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I wonder if Roy has seen the President. Aunt Winifred says she does not doubt it.
January 27, 2010 8:42 PM   Subscribe

About 2% of the US population died while serving in the military during the US Civil War, roughly equivalent to about six million people today. A few years after the war the best selling book at 100,000 copies was Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' The Gates Ajar, which deals mainly with heaven and what exactly happens there. Spoilers follow.

The Gates Ajar is painfully (or perhaps bracingly) un-ironic. As befits a grieving era it opens by breaking the heart of its protagonist Mary Cabot with the battle death of her brother, leaving her without immediate family much like the author. Cabot's grief and rejection of conventional comfort are convincingly rendered. Cabot's Aunt Winifred shows up and the bulk of the book is a classic dialog with Aunt Winifred explaining what happens in heaven. Including the corporeality of heaven, what happens to resurrected bodies, what children do in heaven and the physical location of heaven. More exemplary tragedies are described for the edification of all involved.

According to James Hart's The Popular Book: A History the success of The Gates Ajar led not only to its three sequels (Beyond the Gates, The Gates Between and Within the Gates) but also to a minor flowering of imitators lasting until the end of the 1870s "When memories of the Civil War dimmed, many Americans became aware the war had made them a powerful people, and subconsciously they found the religious novel and its first cousin , the domestic novel, too provincial for their tastes." Mark Twain's Captain Stormfeld's Visit to Heaven was published in 1905, four years after the last of the Gates novels and is a parody of the genre.

This book was brought to my attention through Professor David Blights lectures on the The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, available at Open Yale.
posted by shothotbot (29 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
This, this is what I love about MetaFilter.

Thanks.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:14 PM on January 27, 2010


Great find!
posted by fermezporte at 9:15 PM on January 27, 2010


and one more thing; I tend to be a bit cynical about technology; but damn, sometimes books on the internet = way to go humans, way to go. [fist bump]
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:19 PM on January 27, 2010


What a beautiful book.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:39 PM on January 27, 2010


I just wanted to say that I appreciate the spoiler warning for a book nearly a century and half old.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:47 PM on January 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just wanted to say that I appreciate the spoiler warning for a book nearly a century and half old.

Maybe its not for the book.
posted by shothotbot at 9:49 PM on January 27, 2010 [14 favorites]


Came in here to say just what the first post said - and ended up laughing out loud at last comment.

That's also what I love about Metafilter.

(Also, if you're suffering through winter blahs like myself, I can't recommend the aforementioned Open Yale stuff more.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:18 PM on January 27, 2010


I look forward to reading this
posted by jock@law at 10:36 PM on January 27, 2010


Beyond the Gates, The Gates Between and Within the Gates.

I got a bit of a chuckle out of the goofy sequel names. The more things change...


ps: Phelps.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:36 PM on January 27, 2010


So since Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven started me wondering whether Sister Anne Mary was lying about heaven, I can thank The Gates Ajar for my conversion to agnosticism, right?
posted by sallybrown at 10:45 PM on January 27, 2010


Just a heads up - Australia doesn't get to see this.
posted by tellurian at 11:49 PM on January 27, 2010


If you're interested, I just had published an article on The Gates Ajar, comparing it to Six Feet Under.... See in Death in American Texts and Performances, ed Perdigao & Pizzato, Ashgate, 2010.
posted by A189Nut at 11:59 PM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just a heads up - Australia doesn't get to see this

Well, that's what makes it "heaven" for the rest of us.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 3:07 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


And if you don't think just the title of "Captain Stormfeld's Visit To Heaven" is as good as anything by the Onion or John Hodgman, check out the frontispiece illustration. Definitely will be reading this. Thanks for the FANTASTIC post.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 3:32 AM on January 28, 2010


For more reading along these lines and about this era's preoccupation with the afterlife (and even death itself), I cannot recommend Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering enough.
posted by grabbingsand at 3:39 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


No preview available

No preview available

No preview available

Dammit, I really, really want to see this now...
posted by Dumsnill at 3:46 AM on January 28, 2010


Same here - All I get is a wikipedia link and a bunch of "No preview available" pages. Am I doing something wrong? This looks like a good post, I hope it can be fixed somehow.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:35 AM on January 28, 2010


Links work for me.

And--YES, Civil War death memorabilia. Rock on.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:51 AM on January 28, 2010


Pretty sure it's just a region thing, as the Australian comment seems to suggest.
posted by Dumsnill at 4:59 AM on January 28, 2010


Better Captain Stormfield link
posted by DU at 5:08 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am sorry the links aren't working for everyone, I did not consider that when linking to google books - is that a universal block?

Here is a pdf of The Gates Ajar. The links I pulled out in the OP go to chapters 7, 9, 12 and 15 (VII, IX, XII and XV for anyone who lives at the Superbowl). I would have linked to Project Gutenberg as DU does for Captain Stormfield above, but its not on there that I could find.
posted by shothotbot at 5:44 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I really thought the description of grief in the first few chapters is spot on. Honestly, even for those of you that don't believe in the book's theology it's worth a glance for that. I can imagine that book was quite a comfort for many who had lost loved ones during that time.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:23 AM on January 28, 2010


For more reconstruction era morbidity see also.

It's also fun to see how these practices were picked up and transmografied into what is now the modern televangelists bag of tricks.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:47 AM on January 28, 2010


One of the first characters introduced in 'The Gates Ajar' is named Meta Tripp.

It also has a word that returns exactly one Google result (its own page): Conuforters. Etymologists, ever heard that one before?
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:07 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Conuforters

Pretty sure its just a misprint of comforters, as in Job's comforters.
posted by shothotbot at 8:22 AM on January 28, 2010



I really thought the description of grief in the first few chapters is spot on.


Agreed.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:50 AM on January 28, 2010


"I wonder what makes the words chase me about."

What the novel becomes might focus primarily on the imagined machinations of Heaven, but an honest read of the opening chapters reveals someone who is honestly and openly dealing with not only their own grief, but others' perception and understanding of that grief. Of particular interest is the author's confrontation with a visiting Deacon:

"I turned sharply on him, but words died on my lips. How could I tell the man [...] that Roy's was no death-bed repentance, but the quiet, natural growth of a life that had always been the life of the pure in heart ..."
posted by grabbingsand at 1:21 PM on January 28, 2010


I looked into this with equal parts LOL-heaven and historical curiosity. But I found the first five chapters were a completely compelling and accurate depiction of the loss of a sibling at a young age in particular - it is very hard to imagine losing a younger brother and its a different sort of hole inside then the loss of a parent.
posted by shothotbot at 2:39 PM on January 28, 2010


This is great; thanks!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:41 PM on January 28, 2010


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