Secular Revelations: The Constitution of the United States and Classic American Literature

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9780674019126: Secular Revelations: The Constitution of the United States and Classic American Literature

The United States Constitution, battleground of a politically bifurcated nation, and sponsor of that nation's now threatened cultural unity, is a quintessentially political document. Americans' representatives swear loyalty to it, and her soldiers die for it. Yet no one has ever seriously considered the formative influence this document, so central a force for all Americans, has had on American cultural life. Now, in this ambitious book, Mitchell Meltzer has for the first time demonstrated the extent to which the Constitution is both source and inspiration for America's greatest literary masterworks.

Retelling the history of the Constitution's formation, Meltzer explains how the peculiarly paradoxical form of the Constitution, its "secular revelation," underwent a literary rebirth after the passing of the Founders' generation, and issued in what is strangest and most characteristic in America's classic literature. By combining the secular with the revealed, a Constitutional poetics results that gives rise, in both politics and literature, to the formation of more perfect unions.

Offering powerful new perspectives on Lincoln, Emerson, Whitman, and Melville, Meltzer reveals how the Constitution counterintuitively generated such oft-noted tendencies as these writers' penchant for self-contradiction, their willingness to court radical discontinuity, and their intensely conflicted, romance-directed fictions.

Secular Revelations presents the Constitution in a new role, the inspiration of a great national literature.

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About the Author:

Mitchell Meltzer teaches at New York University.

Review:

More than ever, it is good to be reminded that the American Constitution is a secular revelation, since what Emerson called the Party of Memory (now our Christian Right) asserts the opposite. Mitchell Meltzer helps to restore the truth, and shows how Emerson, Whitman and Melville based aspects of their own secular revelations on our Founding Document, the continued inspiration for Emerson's now dispirited Party of Hope. (Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon)

With unparalleled insight, Meltzer explains the power of the U.S. Constitution to exert literary influence at the highest level. This groundbreaking work demonstrates that our founding source of authority, the Constitution, fuses religion and secularity into a single inspiring paradox, whose metaphysical power fuels the writing of three great Americans, Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. For the first time in literary history, Meltzer rightly accords the Constitution its paradoxical creative role. (Angus Fletcher, author of A New Theory for American Poetry)

This fascinating study of some of the 'greats' of American literature throws new light on the ways that the United States Constitution is not only a legal document, but also, and in some ways even more importantly, a central shaper of American culture. It also shows how a secular Constitution can serve as a substitute for more traditional revealed religion. (Sanford Levinson, author of Constitutional Faith)

Secular Revelations explores the place of the Constitution in the development of an American literary tradition. Beautifully written and powerfully argued, it combines a rich historical synthesis of the debates and cultural meanings of the Constitution, from the Framers through the antebellum era, with a strikingly original argument and literary readings. It should be of interest to all Americanists in the fields of literature and American Studies, as well as to historians of the early Republic and antebellum eras and of the Constitution. (John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men)

Mitchell Meltzer's book offers an interesting insight into a seldom studied aspect of American cultural history. In its pages, the author analyzes the impact of the American Constitution on three of the main American Renaissance writers, Emerson, Whitman and Melville...Secular Revelations enables us to look into the Constitution of the United States, not merely as a legal text, but as a cultural frame; Meltzer gives the reader numerous examples, and his study of the three writers he chooses is accurate and inspiring. (Alice Beja Cercles)

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