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A Language of Things

Emanuel Swedenborg and the American Environmental Imagination
Devin P. Zuber

BUY Cloth · 266 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943503 · $59.50 · Jan 2020
BUY Ebook · 266 pp. · ISBN 9780813943527 · $59.50 · Jan 2020
BUY Paper · 266 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943510 · $29.50 · Jan 2020

Borsch-Rast Book Prize, Graduate Theological Union (2020)

Long overlooked, the natural philosophy and theosophy of the Scandinavian scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) made a surprising impact in America. Thomas Jefferson, while president, was so impressed with the message of a Baltimore Swedenborgian minister that he invited him to address both houses of Congress. But Swedenborgian thought also made its contribution to nineteenth-century American literature, particularly within the aesthetics of American Transcendentalism. Although various scholars have addressed how American Romanticism was affected by different currents of Continental thought and religious ideology, surprisingly no book has yet described the specific ways that American Romantics made persistent recourse to Swedenborg for their respective projects to re-enchant nature.

In A Language of Things, Devin Zuber offers a critical attempt to restore the fundamental role that religious experience could play in shaping nineteenth-century American approaches to natural space. By tracing the ways that Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Sarah Orne Jewett, among others, variously responded to Swedenborg, Zuber illuminates the complex dynamic that came to unfold between the religious, the literary, and the ecological. A Language of Things situates this dynamic within some of the recent "new materialisms" of environmental thought, showing how these earlier authors anticipate present concerns with the other-than-human in the Anthropocene.


A Language of Things represents an important contribution to our understanding of American culture, religious history, and environmental history. It offers a searching, thoroughly researched explanation of how and why Emanuel Swedenborg and his followers helped to spark that Romantic re-enchantment of the natural world championed by nineteenth-century figures such as John Chapman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, sustained as well by later figures such as John Muir and Sarah Orne Jewett.

John Gatta,, author of, Sewanee: The University of the South, author of Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from The Puritans to the Present

An engaging, enlightening, and much needed examination of the influence of Swedenborg's ideas on prominent environmental thinkers and writers.

Michael P. Branch, , University of Nevada, Reno, coeditor of ‘The Best Read Naturalist': Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Devin Zuber makes a compelling case that Swedenborg is a foundational figure not justfor legacies of American ecological thought but for its future.

American Literary History

Devin Zuber has really done something spectacular with this work. He not onlyprovided a serious and engaging account of the reception of Emanuel Swedenborg’s ideas within the early environmental movement, he also pushes toward acurrent reevaluation of Swedenborg’s thought in consideration of speculativerealism and the emerging constellation of research named new materialism.

Aries: Journal for the Study of Esotericism

About the Author(s): 

Devin P. Zuber is Associate Professor of American Studies, Religion, and Literature at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

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