Help Thou My (Un)Belief: Reading Belief in 20th- and 21st-century American Literature

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Sara Judy
contact email: 

Call for Papers, for a panel at the next NeMLA conference, in Boston, March 5-8, 2020.

NeMLA’s theme this year will be: "Shaping and Sharing Identities: Spaces, Places, Languages, and Cultures"

Help Thou My (Un)Belief: Reading Belief in 20th- and 21st-century American Literature

Studies of 20th- and 21st-century American literature have, in the last decade, increasingly opened to questions of religion. Some such studies attempt to examine an author’s belief system, a hermeneutic approach typically based on a close reading of their treatment of religion. Others theorize shifts in American systems of belief, such as Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief (2010) which posits that, within American literature of the late 20th century, religious belief exists as a category “for its own sake,” outside of established religious doctrine. Yet others consider the scriptural qualities of literature itself, such at Norman Finkelstein’s On Mount Vision (2010), a study of experimental American poetry which takes the author as a religious figure, and suggests the poem itself is a vessel of spiritual truth. What these approaches share is an investment in the literary object as a container for belief. But we should reexamine our own tendencies to measure the capacity of a poem or a novel to “hold belief.” Instead we might ask how it is possible to continue reading belief within American literature, while also questioning the central problematic of literature as a container that points toward, produces, or contains belief?

Particularly in America, where religious freedom is a right guaranteed by law and taken largely on faith, the question of how and why belief is a relevant category within literature remains prescient. This panel seeks papers that reinvestigate belief in modern American literature. We encourage papers that both consider individual authors, or that take a broader view of the field, proposing new hermeneutic approaches. Overall this panel aims for a reconception of the study of religious belief in American literature, as it exists in relation to developments in postsecular theory. In doing so, we hope to open new ways of reading religion and literature in the American vein, and to reconsider what belief our literature can hold.

Please submit a 300-word abstract and a brief bio by September 30, 2019, through NeMLA’s website ( --the session’s number is 18096. If you have questions, please contact the panel chair, Sara Judy (