By Victor Verney
Because the 17th Century was the great age of British religious literature, in New England, therefore, asserts Darrel Abel, it was the great century of Puritan literature. In a way which is difficult for the modern reader to appreciate, Abel further submits, this literary genre was not only a subject of everyday life, but was an intelligent, often artistically wrought literature. It was also strenuous and serious, because Puritans saw life as an unremitting moral struggle. Puritan literature attempted to represent life truly; moreover, Puritan literature was just as “realistic” as modern naturalism, albeit in the service of a different perception of reality. The great structure of the Puritan creed, Perry Miller has asserted, will only be meaningful to most students today “when they perceive that it rested upon a deep lying conviction that the universe conformed to a definite, ascertainable truth, and that human existence was to be had only upon the terms imposed by this truth.”
Plain speech was the high literary value of this society, as expressed by William Bradford, who enjoined “a plain style, with singular regard to the simple truth in all things. Ornate and embellished stylistics were distrusted as adornments and adulterations; sensuous tropes and imagery were seen as the literary analogs to the perceived idolatry and ceremonial trappings of the Anglicans and Catholics. “Painted sermons” were an abomination, since they were like painted windows that obscured the clear light of truth, and the “words of wisdom” were privileged over the “wisdom of words.” This plain style was distinct, orderly, emphatic and proportionate, while employing rhetorical devices sanctioned by Biblical use: parables and analogies, similes and metaphors, rhythmic and formal syntax. While Miller and Thomas Johnson opine that the Puritans failed to develop a lively aesthetic sense in their appreciation of music, painting, and sculpture, George Waller points to the poetry of Ann Bradstreet and Edward Taylor as evidence that piety did not altogether preclude an aesthetic sensibility which appreciated the glories of nature or imagery that was at least colorful, if not sensuous. Furthermore, there a pragmatic element to this style, inasmuch as its audience was comprised of many unlettered common people.
Nevertheless, most Puritan writers were literate and learned, and their plain style, holds Abel, was not the meagerness of illiteracy, but rather the restraint of “skilled and instructed writers.” As Renaissance men, their respect for learning, their relish for the word fitly spoken, and their energy and robustness gave vigor even to writing that held humanity to be contemptible in its character and vain in all of its works. Gustaaf Van Cromphout has posited Cotton Mather as the most impressive exemplar of the Renaissance Man in American Puritanism, remarking that his magnum opus, Magnalia Christi Americana of 1702 is not only colonial history and glorification of its faith, but also “a work whose style and rhetoric reveal his adherence to humanist literary principles.” Mather, along with Robert Beverly, may be seen as a Founding Father of American literary criticism as well.
The two great Anglo-American literary giants of the colonial period, Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, while usually distinguished from each other in terms of the provincial minister versus the cosmopolitan man-of-the-world, shared a commonality which, while less obvious, is no less significant. Edwards, conversant in the ideas of Newton and Locke, combined science and philosophy as a basis for a body of religious literature unrivaled in logical and literary perfection in the entire history of human writing.
Franklin’s Autobiography, the sort of self-improvement tract favored by the early Puritans, used formulaic conventions of the spiritual autobiography borrowed from them while espousing his own worldly wisdoms. Franklin expropriated the Protestant/Puritan work ethic to serve his secular humanism, which embraced the ethical morality of Puritanism and modernized it in the process, making it possible for subsequent generations of American readers to inherit the ethical legacy of Puritanism without having to embrace its spiritual tenets.
One of Puritanism’s chief tenets was expressed in the favorite Biblical text of New England ministers, enjoining us to call no man father. A theological egalitarianism, which decreed as its primary requirement an individual experience of God’s grace, ramified into an underappreciated emphasis on freedom of the mind, a freedom that was unique then, and which today is far from universal.
It has also been suggested that the greatness of the Puritans lay not so much in their conquest of a wilderness or in carrying their religion into it, but in their refusal to make any intellectual concessions to the primeval forest. In the midst of frontier conditions, they maintained schools and a college, a high level of scholarship and of excellent writing, and a class of men devoted entirely to the life of the mind and the soul.
This crypto-Puritan legacy was eventually inherited by Abraham Lincoln, whose own mythos includes the image of the young boy poring over Euclid in a rude frontier cabin, and who, in his maturity, pointed to our Puritan forefathers and gave us a Biblically-informed rhetoric of simplicity, purification, and communion with the “better angels of our nature.” The Civil War, and the cast of rhetorical characters around whom it swirled, including Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, John Brown, Julia Ward Howe, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, manifested and reified perhaps the most enduring and overarching Puritan legacy, which was – and is – a profound sense of the importance of the American venture in the New World.
The Puritans, like Americans during the 1860’s and the 1990’s, saw themselves as a covenanted people, chosen to establish a model of universal reformation. In this typology of America’s mission, as articulated by Lincoln himself, the war is presented as a punishment inflicted upon a sinning people so that all might be redeemed. While Thoreau, dubbed “The Last of the Puritans,” bestows his blessing upon John Brown’s self-anointed role as an American Gideon, Howe sounds the apocalyptic jeremiad of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, presents a christogical Tom, succeeded by an antitypal George who carries into Africa “the lessons they ... learned in America,” which is to say the lessons of Puritan Protestantism, as listed by the author: “property, reputation, and education.” This is also the main theme of John William De Forest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (seen by many as the first instance of American literary realism), in which the war is portrayed as a climactic fifth act in a drama of sacred history, starting with the Christian Revelation, followed by the Protestant Reformation, the War of American Independence, and the French Revolution, finally culminating in the struggle for universal freedom without distinction as to race or color.
Another writer of American realism who emerged from the fiery trial of the War Between the States, if indirectly, was Stephen Crane. Perhaps the most cogent analysis of the sources that informed Stephen Crane’s poetics has been given by James Cox, who supplemented and completed Amy Lowell’s suggestion that the Bible gave Crane his form. While Crane is not commonly associated with religiosity, Cox points out that Crane’s father and mother were a Methodist minister and a devout church worker, respectively, and he submits the likelihood that another book almost ubiquitous in nineteenth-century home libraries, The Pilgrim’s Progress, informed and shaped Crane’s poetry. As with his fellow naturalist/realist Theodore Dreiser, parentally mandated church and prayer meetings marked Crane's youth. Thirty-six of the sixty-eight poems in The Black Riders (a title of inverted allusion to the Scriptural “Pale Rider”) demonstrably approximate Bunyan’s rhetorical and dramatic patterns of subjective revelation, interrogation and interpretation. In the considered view of Cox, Crane’s assimilation of the allegorical form and furniture of Bunyan’s world reveals him as far more the moralist and preacher than the imagist or free versifier or symbolist: like Melville’s Father Mapple, “he rants in the anguished tones of an inspired minister,” albeit in a manner and style coming from a world in which he can no longer believe.
Another giant of American literary realism/naturalism, Theodore Dreiser, is, like Crane, known for viewing organized Christianity rather narrowly. His great work, An American Tragedy, is framed, or bookended, by a depiction of parental neo-Puritan ethos — plain speech and the simple heartfelt hymn, punctuated with Scripture and preached on the streets for the edification of the Great Unwashed — a “sterile moralism” shown to be ineffectual and irrelevant in the urban jungle of twentieth-century capitalism. However, Dreiser, a man for whom the novel served primarily as a vehicle for social and philosophical ideas (often ill-digested), was under the sway of Emile Durkheim, who had defined a sociological perspective on the capitalistic secularization of godhead. Dreiser brought to this theme a sense of religious wonder and awe, and wrote: “So well defined is the sphere of social activity, that he who departs from it is doomed.” Dreiser’s protagonists characteristically struggle after material goods and worldly status, hoping, in Howe’s words, “for some unexpected sign by which to relieve their bitter craving for a state of grace or, at least, illumination.” His characters search for the Absolute as if it can be found at the very summit of material power, and Dreiser shows well how great energies can flow from this entrenched American delusion, a distortion of the Puritan work ethic traceable to Franklin, whose own usage regrettably equated poverty with Divine disfavor.
Writing of another American poet who (like Crane) is not generally regarded as a theologically-minded thinker, Anna Juhnke notes that “religious” is one of the last adjectives which one might choose to describe Robert Frost’s poetry. A centralized, almost solipsistic individual, removed from the Divine, is the characteristic speaker in his works. And yet . . . evidence that “stargazing, swinging birches, making a clearing, or flying a plane" are inadequate to Frost’s religious inquiry is seen by the appearance of his masques on Biblical themes of heavenly salvation, justice and mercy. Beyond self-generated attributes of love, courage and creativity, Juhnke has described how epistemological questions regarding the possibility of something greater than humanity, sustaining cosmic order and purpose, break through this self-contained spirituality — questions she sees as strongly influenced by Judaeo-Christian assumptions.
Edmund Morgan has succinctly encapsulated the Puritan dilemma of remaining pure while living in the world, and Perry Miller has elaborated upon it as being a theological statement in the dogmatic guise of a philosophy of life. This philosophy holds, on the one hand, that individuals must act reasonably and justly, while striving for inward communication with the force that controls the world. Yet, they must not expect that force to be confined and cribbed by human conceptions of reason and justice. So, if there is an obligation on us to be equitable, fair, and just, who among us, asks Miller, can say that any such morality is also binding on the universe? This was exactly the question posed by Crane in his poetry, and manifest in the vaunted “code” of Ernest Hemingway, yet another American writer not known for his overt religiosity. Miller, amplifying his point, also asks – after noting that there are certain amenities which men must observe in their dealings with men — must these amenities be respected by the tiger, by the raging storm, by the lightning, or by the cancer? If one were to add the shark to this list of unruly misanthropic natural phenomena, one would go far towards crystallizing the philosophical underpinnings of both Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” and Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea.
A final literary event calling for our attention in the present context might well be Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, whose troubled glance backwards at our ambivalent Puritan heritage reminds us of the first American writer to exploit this theme, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The comparison draws strength from the fact that two of Hawthorne’s ancestors, William and John, lived in colonial Salem; the former gained notoriety for persecuting Quakers, while the latter was a judge at the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692, the same trials employed by Arthur Miller as a metaphor for the problematic relationship between personal and public morality engendered by Puritanism. (H.L. Mencken once famously defined a Puritan as "someone desperately afraid that somewhere, someone might be having a good time"). Like Hawthorne, Miller has brooded about the impingement of the Puritan past upon the present. Linguistically speaking, this is a present progressive, as Miller’s work, originally conceived amidst the abuses of McCarthyism, has bequeathed to the American political lexicon the term “witchhunt,” which reemerges whenever our society, as is presently the case, is torn between conflicting standards of personal freedom and public accountability.
If one is willing to accept Kant’s definition of tragedy as the irreconcilable clash between two moral imperatives, this may well be the true continuing American tragedy. It was typified by the Puritans and has resonated down through American literature for the past four hundred years, even to its final, grand morality play of the Twentieth Century: the Starr Report of 1998 — a tragic chronicle about the demise of a likable but weak President. Betraying both his humble origin and great promise, the protagonist is undone when he runs afoul of a crypto-Puritan/American ethos, succumbing to worldly temptations of the flesh and the trappings of earthly power and privilege.
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