Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman

Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman

Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman

Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman


Scholars have traditionally relied upon the assumption that the nineteenth-century bildungsroman in the Goethean tradition is an intrinsically secular genre exclusive to Europe, incompatible with the literature of a democratically based culture. By combining intellectual history with genre criticism, Principle and Propensity provides a critical reassessment of the bildungsroman, beginning with its largely overlooked theological premises: bildung as formation of the self in the image of God. Kelsey L. Bennett examines the dynamic differences, tensions, and possibilities that arise as interest in spiritual growth, or self-formation, collides with the democratic and quasi-democratic culture in the nineteenth-century British and American bildungsroman.

Beginning with the idea that interest in an individual's moral and psychological growth, or bildung, originated as a religious exercise in the context of Protestant theological traditions, Bennett shows how these traditions found ways into the bildungsroman, the literary genre most closely concerned with the relationship between individual experience and self-formation.

Part 1 of Principle and Propensity examines the attributes of parallel national traditions of spiritual self-formation as they convened under the auspices of the international revival movements: the Evangelical Revival, the Great Awakening, and the renewal of Pietism in Germany, led respectively by John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Count Nikolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf. Further it reveals the ways in which spiritual self-formation and the international revival movements coalesce in the bildungsroman prototype, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). Part 2 in turn explores the ways these traditions manifest themselves in the nineteenth-century bildungsroman in England and the United States through Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Pierre, and Portrait of a Lady.

Though Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was a library staple for most serious writers in nineteenth-century England and in the United States, Bennett shows how writers such as Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Henry James also drew on their own religious traditions of self-formation, adding richness and distinction to the received genre.


The simplicity of this book’s premise is contained within the observation that the word Bild has metaphysical dimensions to it. That people are made in the “image” of God is of course the most important instance of this connection. Since this is so, curiosity alongside a certain intuitive gravity drew me into considering what this might mean in relation to the bildungsroman, the genre of self-formation that has long been held to be a product of secular modernity. The following pages accordingly offer a renewed approach to reading this genre through a close attentiveness to the spiritual formation of selfhood. This is a book both about the bildungsroman and about the religious and intellectual traditions that inform it. While some readers may prefer it to be devoted either to one or to the other, it has been my conviction from the beginning that such a sundering is, for my own interdisciplinary predilections and aesthetic sense, impossible. Likewise those looking forward to an exhaustive revaluation of the genre will not, I am afraid, find it here in these pages. Nor will they, however, find a collection of isolated observations about evangelical religion and its influences upon four discrete nineteenth-century novels. I aim for something between these extremes: I have sought to provide the intellectual and religious history to lend substance to my approach to reading the bildungsroman, and Principle & Propensity lays a careful and suggestive foundation upon which others might find new, fruitful directions for continuing studies of their own. Most essential, I envision my overall argument as deepening the complexity, opening and exploring new dimensions, of the ways in which readers appreciate this versatile and most engaging literary genre. If nothing else, this book invites the reader to reexamine the pervasive assumption that self-formation, and writing about self-formation, is an activity necessarily and exclusively controlled by the material conditions of a culture.

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