MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December 7, 2011: So What 2

For my second post in this series on how our narratives and images of particular historical periods would change through an emphasis on cross-cultural diversity (and on exemplary recent AmericanStudies scholarship that can help with such re-visions), I’ll move about a century forward in our national history, but keep one of yesterday’s focal communities in my revisionist crosshairs. Yesterday’s post focused on the first couple centuries of post-contact and post-Columbian history, the 16th and early 17th centuries, and more exactly on both the European explorers and the Puritan settlers who constituted two of the central such arriving communities. Today’s post will focus on the late 17th and early 18th centuries, what we might call the settlement and colonial periods; while of course every American culture and community continued to evolve and (I would argue) deepen its cross-cultural connections and influence over those years, my specific subject today remains Puritan New England.
If, as I argued yesterday, many of our dominant narratives of the Pilgrims and the first Puritan arrivals emphasize their ideal and inspiring qualities, their mission and faith and “city on a hill” vision and so on, it’s fair to say that our narratives of the subsequent generations of Puritans substantially shift those emphases and tones. None of those narratives are as prominent in our national conversations as the Pilgrims or the Mayflower or the city on a hill, but I’d say we have some sense of these subsequent Puritans, and that it’s a sense of them (thanks in part to later writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and H.L. Mencken [the source of the famous “somebody somewhere having a good time” definition of Puritanism]) as intolerant and exclusionary and entirely unwilling to entertain even the slightest challenge to the orthodoxy of their beliefs; these are the Puritans who destroyed Thomas Morton’s maypole (as immortalized in Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount”), who banished Anne Hutchinson for her antinomian heresies, who forced even a quite zealous and impressive theologian and leader like Roger Williams into exile (well, into Rhode Island, but potato, potahto). Even a genuinely progressive and complex and inspiring spiritual thinker and American writer such as Jonathan Edwards has been, as I argued in this post, folded into those images of a fiery faith that accepts no deviations from its precepts, thanks to the heavily anthologized sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
I’m not going to try to turn the late 17th and 18th century Puritans into the typological predecessors of the hippies or anything, but the more accurate perspective on Edwards would indicate that neither were they quite as intolerant or absolutist as the dominant narratives suggest. Even had they wanted to be, their communities continued to experience complex American cultural encounters, and thus to undergo cross-cultural transformations, throughout these years. And it just so happens that a Fitchburg State English and AmericanStudies colleague of mine, Michael Hoberman, has recently published a hugely exemplary book (his third) that unearths, narrates compellingly, and analyzes a series of such transformations. In the book, New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America, Hoberman highlights the small but meaningful presence of Jewish religious and business figures in New England’s churches, universities, and cities over this century and a half post-Mayflower, and uses their relationships and conversations with a number of prominent Puritan thinkers and leaders to analyze the men’s joint influences and changes, their shared cross-cultural transformations. More broadly and even more significantly, his book makes a compelling case that we can best understand the evolving Puritan identities and communities not by focusing on their insular qualities, but instead by recognizing these kinds of external (yet interconnected and, I would argue, inseparable and profoundly American) presences and influences. We still have a lot to learn about the Puritans through a lens like this, as Hoberman’s book proves very successfully and impressively.
More tomorrow, on another period and exemplary work,
Ben
PS. Any suggestions for new ways to look at historical periods or communities?

UPDATE: Michael adds that one of the preeminent scholars of Puritanism, Francis Bremer, has recently argued that there is not much archival evidence that the Mass Bay Puritans were as stringent in their demands for a full confession pre-church membership as has often been believed. Also, check out this forthcoming anthology of early American Jewish writing, co-edited by Michael!

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