Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



First Adviser

Gordon, Scott P.

Other advisers/committee members

Traister, Barbara H.; Whitley, Edward; Bulman, William


That classic sentiment “To go West” is most often associated with nineteenth-century America. It conjures images of pioneers moving across the prairies, frontier towns, and Manifest Destiny. And yet this seemingly most-American of adages finds its origins much earlier, in the English Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries. At the genesis of British imperialism, explorers, propagandists, poets, and visionaries wrote in the language of translatio studii et imperii – the belief that civilization must always move to the west. Motivated by biblical prophecy and the radicalism of the Reformation, many advocates for British colonization saw “America” not just as a destination because it was new, but also because it lay to the west. In the direction of the declining sun these men and women saw the western horizon as the setting for the last act of human history. For them, the west was an inescapably apocalyptic direction and colonization moved history towards that last day. My dissertation combines several disparate theoretical elements including American Studies myth and symbol school, political theology, and spatial theory to interpret early modern texts that helped forge the scripture of a new “religion” which had America at its core. In their heavily directional language these authors created the tropes that American civil religion would be written in. This dissertation excavates and reinterprets the origins of that religion. The American Strand ranges from the very late sixteenth century through the early seventeenth, and it examines textual instances of what I call “directional poetics” across several different genres and dozens of authors. “Directional poetics” involves any text which endows consistent movement towards a particular direction with some sort of archetypal significance. For my examples I examine works which see the colonial movement westward as having a particular eschatological significance. In the texts that I read movement to the west is seen to signal either an apocalypse or the arrival of a utopian millennium (sometimes both) and these texts become central in the development of a particular literary mode which I see as foundational in the development of American civil religion. My dissertation provides novel readings of authors like George Herbert, Anne Bradstreet, Michael Drayton, John Denham, William Alexander, George Wither and Cotton Mather, as well as others. In providing a new critical vocabulary for discussing these sorts of texts I problematize, but also illuminate, the contours of how we think about the relationship between religion and literature, how we define “religion,” and how we understand genre in the formation of a national literary character.

Available for download on Wednesday, June 01, 2022