Calvinist Humor in American Literature

By Lang, John | Cithara, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Calvinist Humor in American Literature


Lang, John, Cithara


Calvinist Humor in American Literature. By Michael Dunne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Pp. vü, 219. $37.50.

The title of this well-researched, wide-ranging, fluently written book announces what proves to be the volume's greatest challenge: persuading the reader that the term "Calvinist humor" is not simply an oxymoron and that this concept can illuminate major authors and texts of the American literary tradition. That Calvinist theology has had a significant and ongoing impact on American writers and our nation's culture can hardly be denied, as Dunne amply demonstrates. One of the key doctrines of that theology is its affirmation of human depravity, of humanity's fallen condition, and it is on this doctrine that Dunne grounds his conception of Calvinist humor. "Calvinist humor consists in the perception of imperfection," he writes (p. 2). According to Dunne, there are two major strains which that humor takes. One strain results when authors distance themselves from the imperfection they depict, seeing themselves as superior to their fellow human beings; the other strain occurs when authors view themselves as sharing the flaws they portray. "The two strains are alike," says Dunne, "in making the faults of others more important than their virtues" (p. 2). This recognition of human limitations, and of the ironic contrast between people's aspirations and their actual possibilities, lies at the heart of Dunne's notion of Calvinist humor.

Following his exploration of this governing concept in the opening chapter, Dunne turns in chapter two to examples drawn from such Puritan authors as William Bradford, Mary Rowlandson, and Jonathan Edwards. Dunne's chief instance of such humor in Edwards's writing comes from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and consists of Edwards taunting his auditors with the likelihood that some of them will find themselves in hell by the following morning (p. 38). Dunne notes such "amused vindictiveness" (p. 29) in Bradford as well, but contemporary readers are more likely to detect an irony of misplaced sentiments rather than humor in such instances.

In seven subsequent chapters, Dunne examines the fiction of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Nathanael West, and Flannery O'Connor. In each of these chapters he explores relevant and varied primary sources while drawing insightfully on many other critics' assessments of these authors. Seeing Emerson's Transcendentalism as the antithesis of Calvinist assumptions about human nature, Dunne highlights the counter-Transcendentalist thrust of Hawthorne's and Melville's work, identifying "The Minister's Black Veil" as "a wonderful illustration of Calvinist humor" (p. 52) and The Blithedale Romance as a novel that underscores "the disconnection between desire and attainment" that signals for Dunne "the perspective of the Calvinist humorist" (p. 57). With Melville, Dunne's principal exhibits are "Benito Cereño," "The Encantadas," and The Confidence Man, in all of which he locates incidents and characters that evoke a "grim smile" (p. 66) which sometimes verges on "misanthropic pessimism" (p. 74), a stance that seems at some remove from humor, however Calvinist.

Some critics have also attributed such pessimism to Twain (at least the Twain of the 1890s and later). While Dunne does indeed find the entries in Puddn'head Wilson's Calendar expressive of a dark humor, he tends to view Twain, along with Faulkner, as representative of the strain in Calvinist humor that implicates the author himself in the human follies he records.

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