Author's Corner with David Mark Diamond, author of READING CHARACTER AFTER CALVIN
Reading Character after Calvin

Welcome back to the UVA Press Author's Corner! Here, we feature conversations with the authors of our latest releases to provide a glimpse into the writer's mind, their book's main lessons, and what’s next for them. We hope you enjoy these inside stories.

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Today, we are happy to bring you our conversation with David Mark Diamond, author of Reading Character after Calvin: Secularization, Empire, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel

What inspired you to write this book? 

I’ve long been fascinated and vexed by the characters in eighteenth-century books. They don’t evince the richly psychologized interiority that we expect from the novel as a form nor are they in any respect straightforward, easy to read. The persistent tension between their flatness and incomprehensibility was the starting point for my research. Once I read John Bunyan’s allegories, discovering that the weird technics of character has a religious genealogy and applications to race-making, I could see the outlines of the book. I learned a lot about new secular studies from there, specifically from my old teacher and dear friend, Pete Coviello. He turned me on to the work of anthropologist Talal Asad, and his own scholarship provided me with a framework.

What did you learn and what are you hoping readers will learn from your book? 

To write this book I had to learn a lot about Calvinist theology, theories of the secular, and the history of racialization in the North Atlantic world. I hope readers will learn something about these topics, too. I also hope that the book has something to say to readers with interests in fictional character as a transhistorical, formal category, that someone thinking about medieval or modernist writing will find my account of what characters are and how we come to know them enlivening. Here, I must acknowledge, I am straddling a fine line, since one thing I learned is that character is not a blank, formal term. The concept is entangled with histories of colonial violence.

What surprised you the most in the process of writing your book? 

I was most surprised by the halting, ambivalent process of secularization as it unfolds in eighteenth-century novels. I expected to tell a story of linear intensification: as Protestant Christianity comes unmoored from doctrinal orthodoxy, it becomes more and more fully a tool of imperialism. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the anti-orthodoxy expressed through characterization serves a variety of positions with respect to racialized empire. On a more personal note, I found it more fun to write a book than it was to write a dissertation. That was a pleasant surprise, indeed.

What’s your favorite anecdote from your book?

As you might expect of a study of literary character, this book is short on anecdotes about actual people. I do have a favorite anecdote about nonactual persons, though. It’s not from a novel, but from Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s antislavery work Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1787). To show the religious meaning of race, Cugoano imagines a hypothetical encounter between a white man and a black man, explaining how each of them is supposed to interpret their racial difference. It is a remarkable moment in his argument, illustrative of both Calvinist ways of knowing and the inseparability of the logics of religion and race in the period. I find it immensely clarifying.

What’s next? 

I have a couple of essays in the pipeline that examine the religious politics of prominent eighteenth-century black Atlantic writers. I see those pieces as part of a new book project that examines religious pluralism in Anglophone writing from 1492 and 1820. What form(s) of pluralism, I’m asking, are available between the cataclysm of European contact and the advent of modern liberalism as we recognize it today?

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