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Spectral Evidence of the Invisible World: Gender and the Puritan Supernatural in American Fiction, 1798-1856

  • Author(s): Henton, Alice Marie Hampton
  • Advisor(s): Colacurcio, Michael J.
  • et al.

In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fiction, Puritans serve as source material for a distinctly American identity and as allegories for the experiences of later generations. Many texts draw upon the legacy of the Puritan supernatural, most recognizably the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials. Salem is only a fragment, however, of a belief system deeply rooted in what Puritans called the invisible world, an omnipresent geography that linked material and immaterial dimensions via an intricate system of signs and portents.

Spectral Evidence considers the entire invisible world in order to trace the Puritan supernatural's extensive impact on early American fiction. Against the backdrop of a wilderness filled with wonders and witches, numerous American genres took shape: protofeminist gothic dramas, female-driven national romances couched in subversive supernatural agency, and antebellum allegories and anti-reform satires framed as supernatural cautionary tales for women, all haunted, as were the Puritans themselves, by issues of female agency. Historical female witches and heretics became fictional reincarnations, onto which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers mapped their own innovations and anxieties.

Chapter one shows how Brown's Wieland combines prodigies, wonders, and apparitions in an exploration of invisible world manifestations that simultaneously explores female agency and lays the groundwork for an American gothic. Chapter two turns to the national romances of the 1820s to explore how female writers like Sedgwick, Cheney, and Child radically re-imagine the Puritan supernatural as a navigable realm best traversed by women. Chapter three considers Hawthorne's transformation of the invisible world from a subversive space that enfranchises women into a conservative realm characterized by social and spiritual restrictions, in which heroines are punished rather than empowered by their supernatural experiences. Chapter four turns to antireform satire in order to trace the intensification of the Puritan supernatural's new incarnation as a "negative example" in antebellum literature. The central example, Brownson's The Spirit-Rapper mimics the inclusive mechanics and materials of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wonder tales and draws on Puritan archival materials to prove that spiritualist spirits and Puritan demons are identical, ungodly sources of destructive female agency.

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