[To complement last week’s series on pre-Revolutionary histories, this week I’ll AmericanStudy some of the many compelling writers and voices from the nation’s exploration and colonial eras. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a wonderful new anthology of Native American writing!]
On the problem with defining a writer by one work, and why and how to get beyond it.
Finding an audience, being read and remembered, is of course a central if not the central goal of all of us who write or seek to share our voices with the world in any medium, but it can without question be a double-edged sword in all sorts of ways. Stephen King, for example, has written extensively about the experience of being defined so fully as a horror writer that it becomes hugely difficult to publish (and even to a degree write) anything else. A heightened sense of audience expectations based on the success of his first novel, Invisible Man (1952), seems to have crippled Ralph Ellison’s ability to finish any of his subsequent novels (which were all published only after he had died). But those audience-driven problems at least arose during the writers’ lives, making it possible (if certainly not easy) for them to respond, to write out of those boxes, to find new audiences or challenge their existing ones, or even, of course, to ignore audience demands or responses (as much as any writer can).
Infinitely—eternally, even—more difficult is when a sizeable and multi-generational audience latches onto a particular, not necessarily representative text and uses it to define the writer’s whole career and perspective after the writer has passed away. This is a potential problem for any writer whose works are (or, more exactly for this problem, one of whose works is) frequently anthologized—and if that writer was also a preacher, and thus produced literally tens of thousands of sermons among his many other written works, the danger of one of those sermons being turned into his anthologized, career-defining work is both greater and significantly more unfair. And that’s precisely what has happened with Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theological philosopher and writer, one of the 18th century’s leading intellectuals, and a principal influence on the First Great Awakening, the nation’s most widespread and democratic religious movement. Yet for generations of American schoolchildren—and since those schoolchildren tend to grow up to be adults, for generations of Americans period—Edwards has meant one thing and one thing only: the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), a fire-and-brimstone, extremely dramatic, old-school Puritanical text that Edwards delivered in Enfield, Connecticut in the midst of the First Great Awakening.
“Sinners” certainly captures a particular and powerful side of Edwards the preacher, and illustrates without question why he was able to produce such significant fervor and conversion rates during the Great Awakening. But it’s likely that any number of fellow preachers, in that era and in American history more generally, could have and did deliver very similar sermons, some week in and week out. It is instead in both the breadth and the quality of his interests and ideas and writings, as well as his wide range of forward-thinking opinions (on issues such as women’s rights and roles in the church, Native Americans, and scientific discoveries), that Edwards outstrips any other American theologian and would greatly enrich modern audiences’ perspectives on faith, spirituality, and the church in America’s history and identity. Edwards at his best (which was most of the time) combined the theological rigor of the Puritans with many of the Enlightenment’s most important advances, including those aforementioned opinions but also an abiding interest in aesthetics and a willingness to recognize the role of personal emotion and perspectives (what Edwards sometimes called “the affections”) in determining the shape and course of one’s faith. Even his tragically early death at the age of 54 was the result of his impressive openness and desire to lead his fellow citizens into better paths—having just taken over the Presidency of Princeton College from his son-in-law Aaron Burr (father to the famous figure of the same name), Edwards decided to demonstrate the need for a new medical innovation, smallpox inoculations, by getting one himself, but died from the resulting infection.
Edwards’ literary future and identity are of course out of his hands, as all of ours will one day be (and if I had to accept that gaining a multi-century audience would mean that they’d only be reading one blog post, well, I might take that deal). But on the other hand, they remain very much in our collective hands, and the more we can try to reconnect with the much richer and more impressive works and career and man behind “Sinners,” the closer we can get to inhabiting the kind of America for which Edwards consistently worked. Next early writing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Early American writers or works you’d highlight?
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