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Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted: An American Poetics

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“Be always converting, and be always converted; turn us again, O Lord,” Thomas Shepard urged his Cambridge congregation in the 1640s. This mandate coming down from American Puritan times to New Age seekers, to be “always converting, and always converted,” places a radical burden on the self as site of renewal and world-change, even as conversion becomes surrounded by deconversion (rejection of prior beliefs) and counterconversion (turns to alternative beliefs) across global modernity.

Rob Wilson’s reconceptualization of the American project of conversion begins with the story of Henry ‘Opukaha‘ia, the first Hawaiian convert to Christianity, “torn from the stomach” of his Native Pacific homeland and transplanted to New England. Wilson argues that ‘Opukaha‘ia’s conversion is both remarkable and prototypically American, because he dared to redefine himself via this drive to rebirth.

By mapping the poetics and politics of conversion and counterconversion, Wilson returns conversion to its central place in the American literature, history, and psyche. Through ‘Opukaha‘ia’s story, and through the works of the Tongan social scientist and fiction writer Epeli Hau‘ofa, Wild West poet Ai, and the mercurial Bob Dylan, Wilson demonstrates that conversion—seemingly an anachronistic concern in this secular age—is instead a global, yet deeply American subject, less about “salvation” or finality than about “experimentation” and the quest for modern beatitude.

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Editorial Reviews

Yunte Huang
This book dives deep into the American cultural psyche of conversion and counter-conversion and delineates fascinating routes of turns and returns in the active making, recreating, and reimagining of self and world in the postcolonial U.S. Empire.
Eric Lott
Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted is Rob Wilson's hymn to the Pacific. It circles among an unusual cast of characters to propose a tropics of spiritual conversion as central to an anti-imperial American intellectual tradition. This religious emphasis is fresh, often profound, and important, as steeped in Jimi Hendrix as it is in
William James, and conveys a lived investment in spiritual becoming. The book is written generally in the ecstatic mode of many of its subjects, and will confirm Rob Wilson's reputation as the beat poet of American Studies.
Donald Pease
Engaging citizen-saints at the occulted turning points of regeneration&mdash his accounts of Henry Obookiah, Jack Kerouac, and Bob Dylan prove especially fruitful in this regard&mdash Wilson aspires to unblock the present imperial impasse and to remake self and nation within terms of a U.S. covenant that is subject to poesis.
Choice - Nicholas Birns
[A] sparklingly innovative treatment of Hawai'i and New England Protestants' evangelism there in the 1800s (a reading that gains new relevance in light of the election of Barack Obama). Wilson also looks at Bob Dylan's identification as a born-again Christian in the late 1970s, noting that it did not lead to affirming "any given neoliberal hegemony"; he points out that Dylan's engagement in both conversion and "counter-conversion" negates potential conservatism. This paradigmatic reading for a synergetic kaleidoscope includes Puritan Massachusetts and Tonga (whose novelist Epeli Hau'ofa Wilson interprets thoughtfully) and critiques grandiosity while celebrating possibility...Wilson dazzles with a cogent, exhilarating account of turnings and "re-turnings." [It's one of] the best recent books on religion and American imagination.
Korea Herald - John Eperjesi
Energetic and wide-ranging.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674033436
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Rob Wilson is Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Conversions against Empire
    “And afterward we were born again, and many times . . .”

  1. The Poetics and Politics of Henry ‘Opukaha‘ia’s Conversion

  2. “Henry, Torn from the Stomach”
    Translating Hawaiian Conversion and Rebirth into Dynamics of Outer-National Becoming

  3. “Be Always Converting, and Be Always Converted”
    Conversion as Semiotic Becoming, and Metamorphosis into Beatitude

  4. Writing down the Lava Road from Damascus to Kona
    Counter-Conversion, Pacific Polytheism, and Re-Nativization in Epeli Hau‘ofa’s Oceania

  5. Regeneration through Violence
    Multiple Masks of Alter-Becoming in the Japanese/American/African Poet Ai

  6. Becoming Jeremiah inside the U.S. Empire
    On the Born-Again Refigurations of Bob Dylan

  • Epilogue: Conversions through Literature
    Writing Transpacific Becoming from Connecticut to Hawai‘i and Asia/Pacific

  • Notes

  • Acknowledgments

  • Index

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