Remembering Nathan Scott
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
The heady, halcyon years following World War II brought to America not only unrivaled optimism about the economy and the general state of the world but also innovative ways of thinking about literature and its relationship to other areas of life. In literary criticism, the New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, among others, offered the throngs of students returning to colleges and universities on the G.I. Bill a new method of reading texts. New Critics focused on the text itself and the ways that the poems, mostly, under consideration were, in Brooks’ words, “well-wrought urns” whose words, metrical arrangements, and images wove a web of irony and paradox that could not be understood apart from a close reading of the poem itself. Thus, the New Critics refused to consider the biography of a writer or the intent of an author as means of illuminating the meaning of a poem or novel. Critic William K. Wimsatt even dubbed the attempt to discern the intent of an author the “intentional fallacy,” and most of us who cut their teeth on New Criticism still avoid talking as if we can ever know an author’s intention in writing a work.
By the late 1950s, the literary critical landscape began to change some. Northrop Frye’s monumental Anatomy of Criticism (1957) challenged the New Criticism and argued for a reading of literature that was attentive to the archetypes underlying all literary texts. Frye’s method would become known a myth criticism and his later books on Shakespeare, Blake and the Bible were eloquent expressions of his own attempt to find the archetypes of comedy of tragedy or romance in these writers. Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, along with the cries for relevance in the reading of literature that students began to demand in the 1960s (and Morris Dickstein’s marvelous book, The Gates of Eden, is a splendid history of this period), and the advent of French structuralism and Marxist criticism opened the floodgates for many new methods of reading literature that focused on almost everything but the text. Among many of the newer methods that were born in the 1960s include deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, feminist criticism, new historicism, postcolonial criticism, and reader-response criticism. Almost all of these methods encouraged the reader to be more actively involved with the text, and more important, to bring to the reading of the text all manner of social, personal, and political agendas that contributed to the formation of the reader and the text. For example, a postcolonialist reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest might condemn his portrayal of Caliban as a stereotypical and unfair picture of New World savagery. A New Historicist reading of Moby Dick might delve deeply into the conditions of whaling ships and the treatment of sailors on those ships in late nineteenth-century New England and use those considerations to comment on the ways that such conditions would have formed a character like Ishmael or Ahab. The plethora of literary approaches to texts has resulted in some invigorating as well as some embarrassing and eccentric readings of poems and novels.
Out of the new critical fervor of the time arose yet another interdisciplinary method of readings texts. In the mid-1950s a number of theologians and biblical critics began to fashion theological readings of literature that offered yet more insights into mostly contemporary literature (though Dostoevsky was always a darling of these critics). As with other methods of reading literature, theological readings of texts were and are always fraught with the danger of reading more into a text than the text can bear. For example, many critics found Christ-figures behind every bush after the advent of this new movement. R.P. McMurphy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, became an archetypal Christ figure—an interpretation that is hard to fathom from Milos Forman’s film—and critics pointed to several passages to shore up their arguments. In spite of such dangers, however, a group of critics—there was never a formal movement as such but a loosely organized “field” whose leaders taught at several universities around the United States—broadened the scope of literary critical readings to include religious readings, a method of reading still with us today. The “father” of theology and literature was Nathan A. Scott, Jr., whose death in December 2006 left a hole in the field that can never be filled.
Along with Stanley Romaine Hopper at Drew University, Preston Roberts and Nathan A. Scott, Jr. at the University of Chicago established the emerging interdisciplinary field that became known variously as religion and literature, theology and literature, or Christianity and literature. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, theologians found themselves looking to the literature of the post-World War II period for articulate expressions of theological themes such as despair, alienation, redemption, and revelation. Drawing primarily on Paul Tillich’s theology of culture—which defined religion as the substance of culture and culture as the form of religion—Scott eloquently explored the crisis of faith in modern literature, the climate of faith in Kafka, Camus, and Bellow, and the themes of alienation and reconciliation in modern plays, poetry, and novels. Scott taught several generations of students that a dialogue with the literary imagination of the age would provide rich rewards for Christian theology by offering a deepening awareness of itself and the time in which it finds itself. In one of his most eloquent and astute observations, Scott pointed out that the sense that the anchoring center of life is broken and that the world is abandoned and adrift is a basic premise underlying most of our literature.
Born in Cleveland in 1925 and reared in Detroit, Nathan A. Scott, Jr. entered his undergraduate program at the University of Michigan at the age of sixteen. Three years later he graduated and entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He obtained a B.D. from Union in 1946. In 1949, Scott earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University where he studied with Lionel Trilling, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jacques Barzun.
Scott’s distinguished teaching career began at Virginia Union University when he became the dean of the chapel there in 1946. From 1948 to 1955, Scott taught humanities at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he also served as Director of the General Education Program in the Humanities. In 1955, Scott moved to the University of Chicago and taught there until 1977. In 1972, he became the Shailer Matthews Professor of Theology and Literature and held a concurrent appointment as Professor of English in the Division of Humanities. In 1977, Scott joined the faculty of the University of Virginia and held the Commonwealth Chair in Religious Studies as well as being the William R. Kenan Professor in Religious Studies. In 1980, Scott was appointed chair of the department of religious studies. He and his wife Charlotte, a business professor, were hired simultaneously as the first black tenured professors at the University of Virginia. Scott was a Kent Fellow of the Society for Values in Higher Education, a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a past President of the American Academy of Religion
A prolific author, Scott wrote seventeen books, edited nine, and published hundreds of articles and reviews. Scott’s numerous writings attempted to understand the Christian revelation for a rational understanding of the world and human’s experience of that world. Scott elegantly and eloquently sought to discover new points of dialogue between theology and literature. His numerous essays engage not only in close readings of Kafka, Orwell, Lawrence, Camus, Beckett, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, or Flannery O’Connor, they also seek to illuminate the ways that certain genres offer theological insights or the manner in which the nature of a certain period style of literature generates theological insights.
Scott’s wide-ranging interests, his literary eloquence, and his prodding teaching method launched an entire generation of scholars into the uncharted waters of theology and literature where they could learn, with his guidance, to navigate the shoals and arrive safely at new and spectacular shores.
Reading Scott’s architectonic sentences provides untold rewards. The following is but a short list of his works but provides a starting point for delving into his style and his contributions to literary criticism in our time.
Gerhart, Mary and Anthony C. Yu, eds. Morphologies of Faith: Essays in Religion and Culture in Honor of Nathan A. Scott, Jr. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
Scott, Jr. Nathan. A. Rehearsals of Discomposure: Alienation and Reconciliation in Modern Literature. New York: King’s Crown Press of Columbia University Press, 1952.
Scott, Jr. Nathan. A. The Broken Center: Studies in the Theological Horizon of Modern Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.
Scott, Jr. Nathan. A. Negative Capability: Studies in the New Religion and Literature Situation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.
Scott, Jr. Nathan. A. The Poetics of Belief: Studies in Coleridge, Arnold, Pater, Santayana, Stevens, and Heidegger. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Scott, Jr. Nathan. A., ed. The Climate of Faith in Modern Literature. New York: The Seabury Press, 1964.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at