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3— Luck and Love
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Preference Human and Divine: The Wide, Wide World

As it turns out, it is not Whitman but his contemporaries, the so-called sentimental women writers of the mid-nineteenth century,[66] who are tough enough, hard-headed enough, to give us a literary tradition organized around such an ethics. It is they who take it upon themselves to confront, to fret over, and to draw a kind of reluctant sustenance from that most arbitrary and most invidious of phenomena: the phenomenon of human preference. And, in doing so, they also gesture toward a nonreductive (and often not even moral) account of human misery and felicity, thus proving themselves heirs to the complex thinking about grace and justice in Christian theology, a tradition as old as Christianity itself. It is this extended tradition that I want to claim as a long background for the women writers, not only to construct a different genealogy for their supposed sentimentality, but also to suggest something about the historical memory of American Protestantism itself and about its claim as an important historical supplement to the discourse of philosophy.

To take one of the most notorious examples, Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), a novel so sentimental as to be continually awash in tears, is also a novel so stark as to be continually under the shadow of chance, a novel as relentlessly driven by unforeseeable randomness as Moby-Dick (1851), its contemporary and in many ways


its antithesis, is relentlessly driven by foreseeable destiny. Luck is the principal actor in The Wide, Wide World , for its heroine, Ellen Montgomery, is quite a lucky girl, helped always by the hand of providence. Unlike the lucky self in Whitman, however, for whom the category of the "unlucky" simply does not exist, Ellen's good luck is a fearful reminder of the reign of its evil sibling, because it never appears as a positive good but always as a corrective, coming in the nick of time to terminate a bad situation. The intervention of the old gentleman in the store, for example, saves Ellen, but it does not negate the petty malice of Saunders the clerk; the timely arrival of Mr. Van Brunt again saves Ellen, but it also does not negate her utter sense of helplessness as Nancy, with the sadism "that a cat shows when she has a captured mouse at the end of her paws,"[67] ransacks her trunk, looks over the contents of her workbox and her writing desk, and forces hot gruel down her clenched throat. And in the most frightening scene in the book—a scene not of rape, but comparable to it—the arrival of John certainly saves Ellen, but, just as certainly, it does not negate her terror as her horse is whipped by Saunders, whose spite, at this accidental second encounter, has gone from petty to maniacal. Ellen is the recipient not only of gratuitous kindness but also of gratuitous malice. Her random good luck alternates with her random tribulations. There is no question of desert here, no question of moral causality. Events simply befall Ellen: unwilled, unchosen, undeserved. They turn the idea of justice into an enigma, not so much the logical endpoint of reason as the beginning of a conceptual riddle.

It is in the midst of this "wide, wide world"—a world wider than the language of justice can make of it—that Ellen is revealed to be something of an unjust person herself. She is capricious in her affections, capricious most of all in her self-acknowledged inability to love those for whom her love ought to have been easy, natural, and axiomatic. Asked, for example, by the kind gentleman on the boat whether she is one of God's children, Ellen replies with the usual tears, but her answer is more unusual than one might expect:

"No, sir," said Ellen, with swimming eyes, but cast down on the ground.

"How do you know that you are not?"

"Because I do not love the Saviour."

"Do you not love him, Ellen?"

"I am afraid not, sir."


"Why are you afraid not? What makes you think so?"

"Mamma said I could not love him at all if I did not love him best; and oh, sir," said Ellen, weeping, "I do love mamma a great deal better."

"You love your mother better than you do the Saviour?"

"Oh yes, sir," said Ellen; "how can I help it?" (70)

Ellen cannot help loving her mother a great deal better than she loves her heavenly father. Earlier, she also cannot help loving her mother a great deal better than she loves her earthly father. (The scene in chapter 3, the "perfect fidget of impatience," with which Ellen awaits her father's departure so that she might be alone with her mother, must be one of the most memorable portraits of filial invidiousness in all of American literature.) Love here is a matter of arbitrary attachment, discriminatory likes and dislikes, sharp and sharply hierarchical senses of delight and solicitude. It is also a matter of involuntary compulsions, fueled by the phrase "cannot help." Ellen does not choose to love her mother, does not arrive at that decision with the help of her deliberative rationality. Her love is, on the contrary, strictly a preference , without any moral content whatsoever, innocent of volition, and therefore also innocent of justification.

The lack of moral justification is especially striking when Ellen's involuntary preference happens to take a negative turn, when it shows up as an unreasonable aversion toward someone. This is the case with Miss Fortune, Ellen's aunt, whom she describes in a letter to her mother:

I wish there was somebody here that I could love, but there is not. You will want to know what sort of a person my aunt Fortune is. I think she is very good looking, or she would be if her nose were not quite so sharp: but, mamma, I can't tell you what sort of a feeling I have about her; it seems to me as if she was sharp all over. I am sure her eyes are as sharp as two needles. And she don't walk like other people; at least sometimes. She makes queer little jerks and starts and jumps, and flies about like I don't know what. (111)

Ellen's objections to Miss Fortune are not only uncharitable, they are downright irrational. She objects to things the latter cannot help: her sharp nose, her needlelike eyes, her jerky movements. But then Ellen, in turn, cannot help herself either: she feels what she feels. This maddening realm of tautology—you are what you are, I love what I love, a


realm that, as Wittgenstein might say, can only be described, not explained—makes The Wide, Wide World a fine supporting document for Rawls's argument against the "lottery of birth." For Warner, though, the lottery would go on forever, endlessly churning out undeserved attachments as well as undeserved aversions, for in making human preference a matter of caprice on the one hand and a principle of invidiousness on the other, she has in effect created a world of cosmic arbitrariness, so that what appears small and puny here is not just Ellen Montgomery, and not just some particular human being, but the very idea of justice itself.

This sense of cosmic arbitrariness no doubt has something to do with the sharp reversal of fortune in Warner's own life.[68] But the book's religious fervor suggests as well that cosmic arbitrariness is not just a sudden insight, born of personal disaster, but also a longstanding tenet within the Christian tradition, in existence for almost two thousand years. It was Augustine, of course, who gave this cosmic arbitrariness its classic expression, in the form of the doctrine of grace.[69] Grace was God's sovereign and gratuitous love, love unoccasioned by human endeavor, undeserved by human merit. As Augustine insisted, "a gift, unless it be gratuitous, is not grace."[70] But grace gratuitously given also meant justice arbitrarily rendered, rendered, that is, to recipients unaccountably divided up, unaccountably labeled the saved and the damned. Augustine was thus a theologian of love much as Warner was; like her, he too saw love as the ground for gradations, exclusions, invidious distinctions, the ground for concepts such as "less" and "more." In the human realm, for example, a man who "lives in justice" is someone who "neither loves what should not be loved nor fails to love what should be loved; he neither loves more what should be loved less, loves equally what should be loved less or more, nor loves less or more what should be loved equally."[71] These invidious distinctions carried over into the divine realm as well, for here "grace alone separates the redeemed from the lost, all having been mingled together in one mass of perdition." Augustine insisted that human beings were basically alike, that, left to our own devices, we would all belong together. However, out of our common humanity, out of that "same mass of perdition, God maketh one vessel for honorable, another for ignoble use; the ones for honorable use through his mercy, the ones for ignoble use through his judgment."[72]


Grace, then, was God's way of showing his preferences: his inexplicable fondness for some, his inexplicable aversion to others. Augustine's doctrine of grace thus carried with it a dark underside, a fatalistic verdict for those God happened to dislike: a doctrine of predestination harsher than that of any major orthodox thinker since Paul. In the succeeding centuries, though, it was the doctrine of grace alone that was emphasized by the Catholic Church, so that, as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, "normative Augustinism" increasingly became "a position that vindicated Augustine's essential teaching on grace but muffled his views on predestination to punishment."[73] That "muffling" was undone, of course, by the Reformation, which brought predestination to the polemical foreground. It was Augustine the predestinarian, then, that Luther invoked when he shockingly proclaimed that "Augustine has to this day not been accepted by the church of Rome."[74] And it was the same predestinarian that he honored when he declared himself, "I, Martin Luther, Augustinian."[75]

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