Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in English



First Advisor

Kathryn McKee

Second Advisor

John R. Neff

Third Advisor

Cristin Ellis

Relational Format



Midcentury American novelists variously reworked the traditional conversion narrative to reflect a marked cultural shift in attitude towards human "nature," newly conceived as innocent and inclined to salvation. This liberalized aesthetic of conversion takes shape through the trope of the "organic angel," a developmental female figure whose journey from childhood innocence to saintly womanhood merges the processes of sexual maturation and Protestant conversion. Because she purifies self-interested desire by redirecting it towards spiritual ends, the organic angel provides a symbolic reconciliation of the young nation's budding imperial capitalism with its millennial expectations. While traditional emphasis on a maternal ethos at work in sentimental fiction has obscured the thematic and generic traction of this nonmaternal female saint, my project traces her structural impact across a surprisingly diverse range of authors and works—Sylvester Judd's Margaret, Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter, Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, Melville's Pierre, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig. At once a remarkably flexible and legibly constraining trope, the organic angel determines the relationship between narrative form and nationalist commitment; her relative efficacy as an agent of conversion measures authorial confidence in a pre-Civil war era vision of a unified, prosperous, and evangelical nation.



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