New Puritans

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Oxford University Press


The Puritan problem—in the study of US history and literature— is nearly as old, nearly as familiar, as the Puritans themselves. From their first representations, writers argued about who New England Puritans actually were (with questions posed largely in terms of degrees of badness: very? mostly? complicatedly?) and how and to what extent those (bad) old Puritans mattered. The “to what extent” question was easy: a lot. For generations of scholars (Perry Miller, Edmund Morgan, Sacvan Bercovitch), New England—defined almost entirely by Puritanism—loomed large enough to preempt more expansive views of early America.

The consequences of that preoccupation have been acknowledged in the scholarly terrain of American literature for several decades. Even as the Puritans held sway in imaginations and syllabi, we were explaining to each other (and asking our students to explain back to us) why allowing the Puritans to retain a central position in our understanding of early American history and literature was a problem. Not first, not only, not most important, and yet they dominated scholarly conversations and seemed inescapable, providing a foundation for persistent national myths, notably American exceptionalism. Emphasized, simplified, and vilified on the way to all manner of arguments and assertions (often sweeping), Puritan identity seemed obvious enough. It manifested itself in violent judgment (Quakers, Salem), suppression of women (Anne Hutchinson), and a core commitment to an inscrutable God of judgment who relished torturing those who were headed by divine decree to hell (unforgettably emblematized by Jonathan Edwards’s image of God dangling the unconverted over the fiery pit of hell “as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect”). But the popular appeal of America’s original frenemies is as relentless as our rejection of them. Their—and our—binary sensibility (we love to hate them) is surely part of their enduring appeal. Characterizations consisting of opposing and familiarly Puritan dichotomies—hell or heaven, damned or saved, evil or good—reinforce contemporary literary critical, aesthetic, and perhaps even ethical dichotomies—uncomplicated or ambiguous, easily determined or worth analysis, contemptible or respectable.