Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism

Article excerpt

Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism. By Jenny Franchot. [The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, 28.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1994. Pp. xxvii, 500. $55.00 cloth; $18.00 paperback.)

In America, no religious community can avoid interaction with its neighbors. In theory free and equal, these meetings have often been marked by disdain mixed with longing, stirred by the fear and excitement of approaching a religion unlike one's own. Jenny Franchot's Roads to Rome explores the unsettled and yet much-visited boundary between antebellum Protestantism and Catholicism. Although Franchot explains that she might have studied both Protestant and Catholic responses, she wrote, for the sake of focus, about the Protestant imagination only. She masterfully establishes Protestants' obsession with things Catholic. Seen through a mental lens associating Catholicism with qualities of interiority, sensuality, and femininity, Protestant writers investigated their own identities by pairing Catholic and Protestant images. Not only did they draw lines to distinguish themselves from Catholics in such fevered exposes as Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery (1836), but, in a far more conflicted mood, considered what they believed to be Catholicism in complex fictions, including Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Agnes of Sorrento (1862).

Franchot's impressive cataloguing and interpretation of texts help a reader such as myself, trained as a historian, to situate Roads to Rome as a kind of literary criticism interested in language as an index of culture. Historians accustomed to linear arguments about cause and effect may be perplexed by the book's structure (the first half on nervous dismissal of Catholicism, the second on anxious courtship) and exhaustive reading of tension-filled literature. Franchot does offer a subtle thesis, however, about religion, creativity, and language. It poses questions applicable to the study Franchot did not undertake: the formation of antebellum American Catholic culture through dialogue with Protestantism.

The condition of Protestants' tremulous exchanges with Catholicism was "the modern West's withdrawal from a cohesive spirituality" (p. xxvii). …