Borrowing a turn of phrase from Talal Asad, this essay asks: What might an aesthetic study of secularism look like? Examining four case studies between roughly 1880 and 1930 (with attention to the critical writings of Walt Whitman, T.W. Higginson, Matthew Arnold, Barrett Wendell, W.D. Howells, Charles Chesnutt, and Norman Foerster), this essay demonstrates how a methodological or theoretical focus on aesthetic formalism is a symptom of the secularization of knowledge in the nineteenth century. The variations in the use of “form” among this essay's case studies are ultimately less significant than the methodological persistence of formal (and later thematic) analysis across the cases, which will be shown to tie the study of American literature to an unexamined secularism that, consequently, it lacks the methods to investigate. The rise of American literary studies offers comparative literature a position from which to view some roads not taken and perhaps to pursue its commitments to internationalism apart from the claims to a “secularism” that has, we shall see, proved irremediably problematic for the study of American literature.

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