Dead Letters: The Afterlife before Religion (2015)
In 1624, John Donne preached a sermon on the anniversary of the death of a parishioner, who had set money aside for this purpose. Donne proposed that the works the dead left behind in the world could influence their spiritual fate. Those who – like the sponsor of the sermon – left a legacy of charity would be glorified whenever they inspired similar acts of charity. Those who – like the writer of “wanton books” – left a legacy of sin would be punished as often as they corrupted the living. From the perspective of Protestant theology, these were heretical claims. As Luther made clear, death had to be faced alone, and the living could do nothing to influence the posthumous condition of fellow Christians. For Donne, however, the dead remained permanently tied to the world, and books were a source of this connection. Dead Letters: The Afterlife before Religion shows how a concept of the afterlife that originated within secular literary culture came to be incorporated into religious teachings about mortality. I trace a narrative of increasing existential identification between dead authors and their books. Initially, a posthumous edition was thought to enhance a reputation. Over time, early modern English writers began to locate their feelings of love, their moral commitments, even their souls in their literary afterlives. No longer a fictional supplement to one's actual existence with (or without) God, the literary afterlife now competed with religious concepts of eternity. Ben Jonson, for example, preferred survival through books to an afterlife in heaven, even as he recognized the sacrifice this choice entailed. When Donne and other religious writers argued for the sacred significance of posthumous literary activity, they did not revert to pre-Reformation tendencies to subordinate mortal life to posthumous immortality. iiInstead, they acknowledged the independent value of secular pursuits, not only for the living and those who, like Jonson, had committed themselves to worldliness, but also for the dead, even those enjoying the blessings of the world to come.