THE DEATH OF SATAN: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco
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THE DEATH OF SATAN: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil

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In a brilliant review of how American writers of the last two centuries have confronted evil by depicting it, Delbanco (Humanities/Columbia Univ.; The Puritan Ordeal, not reviewed) suggests that our postmodern inability to name evil puts us in danger of being dominated by it. The Puritans' notion of the devil, argues Delbanco, was largely as a figure of inner temptation, exemplifying both the sin of pride and St. Augustine's doctrine that evil is essentially a deprivation of good. By contrast, 18th-century thinking replaced the soul with a mechanistic notion of the mind and exalted pride and ambition as entrepreneurial virtues, with the result that evil was viewed more as an external, objective reality. Delbanco believes these opposing outlooks run through American literature--and therefore the American soul. He takes Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin as their classic exponents and sees in Emerson the American civil religion of the (blameless) self; the projection of evil onto the ""other"" reaches an apogee in Ahab's crazed pursuit of Moby-Dick. Delbanco ranks Lincoln as ""the most morally consequential figure in American history"" because he insisted that evil lay in the limitation of the Union rather than in the enemy; but in postbellum racism our author discerns an ominous externalizing of evil, overflowing into cults of physical fitness to show one's racial superiority and, in the '20s and '30s, into eugenics and the sterilization of criminals. Drawing on writers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Susan Sontag, and Richard Rorty, Delbanco concludes with an analysis of our present situation, which he sees as poised between belief and irony, full of moral concern yet unable to articulate a coherent basis for morality beyond the cult of victimization and the blamable other. From his confident grasp of American literature, Delbanco has produced a stimulating portrait of what he calls the nation's ""spiritual biography.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"