Part biography, part critical study, and part literary field guide, “Modern
American Pilgrims” considers the houses and families, the churches and congregations,
the schools and educations, and the offices and businesses that formed Herman Melville’s
and T.S. Eliot’s senses of identity and understanding of the power of literary art. This
dissertation argues that the degradation and destruction of the material and institutional
structures that constituted Melville’s and Eliot’s homes led them to purposeful and
directed journeys to traditional sites of Christian pilgrimage. Unlike many of their
contemporaries and most of their antecedents, these two American pilgrims did not seek
open space where they could make something new, they sought to recover something old
that could both ground and transform them.
The first chapter of the dissertation shows that the project of self-fashioning that
located Herman Melville’s ancestors in a family tradition, in a community, and within
American history broke down in the face of early nineteenth-century urbanization and
economic change. The second chapter considers Melville’s 1856-57 journey to the Holy Land as a response to his failure to secure a satisfactory literary and spiritual place for
himself. I argue that the epic poem Clarel records Melville’s attempt to construct
poetically a coherent landscape out of the crumbling landmarks he encountered in the
Holy Land and that the poem testifies to his engagement with, but ultimate rejection of,
religious discipline within an historical creed.
The second part of the dissertation turns to T.S. Eliot and considers a degradation
of Eliot’s St. Louis context that parallels the destruction of Melville’s New York homes.
In the first of two Eliot chapters, I argue that Eliot did not reject outright the St. Louis world his family labored to build as much as he fled its collapse. In the final chapter, I
show that Eliot responded to the instability of the city of his youth by searching for new
spiritual refuges among the churches of England. Though London’s cityscape was
manifestly more historically stable than the rapidly industrializing St. Louis, it too was
being undermined. Ultimately, Eliot found a series of satisfactory dwelling places on the
idiosyncratic pilgrimages described in the Four Quartets.
The dissertation’s conclusion proposes Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray,
Love as a twenty-first century analogue to Melville’s nineteenth century and Eliot’s
accounts of modern American pilgrimage.
University of Minneasota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2012. Major: English. Advisor: Dr. Daniel Philippon. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 221 pages.
Modern American pilgrims: dwelling and religious travel in the lives and works of Herman Melville and T.S. Eliot..
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