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Secular Spiritual Quests in Modern American Novels, 1922-1960 Open Access

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In this dissertation, I investigate the ways that spiritual narratives have been represented in secular modernist novels and examine and deconstruct the secular/spiritual binary commonly used in their critique. In light of revised theories of secularization that suggest the so-called secular age was never all that secular to begin with, I argue for increased attention to modes of individual spiritual experience. In the opening chapter, I examine how conventional narratives of 20th century American secularization and modernity have limited the scope of literary criticism. As other disciplines, particularly philosophy and sociology, revise and deepen their approaches to spirituality, I argue that this nascent postsecularism is not simply a description of our current historical moment, but can be deployed as a critical practice to revise and correct dominant interpretations of 20th century literature that overlook the significance of embedded spiritual narratives. The chapters that follow examine how these novels represent spiritual identity in a culture that has, as Lyotard wrote, rejected grand narratives but not the desire for a transcendent spiritual position that the grand narratives once accommodated. In chapter two, "The Transcendent Promise of War," I argue that Willa Cather's One of Ours and Saul Bellow's Dangling Man demonstrate how spiritual quest unfolds in the context of national conflict, with the battlefield imagined as a location for spiritual transcendence. Chapter three, "A Bridge from Man to Man": Spiritual Connections in Home to Harlem and The Outsider" considers how Claude McKay and Richard Wright's novels express spiritual identity as shaped by participation in or rejection of community. The fourth chapter, "Ongoing Conversions: Spiritual Uncertainty in All the King's Men and The Moviegoer" identifies a turn toward provisional spiritual solutions that emphasize the process of spiritual quest over a clear spiritual teleology in Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy's novels. These readings, intended as additive and, in some cases, reparative interpretations of novels whose spiritual content has often been overlooked, lead to a more nuanced understanding of American modernism and contribute to a richer understanding of the development of the American spiritual narrative.

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