Marcus Münch, Building New Faith on New-Found Shores: Die religiöse Dimension in der Dichtung der Fireside Poets (Trier: WVT, 2016), 239 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.2


Marcus Münch’s study of the “religious dimension” in the poetical works of William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes takes as its theoretical starting point  William James’s and John Dewey’s conceptualization of religion  as an ahistorical, mystical, individual attitude,  which is not necessarily connected to an exclusive set of religious practices and dogmata, but which includes broader interpretations of the term “religious,” in the sense of “attitudes that may be taken  toward every object  and every proposed ideal” (Dewey, qtd. in Münch, 6). From this premise, Münch derives three analytical distinctions for his study:  the direct involvement with “religious experience” of the poets themselves, the interpretation of their individual involvement as it is expressed in their works, and finally the role of the public and of institutionalized religion.   All in all, the study addresses the first two aspects fully and within a well-informed, broadly conceived contextual frame. The range of historical references and the number of different potentially influential “theologies” is impressive and testifies not only to the extensive research undertaken for this doctoral dissertation, but also to the central role of religion within US-American cultural history of the nineteenth century.  It feels very ungenerous to criticize that the third aspect, which examines actual historical religious practices and institutional frameworks, remains rather vague and limited to sporadic examples or general statements.  After all, this is understandable given the limits of what can be tackled in a dissertation project dealing with five individual authors, whose collective output amounts to several thousand pages of primary material, within a historical period ranging from the antebellum period to the Gilded Age.  Nevertheless, the monograph offers many interesting readings of hitherto generally under-studied texts and examples of the ways religion was “negotiated” in the works of the poets.  Münch’s readings reflect a general tendency towards what Harold Bloom called a “creedless” and “experiential” religious experience in American cultural history.

In his first chapter, Münch identifies a development in Bryant’s oeuvre away from a rejection of Puritan doctrine in his youth, to an apparent acceptance of the basis of predestination, i.e. God’s absolute sovereignty and the sola fide principle. The young Bryant was repelled by the “horrible doctrine” of Puritan hell and expressed an alternative vision of death as peaceful “sleep”, for example, in his probably best known poem “Thanatopsis” (1815/17).  In Bryant’s later poems, however, Münch recognizes a renewed continuity with the Puritan dogma. Within this larger claim, he singles out poems that emphasize the absolute power of God vs. the powerlessness of humanity. In the interpretation of the poem “The Tides,” for example, Münch identifies structural similarities in the process of evaporation of sea-water to the “lifting grace” of an almighty God. The reading is very convincing with respect to the distribution of agency (granted exclusively to God), but it does not account for the fact that there is no exception to this rule: under certain conditions, all water molecules, without discrimination, change into “celestial” vapor. The dividing hand of an inscrutable  God that follows a fixed plan according to which some people are unavoidably meant for eternal suffering in hell, while some will enter the kingdom of heaven, does not find an analogy here. Similarly, the comparative interpretation of “wilderness” in some Puritan writers such as John Winthrop,  Samuel Danforth, Thomas Shepard and in Bryant’s poems creates interesting parallels, but it remains open how Münch intends to account for the fact that in Puritan imagination the forest and the wilderness were also the realm of the devil – an association that cannot be found in Bryant’s works.

These open questions notwithstanding, the study comes to the conclusion that Bryant’s poetry is characterized by an “attunement” (Sensibilität) to Puritan thought, though only partially. At the same time the author also identifies religious conceptions going back to Heraclitus and Stoicism (represented by Marcus Aurelius).  Regrettably, Münch mentions one of the historically and culturally most plausible typological (and possibly genetic) parallels only fleetingly: the descriptions of “nature” in Jonathan Edwards’s notebooks. Given Bryant’s Calvinistic upbringing, and the fact that Edwards has, in recent criticism, been considered not just a proto-Romantic, but also a proto-Pragmatist, Münch’s study would have surely benefitted from a comparison between Bryant and Edwards.

In his next chapter, Münch examines John Greenleaf Whittier’s theologically oriented verses in the light of the poet’s own religious background of Quakerism. Here, the comparisons with foundational texts of Quakerism yield interesting, but not really surprising results: Whittier expressed his commitment to the tenets of the “Society of the Friends” all his life, both in his poetry and in paratexts, such as letters, essays, prefaces. Still, as Münch eloquently shows, the contexts of the individual (and thus “democratic”) authority of the inner light and the guiding function of an almighty God are central features in many texts that have, so far, received very little, if any, critical attention. Münch also suggests the existence of a conceptual parallel to the American jeremiad, especially in connection with Whittier’s abolitionist poetry.

In the chapter on the best-known poet of the group, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Münch reflects upon Longfellow’s Unitarianism as an important influence for the poet’s intellectual development. His friendship with William Ellery Channing is highlighted as one of several contextual factors that point to the prominent role of Unitarianism for Longfellow. The epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) serves as an example that unites Unitarian, Catholic, and broadly interpreted Pietistic elements, with the common experience of the “work of affection,” situated in the “heart” of the protagonist, including sentimental connotations. The “Unitarian” interpretation of Catholicism is additionally identified by Münch as an attempt to fight anti-Catholic sentiments in the antebellum era.  (An argument first made by Klaus Martens.[1])  In other works, such as Longfellow’s travel literature, Münch identifies a further leaning towards ecumenical Christianism, with a definite penchant for “pure” Catholic ritual and devotion. A third thematic chapter looks at the historical significance of religion in Longfellow’s New England Tragedies. Here, Münch also argues that Longfellow is motivated by a wish for reconciliation with the Puritan past and in general for an ecumenical attitude within Christianity. Last but not least, a fourth “variety” of religious experience is equated with a “mild agnosticism” (133),  associated with  a general vagueness of spiritual expectation and a turn towards “sublime ritual, nurtured by devotional piety” (141). All in all, Münch considers Longfellow as influenced by various Christian traditions and churches, which can be best equated with “ecumenical principles,” but also with the moving away from any well-defined creed.

The next chapter in the study turns to James Russell Lowell, in his lifetime a respected poet with an equally successful academic and public career, but somebody whose literary reputation faded fast in the twentieth century. Münch sees in Lowell’s religious attitudes, among others, a typological parallel to the Social Gospel movement around Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch. But already in Lowell’s early work, Münch singles out aspects of the Social Gospel avant la lettre: the emphasis on acts of Christian charity, not on Christian symbolism and institutions. Lowell’s “Harvard Commemoration Ode” is, on the other hand, considered a “providential” text, which tries to justify the carnage of the Civil War by the outcome: the rise of “a new imperial race.”  In contrast to this affirmative nationalistic stance, Münch introduces his reading of Lowell’s famous later poem “The Cathedral” as an expression of a spiritual crisis. Although the poem also ends with an acknowledgment of a transcendent order,  Münch remains skeptical whether Lowell has really found his faith again.

The last writer considered is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the poet and medical doctor who once called Emerson’s “American Scholar” “our literary Declaration of Independence,” but who also coined the term “anaesthesia” and described the contagious nature of purpureal fever before Ignaz Semmelweis. He is thus the only member of the group who had had a training also in the natural sciences and a sophisticated understanding of the theory of evolution, which seems to have facilitated its incorporation into his religious “system,” and which he did not perceive as a culturally threatening idea. At the same time, Münch shows that Holmes was a typical adherent to a sentimental “genteel” tradition, rejecting, above all, any kind of extreme or radical position, whether in ethics, aesthetics, or religion. In theological matters, in particular Calvinism (and Puritanism), as personified by Jonathan Edwards, was the primary target of Holmes’s criticism. In his famous satirical poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” Holmes made fun of a system of thought based on intricate, perfectly logical inner connections, such as the rules of Calvinist theology, that forgot to see “the bigger picture.”  Finally, as Münch argues, we find a kind of religious attitude in Holmes which is similar to the other writers, and is characterized by a “changed sensibility” (213) towards religious experience: away from dogma and institutions towards the individualized “religion of the heart.”[2]


Margit Peterfy (Heidelberg)

[1] Klaus Martens, Die ausgewanderte „Evangeline“ (1989). This work, and several others by German scholars (e.g. Armin Paul Frank,  Astrid Franke, Jutta Zimmermann), who discuss relevant aspects in the works of some of the Fireside Poets, are, however, not mentioned in the study.

[2] Whether Edwards was  actually treated squarely and fairly  by Holmes, is questioned by Münch, who considers the argument more convincing that Edwards stands at the beginning of a tradition towards a “religion of the heart” (214). But this is part of a different debate.