American Religion: A History in Pieces

I’ve signed on to edit an anthology of literary journalism about American religion for a university press, called — for now, at least — “American Religion: A History in Pieces.” The time frame is 1860-now. The genre, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is narrative nonfiction writing that makes use of fictional techniques — scene, dialogue, character, etc. I’ve an argument about why this genre is so well-suited to the representation of religion, and why it’s particularly American, and why writing about religion (as opposed to religiously) is a particularly American endeavor, but I’ll save that for the introduction. In the meantime, here’s your chance to score a free copy: I’m looking for additions to the long list from which I’ll make my short list from which I’ll make my final selections. If you have a favorite piece of writing you think ought to be included, email me at jeff dot sharlet at gmail dot com. If it’s not already on my list, and I use it in the book, I’ll send you a copy when it comes out.

What I’m not looking for: strictly expository writing, traditional essays, literary criticism, memoir. What I am especially interested in: magazine and journal articles and book excerpts from the “early period” (1860-1930); literary journalism about American Catholicism and Mormonism; beautifully written narrative nonfiction.* Here are a few that are already on the long list: Thoreau on Ktaadn, Mary Austin in the Land of Little Rain, Mencken in Dayton, Mary McCarthy on a train, Baldwin with Bergman, and KtB’s own Peter Manseau in search of his parents. What else should I include?

*I asked my friend Joanna Yas, an editor of the literary journal Open City, about an essay I remembered reading years ago on the death of a huckster guru. Joanna was on the road, so she asked an intern named Anelise Chen to look it up. Chen did a lot more than that! Following is her email, which perhaps deserves inclusion on its own merits:

The Final Man by Susan Perry

Okay the piece is about this cult leader named Frederick Lenz who believed in this weird combo of zen, tantric buddhism, and reaganite capitalism which he called “american buddhism.” basically it was a wonked out version of buddhism minus the begging and abstinence and humility part. he was hugely successful in 90s, his seminars costing +$7000. he owned 3 homes, drove 5 cars (3 mercedes & 2 porches) and routinely slept w/ his super-model followers. in 1998 he was found dead in the water near his long island home wearing a versace suit and spider crabs eating his face. he had taken 150 valium in attempt to “go to the next realm” & had poisoned his remianing terriers as well. towards the end of his life he had become increasingly agitated and paranoid, taking more and more percodan etc, accusing his students of killing him in his sleep and beaming bad energy at them, especially those he “saw” w/ giant spiders crawling into their ears. he would make students stand up and say “i am a horrible person, and i wish you would die.” a select circle of women who he called his “witches” were obligated to visit his house and have sex w/ him which he claimed was his way of “saving them”…sometimes he fed them lsd or other drugs that would make them black out. anyway, despite all this auditoriums were selling out, people were still paying a lot of money to see him. he owned large shares in tech companies and was even trying to outdo bill gates/microsoft. until he began having seminars remotely as in, he wouldn’t even be there in person. that confused people. and one of his dogs died. that was probably the beginning of the end.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).