Words on Words: An interview with Doug Walrath
On Thursday, June 17, renowned local scholar Doug Walrath will be celebrating the release of his outstanding new book from Columbia University Press, Displacing The Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction. The book has gotten some outstanding national reviews, which you can find here.
Now when you've been working away literally for decades on a book of daunting breadth it only stands to reason that you would want to hold forth on your topic, and so we've put a few questions to Doug here.
Kenny: Across time, from Pliny the Elder to Pat Robertson, cultural observers have felt that an erosion of moral institutions was occurring, that the last generation was more religious, that kids today are running wild, and so forth. The sense of decline is more or less a constant, but the last 3,000 years probably haven't been a continual greased slide.
Looking at "the declining credibility of ministers and their God in American Culture" which you have chronicled and examined, would you say that the perception of decline is intrinsic to human sensibilty or reflective of a concrete change in American Society?
Doug: I don't think the data support the view that there has been a continuing decline ("greased slide," to use your words) in moral values or religious institutions over the last 3,000 years. (Of course, I only cover only the last 200 years in my book, so you have to look elsewhere for evidence of decline in the previous 2800 years!) Novels published during the 1840s by writers like George Lippard and George Thompson describe ministers who are scoundrels and church institutions that are at a pretty low state. Sinclair Lewis's novels published 80 years later in the 1920s portray ministers who are equally questionable characters. These books were all best sellers in their time. If they reflect popular perceptions of ministers and churches (and I think they do), then moral failure in general and in ministers in particular has been around a long time.
What is different and progresses during the last 200 years is the declining credibility of God and ministers as representatives of God. Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850) is not just another book about a scoundrel minister; Hawthorne argues that Arthur Dimmesdale never receives any help from God to find healing or forgiveness. And he portrays Hester Prynne who has no Christian faith as the most moral character in the novel. That trend persists as a greasier slide as the years go by. T. S. Eliot captures an advance state of the decline in a line from his "Choruses from The Rock" (1934) He writes that people "have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no God; and this has never happened before." Survey data over the last four decades support a continuing displacement of respect for the divine: the fastest growing subgroup in surveys of American religious affiliation are those who check "none" when asked about their religious affiliation. The "nones" as they are known in popular literature have grown faster than the evangelicals in American society.
Kenny: Historians often feel that certain novels provide the best insight into a particular era, The Red and The Black, for example.
Though all the works you survey reflect an evolving dynamic involving the cultural perception of ministers, are there any novels which offer a particularly strong window of insight into that dynamic?
Doug: Certainly The Scarlet Letter falls into that category. The Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale not only suffers a moral lapse, his religious beliefs contribute to his decline. That's a new critical insight and it persists in American fiction. Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware describes a minister who is not competent to address the challenges posed by the scientific revolution. Frederic's portrayal suggests that ministers (and the church) are not able to keep up with the challenges science poses. They fumble and their inability to cope becomes a major theme in the twentieth century. Julia Spencer-Fleming, who is actually a Maine author, in her Gail Fergussen-Russ Van Alstyne series captures the tendency to portray good ministers in contemporary fiction in moral terms, not spiritual terms. What commends them now is not the strength of their faith but their behavior. The Divine is displaced so authors have to find another criterion to give their fictional ministers credibility.
Kenny: People used to refer to America as a melting pot, then a tossed salad. I'm not sure what the metaphor du jour is, but considering the diverse, and distinct origins of American cultural and intellectual sensibility, be that enlightenment, rationalism or puritanism, what role has assimilation played in the subject you explore in Displacing The Divine?
Doug: The difficulty of assimilation has been there from the beginning. In the first chapter of the book I discuss ministers who are "misfits" in American society. These are clerics who held on to the European image of the ministers as a cultured gentlemen which was untenable in the American wilderness. Fenimore Cooper draws a wonderful portrait in Mr. Worden who trudges through the wilderness in full clerical dress, explaining that compromising his vestments is just the first step to compromising his theology. In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner contrasts the loss of God's and ministers' credibility in white culture with the persistence of both in black culture. As the society becomes more diverse and pluralistic, perceptions of God and ministers become similarly varied. I think that diversity is here to stay.
Kenny: Are there any American novels whose primary protagonists are clerics which can hold up to Barchester Towers or The Warden for great bedtime reading?
Doug: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is certainly one of the best. Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry is a classic portrait of what happens when a minister loses touch with God. Garrison Keillor's Pontoon is a fun read. Reynolds Price's The Good Priest's Son and Gail Godwin's Father Melancholy's Daughter offer sensitive portraits of ministers who struggle with their humanity.
Kenny: Thanks Doug!
Doug: Sure. Looking forward to the 17th!
Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers to Hold a Reading and Book Signing by Doug Walrath on Thursday, June 17, at 7 PM. For more information regarding this event contact DDG Booksellers, 193 Broadway, Farmington, Me 04938 at 778-3454, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.