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The Puritan Legacy and the Founding Myths in the American Culture and Literature

The Puritan Legacy and the Founding Myths in the American Culture and Literature

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06/02/2013

 
The Puritan Legacy and the Founding Myths in the American Culture and Literature
The Puritans left their mark upon the American culture. A few important names and events should be
mentioned: the arrival of the Pilgrims on ―Mayflower‖, in 1620, and the foun
dation of PlymouthPlantation in New England; the first thanksgiving, celebrated in 1621; the arrival at Salem, in 1630,
of Governor John Winthrop and 600 Puritans known as ―separatists‖, and Winthrop‘s
 Modell of 
 
Christian Charity
; between 1630 and 1643, 20,000 Puritans migrated from Anglican counties to NewEngland colonies. In 1734, the Great Awakening began, with itinerant preachers such as GeorgeWhitefield, bringing a general religious mood, and reaching a peak in 1740, when Edwards wrote
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God 
. Religion was a major subject of colonial American literature.The sermon, spiritual journal, spiritual autobiography, and position papers on church polity andchurch doctrine, are all dominant subjects in 17
th
century American literature. The sermon is
 presented by John Cotton‘s emigration discourse, by John Winthrop‘s lay sermon concerning thePuritans‘ hopes for their American mission, by Cotton Mather‘s discourse on the doctrine of one‘scalling in life, and by Jonathan Edwards‘s
 
great minatory sermon. John Woolman‘s classic spiritual journal and Edwards‘s spiritual autobiography (his ―Personal Narrative‖) exemplify those genres.
Because of their intrinsic excellence and thematic importance, these works became a source of inspiration for later writers. The Puritan values of hard work, morality and diligence, the myths theybrought with them (the American Dream,
 
the myths of America as a land of opportunity; America asa new paradise; America as a model (
a beacon upon a hill
, as John Winthrop puts it in his
 Modell of 
 
Christian Charity
) to be set by people elected by God - idealism that developed into a nationalisticpolitical mission; and America as the way to wealth, all speak of the powerful Puritan legacy inAmerican culture. Puritan views played a major role in the shaping of the American character. Their
concept of ―the city upon a hill‖ and that of chosen nation inspired the American people; the sense of 
mission of this chosen nation, for instance, was stressed when America entered the World Wars.Wecould say that the Puritan legacy is also manifest in the American character as part of what Max
Weber calls ‗the Protestant ethic‘ (
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
, 1904); from thispoint of view, the Protestant ethic must have played an important part in the development of theAmerican society, based on competitiveness, industry, and hard work. The Puritan doctrineencouraged frugality, ambition, industry; its rhetoric of mission conceals a rhetoric of success. ThePuritan spirit has persisted in the American mind
 – 
although to a lesser degree - up to the presenttime. Actually, a theory (George Santayana, 1911) stated that American society is based on twoconflicting cultures: the Puritan one, in the North, and the cavalier culture, in the South, and that thisconflict led to crises such as the Civil War. In literature, we have on the one hand works like
Hawthorne‘s
The Scarlet Letter 
(1850
 – 
pure fiction set in the Puritan age), and on the other handmore philosophical works, such as those of Emerson and Thoreau, who developedTranscendentalism, starting from a Puritan-based view. The Puritan heritage in
Transcendentalism
appears in
 
the idea that the essence of religion is immediate relationship to divine; emphasis is placed
on direct, unmediated apprehension of God‘s majesty and power; there is an attempt to renew society
on the basis of individually redeemed soul also. We find Puritan reverberations in theTranscendentalist penchant for reading nature, the world as
a book Emerson: ―the world is a templewhose walls are covered with emblems‖, on the interpretation of the world to look for a hidden
message. We could add the Puritan echoes in the works of Whitman (whose
Passage to India
is thegreatest expression of th
e heliotropic movement after George Berkeley‘s
Verses on the Prospect of 
 
Planting Arts and Learning in America
 
 – 
a Puritan source of inspiration for Whitman), Melville, of Emily Dickinson, even Fitzgerald (Puritan conceptions implying the myth of the independent man,who struggles to come from rags to riches). The second part of the 19
th
century saw less interest inPuritan ideas, perhaps as an effect of the changes in the structure and composition of society(industrial development, immigration), but such themes as the mission of America were used by
 promoters of the ‗manifest destiny‘ doctrine (O‘Sullivan, Strong). By the 20
th
century, Puritanism
 
was only present in literature as a retrograde philosophy (see the selfish Jason Compson in
Faulkner‘s
The Sound and the Fury
), or as a moral conception which is good in itself, but does not fitthe social context (Isaac McCaslin); also as a parable of contemporary politics
 – 
 
Miller‘s
TheCrucible
(early 1950s).
Emily Dickinson
: the Puritan heritage is manifest in her works, in her penchant for introspection, theimportance of self-analysis and self-
construction, the ‗inscape‘ as a place to be created and
cultivated, and the religious vocabulary she uses. Dickinson can be read also as a note of subversionin the P
uritan ―patriarchal‖ tradition: the intimate sphere of the domestic scene becomes the space of mysteries, the minor key seems to challenge a grounded tradition: ―Some keep the Sabbath going to
Church/ I keep it, staying at home/ I just wear my Wings/ and instead of tolling the Bell, for Church/ our little sexton-
sings‖. The Puritan tradition impeached her immersion in social experience, but had
a more beneficial effect upon her verse. She finds inspiration in the Protestant hymnology and inbiblical imagery; her poems express a kind of mental and inner freedom and a Puritan fervor. Thestress is on herself, on the introspection in her inner world
 – 
a Puritan trait, as Puritans encouragedself-split, self-analysis and individualism. Her poems are written from the perspective of a restrictedself. She stresses the personal dimension, the experience of God by each individual through hisinnerness. She looked inward at her own experience, to perceive the truth of her inner life (carriedout a deep study of her
inner life). Like Anne Bradstreet and other Puritan poets, Dickinson ―seldomlost sight of the grave‖: her own Calvinist childhood gave her this way of looking at life in terms of death. As one critic notes, she seems to be looking at the world ―for the last time‖. Her individualism
reminds of Puritans, too: what and how she says is purely her own, the result of her self-reliance, of her independent personal and artistic judgement. In solitude, she discovers the grandeur of existence:to be herself and to articulate her experience in her poetry.In
Melville’s
 
 Moby Dick 
, we find the Puritan heritage of allegory, analogy, symbol, the typologicalmethod (heros built around a dominant trait); symbolic, evocative names (those of both people andships) which have a definite bearing upon the development of the outward and inward narratives of the book; the world seen as a text to be deciphered; the two sermons (one delivered by FatherMapple on Jonah, the other
 – 
supposed to entertain the mates) in which the members of thecongregation (people, respective sharks) are cautioned by the preacher to resist their own impulsesand control their selfish desires.
Hawthorne:
As we see in
The Celestial Railroad 
, Hawthorne‘s stories usually have a strong
allegorical quality, which can be seen as a Puritan trait. A Puritan world (17
th
century New England)is the setting of 
The Scarlet 
 
 Letter 
(1850): Hester and Dimmesdale contemplate their own sinfulnesson a daily basis and try to reconcile it with their lived experiences. The Puritan elders, on the otherhand, insist on seeing earthly experience as merely an obstacle on the path to heaven. Thus, theyview sin as a threat to the community that should be punished and suppressed. Their answer toHester's sin is to ostracize her. Yet, Puritan society is stagnant, while Hester and Dimmesdale'sexperience shows that a state of sinfulness can lead to personal growth, sympathy, and understandingof others. Paradoxically, these qualities are shown to be incompatible with a state of purity. Thenovel is full of allegorical and symbolic moments, evocative names (e.g.
 
the name "Pearl" evokes abiblical allegorical device
 — 
the "pearl of great price" that is salvation) which link the story to otherallegorical works of literature such as
Pilgrim's Progress
and to portions of the Bible. Thepreoccupation with the nature of evil
 
is one of the Puritan themes in the novel: the characters in thenovel frequently debate the identity of the "Black Man," the embodiment of evil. Over the course of the novel, the "Black Man" is associated with Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Mistress Hibbins, andlittle Pearl is thought by some to be the Devil's child. The characters also try to root out the causes of evil: did Chillingworth's selfishness in marrying Hester force her to the "evil" she committed in
 
Dimmesdale's arms? Is Hester and Dimmesdale's deed responsible for Chillingworth's transformationinto a malevolent being? This confusion over the nature and causes of evil reveals the problems withthe Puritan conception of sin. The book argues that true evil arises from the close relationshipbetween hate and love. As the narrator points out in the novel's concluding chapter, both emotionsdepend upon "a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent
… upon another." Evil is not found in Hester and Dimmesdale's lovemaking, nor even in the cruel
ignorance of the Puritan fathers. Evil, in its most poisonous form, is found in the carefully plottedand precisely aimed revenge of Chillingworth, whose love has been perverted. Perhaps Pearl is notentirely wrong when she thinks Dimmesdale is the "Black Man," because her father, too, hasperverted his love. Dimmesdale, who should love Pearl, will not even publicly acknowledge her. Hiscruel denial of love to his own child may be seen as further perpetrating evil. The conclusion of thenovel is that it is useless to hide guilt in order to avoid punishment. The novel asks the question of whether the act of Hester and her lover was really sinful; the author gives no clear answer.With both Melville and Hawthorne, a Puritan trait is the lifelong contemplation of sin, either in theform of the white whale or of that of the scarlet letter.
Arthur Miller -
The Crucible:
Early in the year 1692, in the small Massachusetts village of Salem, acollection of girls fell ill, falling victim to hallucinations and seizures. In extremely religious PuritanNew England, frightening or surprising occurrences were often attributed to the devil or his cohorts.The unfathomable sickness spurred fears of witchcraft, and it was not long before the girls, and thenmany other residents of Salem, began to accuse other villagers of consorting with devils and castingspells. Old grudges and jealousies spilled out into the open, fueling the atmosphere of hysteria. TheMassachusetts government and judicial system, heavily influenced by religion, rolled into action.Within a few weeks, dozens of people were in jail on charges of witchcraft. By the time the fever hadrun its course, in late August 1692, nineteen people (and two dogs) had been convicted and hangedfor witchcraft.More than two centuries later (early 1950s), Arthur Miller, drawing on research on the witch trials hehad conducted while an undergraduate, composed
The Crucible
. Miller wrote the play during thebrief ascendancy of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a demagogue whose vitriolic anti-Communismproved the spark needed to propel the United States into a dramatic and fractious anti-Communistfervor during these first tense years of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In January of 1953,(atthe time of its first performance) critics and cast alike perceived
The Crucible
as a direct attack onMcCarthyism (the policy of sniffing out Communists). Still, there are difficulties with interpreting
The Crucible
as a strict allegorical treatment of 1950s McCarthyism.
The Crucible
is best read
outside
its historical context
 — 
not as a perfect allegory for anti-Communism, or as a faithful accountof the Salem trials, but as a powerful and timeless depiction of how intolerance and hysteria canintersect and tear a community apart.
The Crucible
is set in a theocratic society, in which the churchand the state are one, and the religion is a strict, austere form of Protestantism known as Puritanism.Because of the theocratic nature of the society, moral laws and state laws are one and the same: sinand the status of an individual's soul are matters of public concern. There is no room for deviationfrom social norms, since any individual whose private life doesn't conform to the established morallaws represents a threat not only to the public good but also to the rule of God and true religion. InSalem, everything and everyone belongs to either God or the Devil; dissent is not merely unlawful, itis associated with satanic activity. This dichotomy functions as the underlying logic behind the witchtrials. As Danforth says in Act III, "a person is either with this court or he must be counted againstit." The witch trials are the ultimate expression of intolerance (and hanging witches is the ultimatemeans of restoring the community's purity); the trials brand all social deviants with the taint of devil-worship and thus necessitate their elimination from the community.

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