The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Modern Social Theory

Synopsis

From ritual killings to subtle acts of self-denial, the practice and rhetoric of sacrifice has a special centrality in modern American literature. In a compelling interdisciplinary investigation, Susan Mizruchi portrays an episode in American cultural history when the literary movement of realism and the fledgling field of sociology both converged in the belief that sacrifice is basic to sociality. This is a book about the fascination that sacrifice held for writers--principally Herman Melville, Henry James, and W.E.B. Du Bois--and also for those who articulated the main tenets of modern social theory, an inquiry that eventually spans historical events such as public lynchings and the political scapegoating of immigrants a century ago.

The execution in "Billy Budd Sailor, the death of Du Bois's first-born son in "The Souls of Black Folk, Henry James's preoccupation with renunciation and scapegoating, and the self-denying working classes of Norris and Stein all illustrate repeated stagings ofsacrificial rituals from a Biblical past. For Mizruchi, the peculiar persistence of this aesthetic construct becomes a guide to a rich theologic