Delbanco’s The Real American Dream argues American culture/literature narrows focus from God to Nation to Self. Paradoxically, such movement also universalizes – God seen as a 17th century Puritan did; Nation as an Enlightened American did; but the self – ah, going far inward, externals blur. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” or its opposite, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, are accessible whatever a student’s religious background. Understanding that “Self”, though, is also deepened by understanding the vestiges of history buried in our culture, affecting writers newly come to this continent as well as those who self-consciously reject much of that heritage (as do both Emerson and Hawthorne). So the first fourth of the first half of a chronological survey requires us to enter another world in another time with other beliefs – to appreciate what they considered important, fought wars over, faced a wilderness to express.
Some heritage is general: Puritans brought with them an obsession with the word – written, memorized, analyzed – and a pared down, intense relationship with their God in which little church hierarchy intervenes. Translation of the Bible into the vernacular had powerful consequences. And church governance as they defined it seems to inevitably lead to government of, by and for the people. Of course, the communal remains important. The warmth of the Mayflower contract and agreements on the Arbella led to the great “ur” documents. Separatists like Williams were then, and are likely always to be, a minority. But individualism & self-conscious self-inspection are central to the 19th century. That tendency pulled American culture farther toward individualism as value and libertarianism as policy. To this day, our outlier position is characterized by individualism – a position most cherish, welcoming challenge.
Each semester, some love that first quarter – engaged in class, their papers warm. Some were home schooled or went to one of the Christian academies, but not all. These students know their Bible a good deal better than I; they find in the class affirmation of a faith they understand. Some from other faiths or secular backgrounds are moved by the puzzles Edward Taylor offers or the tough & loving vision of Winthrop and Bradford. Students don’t have to know – let alone believe – as Bradstreet does to love her; each semester – I want a love like that, they say. We need no shared theology to understand deeply felt passion armed with respect. We’ve all felt that. We understand.
But we haven’t all thought as they did. Our mind balks at works that appeal to the mind and assume our assent. So, we come to another group of students. I see their resistant eyes and they ofen drop; one angrily spoke to me after class – “I’ve never been inside a church in my life and I never intend to be. Why do we have to talk about this?” Well, I wondered, what did you think people wrote about in 1650? But even the most religious is not likely to be a Calvinist. I thought the deal with taking a lit class was getting out of the present and coming to understand the world as people at another time and another place did. History looks at the general – the acts, the movements, the ideas. Literature is more personal – not the great sweeps of battle but how the general or the infantryman felt, saw, acted and implied, while these multiplied became history. Sometimes our sympathy fails – perhaps the failure is in the writer’s art of imagination, perhaps in our reading or imagination.
Of course, the Puritans pose problems. Few students can go all the way with the idea of undeserved grace nor accept the concept of the elect. Students from other faiths (or fervently none) are likely to miss the complexity of Roger Williams’ beliefs and not grasp Thomas Morton’s charge the Pilgrims are heretical in condemning the Book of Common Prayer. Many find the apocalypse disturbing and foreign; besides, in their texting world the task set many a Puritan of memorizing 224 8-line stanzas seems strange in itself. The Wigglesworth narrative, with its rollicking Jaws-like ballad meter, is archetypal; after all, the readers probably identified with the survivors as my students identify with those looking back at Jurassic Park; both barely escape chaos. The film’s dead, like Wigglesworth’s damned, made wrong choices. Apocalyptic literature is instructive. But even as I hint at that universal pattern, I ignore its Puritan uniqueness – its theological core.
A modern reader who is either not religious or whose religious tradition doesn’t include the rite of communion, finds Edward Taylor’s central topic – the marriage of God with man through communion, the importance of closed communion, its mystic nature – inaccessible. I offer a rudimentary description in class and on-line, but accept that it remains foreign and probably quite strange to some of my students. That centuries of bloody wars were fought over what seem fine points to us seems stranger yet. Grasping this might help us understand the weight Taylor gives it, but we only have an hour or a bit more to spend on him; besides, I’m neither historian nor theologian. The depth and narrow concentration gives his work grandeur and intensity, but also narrows his audience.
Edward Taylor, like Roger Williams, is an outlier. And for similar reasons: his religious beliefs were extreme in terms of closed communion and church hierarchy. Like those from the 1630’s, he sought refuge in 1668 New England; the Restoration oaths didn’t give him the dire choices of the 1630s, but were likely to mean he either violated his conscience or was kept from what were – seeing his life time’s work – the vocations that would fulfill him. And he was an outlier in his poetry: his style more like the metaphysical than the plain style, more knotty than perspicuous. And he is an outlier in publishing history – unpublished for 250-300 years, discovered in the late twentieth century. Later, we’ll look at that history and what the twentieth century found.