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The Pragmatist Turn

Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Formation of American Literature
Giles Gunn

BUY Cloth · 218 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940809 · $65.00 · Dec 2017
BUY Ebook · 218 pp. · ISBN 9780813940823 · $65.00 · Dec 2017
BUY Paper · 218 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940816 · $29.50 · Dec 2017

CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, American Library Association (2018)

In The Pragmatist Turn, renowned scholar of American literature and thought Giles Gunn offers a new critical history of the way seventeenth-century religion and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment influenced the formation of subsequent American writing. This shaping was dependent on their pragmatic refiguration less as systems of belief and thought than as frames of reflection and structures of feeling, what he calls spiritual imaginaries.Drawing on a large number of figures from earlier periods and examining how they influenced generations of writers from the nineteenth century into the early twenty-first —including Henry Adams, Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, William James, Henry James, Kenneth Burke, and Toni Morrison—Gunn reveals how the idea or symbolic imaginary of "America" itself was drastically altered in the process.

As only a seasoned scholar can, Gunn here presents the history of American religion and literature in broad strokes necessary to reveal the seismic philosophical shifts that helped form the American canon.


Giles Gunn's book is a profound analysis of the trajectory of the major spiritual imaginaries in the shaping and molding of the idea of America. It is original and powerful.

Cornel West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University

Giles Gunn’s meditation on the deep structure of pragmatic thought provides a remarkable history of the ethical culture of America and its great literary traditions. It is a work of particular relevance at a time when America is fraught by a new parochialism and populism that threatens the great experiment of the American Enlightenment.

Homi Bhabha, Harvard University

The Pragmatist Turn is a model of American intellectual liveliness brought to bear on American perplexities, a reminder of what American intellectual culture was like at its best and what it might be like still. It’s an invitation to converse, to disagree, to take refuge, delight, and wonder in a spiritual imaginary that has never more needed our thoughtful attention and care.

Tracy Fessenden, author of Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature

InIn The Pragmatist Turn, accomplished critic and theorist Giles Gunn not only chronicles the historical work of pragmatist transformations; he extends and improves upon that work for our time. Gunn skillfully provides a suggestive account of past refashionings of the American imaginary as he himself refashions Pragmatist critical thinking for the present and future. Written in a lively and accessible style, Gunn’s latest book offers insights to specialists and to general readers alike.

Steven Mailloux, Loyola Marymount University

One of the finest scholars of American intellectual history, Gunn (English and global studies, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) examines religious and literary currents that shaped 18th- and 19th-century American culture and set agendas for the 20th century.... Invaluable for scholars of American history, American studies, religious studies, and philosophy as well as American literature.


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