Unconventional Virtues: Ecstasy, Quilts, and Food in American Society and Culture

AHA Session 258
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 306 (Hynes Convention Center)
J. C. Burnham, Ohio State University

Session Abstract

The power that virtue and the “sacred” have are manifested in a variety of cultural contexts, past and present.  Quite recently, the Chilean Roman Catholic Cardinal Jorge Medina made this point clear when he lambasted pop artist Madonna during her visit to his home country for inspiring “lust” and “impure thoughts” among his flock. Sexuality, not surprisingly, often proves fertile ground for discussions of values and virtue.  But finding arguments for—and violations of—the sacred, the virtuous, and the pure in the sexual realm provide an entrée to the more unexpected ways in which these themes develop in other frequently contested areas of human life such as food and material culture.

In this session the three panelists assess the role of what might conventionally be seen as sacred—in particular cultural and religious constructions of value—as it infiltrates territory less often associated with religion.  We use ideas of virtue and values, purity and preservation, to consider how the sacred permeated the expected—sex and reproduction—as well as the unexpected—religious ecstasy, food, and quilts.  Forms of reproduction and preservation, of bodies and of values, further underscore the relevance and longevity of sacred in society and culture.  The panelists address these themes across three centuries, and three realms of human experience, in the history of the United States.  Cooke emphasizes reproduction and virtue as she assesses fears of ecstasy in religious revivals—a group experience of virtue—as well as its sexual subtext, and extends this analysis to concerns related to the broader social and cultural milieu of the British Empire and the American Revolution.  Gedge considers how nineteenth-century quilts not only conveyed but also preserved the values of the culture that was recently lost, with products that manifested the efforts of their creators to engage in a sacred communal experience. Control of appetite and conservation of culture, both physical and spiritual, permeate Veit’s paper on attitudes about food and virtue in the Great War, while also reflecting the nation’s unified, communal effort, to engage in warfare.

Together these panelists explore ways in which the sacred, through values and purity—and even sensuality—could be experienced over time in American society and culture, through sensory and spiritual engagement, manifested physically, experienced tactilely, and consumed, literally reproduced and preserved in body, object, culture, and spirit.  In many contexts, ideas about purity and virtue have tremendous cultural power. 

This session will appeal to a broad audience of American historians, particularly those interested in American cultural, religious, and intellectual history.  Those with specific interest in the history of sexuality, material culture, food, and wartime organization also will find the session valuable.  By examining varied and unconventional cultural manifestations about the sacred and virtue we expect to create a rich discussion of values, the sacred, and purity in unexpected forms.

See more of: AHA Sessions