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Occult Americans: Invisible Culture and the Literary Imagination

  • Author(s): Finley, Lana Louise
  • Advisor(s): Looby, Christopher
  • et al.
Abstract

My dissertation argues that a symbiotic relationship between fiction and the occult existed in nineteenth century America. American authors reproduced occult ideas culled from the ancient systems of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism in their texts, and these fictions in turn inspired speculative traditions in America. "Occult Americans: Invisible Culture and the Literary Imagination" also provides a connecting link between ancient, magical ideas about the cosmos that were brought to America by its first colonists, and the later nineteenth century occult resurgence. Occult ideas did not go out of existence when Enlightenment dawned in America, but only shifted their terrain, and my dissertation sketches these new loci of occultism in antebellum America.

In my first chapter, "The Triumph of Unreason: Charles Brockden Brown's Occult Moment," I examine the discourse of revelation as it was presented by several eighteenth century occult groups. This chapter isolates the religious threat implicit in the "Illuminati Panic" of the 1790s, and argues that Brown explored the occult claims of secret fraternities in his unfinished novella, Carwin, and in his novel, Ormond (1799).

My second chapter, "Discursive Failure and Imaginative Genesis: Occult Narration in the Corpus of Edgar Allan Poe," performs a close reading of Poe's 1848 cosmology, Eureka, the writer's earnest attempt to prove the coequality of matter and spirit and man's innate divinity. Poe's novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), is a more successful realization of Hermetic ideas in its narrative form; unlike Eureka, Pym embeds the central Hermetic tropes of revelation, secrecy, and initiation in its ambiguous ending, symbolic language, and fantastic imagery.

My third chapter, "Masonry, Anti-Masonry, and the Brotherhood of the Union: George Lippard's Fraternal Dialectic," recounts the history of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism in early America. Lippard's 1848 novel, Paul Ardenheim, stages the occult anointing of George Washington, and many of the novel's Rosicrucian vignettes appear as sacred books in the order Lippard founded, the Brotherhood of the Union. This occult context also provides fresh insight into Lippard's most popular novel, The Quaker City (1845), which dramatizes the antebellum discourse of Anti-Masonry in the corrupt "Monks of Monk Hall."

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