Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in English



First Advisor

Kathryn B McKee

Second Advisor

John R. Neff

Third Advisor

Cristin Ellis


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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