Women Writers and Religious Agency in Nineteenth-Century America
- ISBN: 9781501751363
- Published By: Cornell University Press
- Published: September 2020
Ashley Reed’s Heaven’s Interpreters: Women Writers and Religious Agency in Nineteenth-Century America is a compelling work of literary history that delves into the religious agency of women writers in the 19th century, identifying how they reimagined their autonomy in the face of patriarchal orthodoxy. Reed focuses on the works of canonical figures such as Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, Lydia Marie Child, Susan Warner, Augusta Jane Evan, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Stoddard, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, and Kate Field.
Reed argues that prior studies of 19th century literature authored by women have neglected to perceive religious themes because of the entrenched use of secularized reading practices. Reed makes a differentiation between “secularized reading” and “secular reading” to clarify her methodological intervention. She asserts that most scholars of literature engage in secularized reading which predicates itself on the secularization thesis – the idea that religion is on the decline in the West, religion is a private matter, and religion will eventually become obsolete due to scientific discovery (12). “Secularized reading” has neglected the importance of religion in literary history, particularly religion’s importance to women writers. Secularization narratives “not only discount the importance of religious adherence but also obscure the forms of religious experiences most likely to be engaged in by women: informed by theology but also characterized by ritual, emotion, connection, or collective action” (17). Reed proposes that through the process of “secular reading,” scholars read literature with the religious convictions of the author at the forefront. Through this process of secular reading, Reed redefines agency not as a form of self-determination, but as “a capacity for action enabled by particular conditions – not the ability to transcend or ignore those conditions, as it is often framed” (154).
Through this methodological intervention, Reed relies on the theories of secularism scholars such as Saba Mahmood, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler that are engaged in a redefinition of agency that takes seriously “religious beliefs, intellections, impulses, and affects shape our subjects’ experience of their agency, their relationship with those around them, and their apprehensions of temporal and eternal good” (17). Utilizing secular reading, a method predicated on a historically accurate and comprehensive definition of secularization, Reed sheds new light on these women authors’ understandings of their agency.
Reed’s methodological intervention proves effective, particularly in her third chapter through her discussion and analysis of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Reed discusses the norms of sentimental literature and the popular genre of runaway novels to understand how Jacobs’ book reimagines genre norms to explore her religious agency through writing a spiritual autobiography (92). Reed’s analysis explores how Jacobs reimagined her religious agency as an enslaved woman through her protagonist, Linda Brent. Reed makes clear that “acknowledging the agency of the enslaved in no way mitigates the guilt of the slaveowner or the evil of slavery, but it can assist us in recognizing the humanity of the enslaved” (93). As Reed sees it, Jacobs styles Linda Brecht as a religious agent who defies the judgments of her enslavers and allows her sins to be adjudicated by God alone. In other words, religion furnishes a means of finding autonomy amid her oppression.
Relying on prominent secularism scholars like Mahmood, Foucault, and Butler, Reed’s most compelling intervention lies in the source material that she brings to the table, coupled with the methodological practice of “secular reading.” Reed insists that 19th century women writers tell the most interesting stories of agency. She urges scholars to rid themselves of the misapprehension that theology is for men alone and that women experienced religion in the same way as men (8). Reed urges to not “look to men, always enchanted by the chimera of their self-reliance. Look to the women and women’s books instead” (24).
Reed concludes her book by bringing her argument to the present. Through referencing many openly religious political leaders like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, consistently a target of Islamophobia, Reed shows yet again how women are continuously defining and imagining their religious agency for themselves, their families, their communities, and the nation writ large (191). This book is a must-read for those interested in feminist critique, the possibilities of religious agency, and the history of American literature authored by women.
Samantha McLoughlin is a master’s student of American Religious History at Florida State University.Samantha McLouhghlinDate Of Review:March 27, 2023