Re-readings of the book of Job in American life and letters: Debate and dissent within bounds

Date of Completion

January 2005


Literature, American




While critics have explored the significance of the Old Testament Job in the works of a number of writers, including Melville, Frost, and MacLeish, no one has yet examined the broader scope and significance of Job in American literature and thought. Given the universality of the theme of evil in Job, its interest for American writers cannot be considered wholly unique. Thomas Carlyle said of Job, "There is nothing written, I think, in the Bible or out of it, of equal literary merit." Certain aspects of Job, however, at least as the story has been re-imagined or interpreted by Americans, have had a particular resonance with writers and thinkers. Job appears to be something of a rebel in his rejection of orthodox views of suffering, in his resolve to stand apart from his three friends, and in his defiance of God. William Safire refers to Job as "the first dissident" in his recent book on Job and Politics. Since, from the Puritan period on, American identity has embraced in greater or lesser degrees the revolutionary or rebellious spirit, it is no surprise that American writers tend to appreciate the rebellious aspects of Job. The rebellious, questioning slaves in Harriet Beecher Stowe's two antislavery novels represent a type of black Job. The nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson invokes the questioning Job in her own poetic challenges to faith and God. For the contemporary writer Annie Dillard, Job provides a continual source of inspiration for her own literary explorations of metaphysical evil, Holy the Firm and For the Time Being, although she recasts Job in a distinctly modern cosmology. In the Holocaust writings of Elie Wiesel, the essentially tragic Job of Jewish tradition is redefined through the lens of American individualism and democracy, into a more heroic and dynamic figure of rebellious challenge and inquiry and not merely of God but of humanity as well. Thus, American writers have found in Job a rich resource, when dealing not only with questions of metaphysics, but with social and political issues as well. ^