Sinners in the hands of an Angry Gardner



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The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature

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© The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Although John gardner has attracted a great deal of critical attention since his death in 1982-fifteen books in just eighteen years, and at least five others in progress-surprisingly little has appeared on the three interrelated areas that are the subject of this essay. One is his narrative treatment of sex. Another is the way his Presbyterian upbringing manifests itself in his work and connects him to the American Puritan tradition. The third is Gardner's highly personal but also disturbingly puritanical treatment of human bodies in his work, both as physical objects and as metaphorical constructs. Gardner's writings-the criticism as well as the fiction-reveal a deep-seated preoccupation with sin and guilt rooted in the Calvinist obsession with individual worthiness for salvation. Reading biographically through his Presbyterian upbringing and the accidental death in childhood of his younger brother, we can see that Gardner displaced the self-loathing these engendered onto his writing, most notably in its preoccupation with adolescent sexuality and physically disabled figures. More even than his individual psychology, the Puritan elements of Gardner's background and imagination shaped On Moral Fiction into a version of what Sacvan Bercovitch calls "the American jeremiad." On Moral Fiction adopts this Puritan rhetorical form to argue for a morally uncontaminated national literature in a way that resonates deeply with larger American rituals of casting out the impure or un-American. Thus, the grotesque body of Gardner's fiction is not celebratory and liberating, as it is in Bakhtin. I Rather, it is a caricature of carnality that must be controlled, and it can be linked with broader attempts to police cultural production (such as recent efforts to ban the Harry Potter books from schools, for example, or to discipline and punish the Brooklyn Museum of Art for its Sensation exhibit). Seen in the context of America's shift to the right in the last quarter of the twentieth century, On Moral Fiction demonstrates how Puritan theological forms continue to shape American thinking, in part through their contribution to larger structures of social and bodily surveillance.