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Gatta explores culture and religion
in new book, American Madonna
November 2, 1998
John Gatta's inspiration for his book, American Madonna, came from Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Although Gatta, professor of English, teaches Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in his religion and literature course, it was a visit to Stowe home in Hartford - where she lived for the last quarter century of her life as a neighbor of Samuel Clemens - that triggered the thinking that led to his book. The book, American Madonna: Images of the Divine Woman in Literary Culture, was published by Oxford University Press late last year.
"Looking around the Stowe House you see not just one, but loads of Madonna paintings," Gatta says. "It made me think. Here is a prominent Protestant family. In one sense (the Madonna images) are aesthetic, but at the same time, Stowe is deeply religious."
Gatta says scholars have noted Uncle Tom's heroine and motherhood themes, but he was surprised to see how explicitly and extensively Stowe comments about Mary - the mother of Jesus - in nonfiction prose and in some of her less well known novels.
He looked at the image of the Divine Woman in other 19th- and early 20th-century American Protestant writers that are the focus of his book: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Harold Frederic, Henry Adams and T.S. Eliot.
Gatta explores the undercurrent of interest in Mary as mythical Madonna that has persisted in American life and letters since the early 19th century, arguing that the mythical Madonna expresses a subsurface cultural resistance to the prevailing rationalism and pragmatism in America.
"Religion in literature is an interest of mine, because religion deals in ultimate questions," Gatta says. "In some respects my interest is as much cultural - how American culture responds to certain mythic patterns - as it is religious."
He says the Marian theme is relevant to 20th-century writing, especially with the emphasis on feminist themes.
"The whole notion of a maternity with sacred, divine overtones appears in Toni Morrison's work," he says.
Yet the Marian cult is also problematic in the feminist approach, Gatta says, "because in some ways Mary has been perceived to be an exemplar of docility and all of the things women are not supposed to be."
He says Marian themes conflict with the American myth of progress, or the "masculinist" approach that still dominates the corporate world.
"In some ways that is a challenge for feminism," Gatta says. "Do women want to be like the type-A masculinist achievers, or do they want to recover some of these other values - the sense of spiritual receptivity, the anima in the Jungian sense? Our society is always at odds with itself because there's emphasis on this driving, achieving, conquering, and what seems to be a feminist emphasis on recovery for both men and women."
He notes that even the pop singer Madonna Ciccone draws not only on her name but other religious symbolism as well - including the name of her child, Lourdes Maria.
"She is subverting the religious orthodox in all kinds of ways, but I think she recognizes there is something that resonates at a level of pop culture with this sense of womanhood that is somehow more than itself," he says. "I think she recognizes that the Marian Madonna is the most significant figure of a woman in recorded history."
Gatta continues to do research on Stowe.
"She recorded a number of comments on her artwork, and her comments are enormously revealing. For her, the whole iconic idea of motherhood was part of an entire vision and her sense of what would redeem the nation," he says.
Gatta notes that Stowe grew up in a Calvinist-Presbyterian-Congregation al family in which her father, husband and brothers were Calvinist clergymen, but she became an Episcopalian later in her life, as did her son and twin daughters and her sister.
"What's the significance of moving from a Calvinist to not just an Episcopal theology, but in a way to a more feminist theology where there is less a notion of God as a sovereign?" he says. "It seems to show something of cultural significance when the quintessential Presbyterian moves that way."