The University of Wisconsin Press

American Studies / History / Popular Culture / Religion


Imaginary Friends
Representing Quakers in American Culture, 1650–1950
James Emmett Ryan

Studies in American Thought and Culture
Paul S. Boyer, Series Editor

2011 Choice magazine Outstanding Academic Title

“This thoughtful, thoroughly researched work looks at how writers have used Quakers—as heretics, as reformers, as symbols of simplicity and goodness, always as counterpoints to a larger American culture.”
—Thomas Hamm, author of The Transformation of American Quakerism

When Americans today think of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, they may picture the smiling figure on boxes of oatmeal. But since their arrival in the American colonies in the 1650s, Quakers’ spiritual values and social habits have set them apart from other Americans. And their example—whether real or imagined—has served as a religious conscience for an expanding nation.

Portrayals of Quakers—from dangerous and anarchic figures in seventeenth-century theological debates to moral exemplars in twentieth-century theater and film (Grace Kelly in High Noon, for example)—reflected attempts by writers, speechmakers, and dramatists to grapple with the troubling social issues of the day. As foils to more widely held religious, political, and moral values, members of the Society of Friends became touchstones in national discussions about pacifism, abolition, gender equality, consumer culture, and modernity.

Spanning four centuries, Imaginary Friends takes readers through the shifting representations of Quaker life in a wide range of literary and visual genres, from theological debates, missionary work records, political theory, and biography to fiction, poetry, theater, and film. It illustrates the ways that, during the long history of Quakerism in the United States, these “imaginary” Friends have offered a radical model of morality, piety, and anti-modernity against which the evolving culture has measured itself.

James Emmett Ryan
is associate professor of English at Auburn University. His publications in American literature and culture include Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture 1844-1931, also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

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The cover of Ryan's book features and illustration of the familiar stereotype of the Quarker man with the broad hat and simple dress. The colors of dark blue, white and red echo a certain breakfast oat product.

June 2009
LC: 2008039541 BX
360 pp.   6 x 9   9 b/w illus.


Paper $26.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-23174-3 
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