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.