these ways of writing are, and how they work.
Sorensen, Thomas, "Atmosphere and Religious Experience in American Transcendentalism" (2020). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 7265.