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Puritan Origin versus “Messy Beginnings” in American Studies

The place of the Pilgrim Fathers in American history can best be stated by a paradox. Of slight importance in their own time, they are of great and increasing significance in our time, through the influence of their story on American folklore and tradition. And the key to that story, the vital factor in this little group, is the faith in God that exalted them and their small enterprise to something of lasting value and enduring interest.

Samuel Eliot Morison

Having failed to rivet the eyes of the world upon their city on the hill, they were left alone with America.

Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness

During the emergence of American studies as a discipline in the 1930s and ‘40s, the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans has often been studied as a foundational narrative of American beginnings in order to explain the cultural specificity of what would later develop into the United States of America. The formation of national identity and national cohesion has repeatedly been delineated as a continuous evolution from the Puritan errand to the ‘new world’ and from the first generation of English settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the present. Titles such as The Puritan Origins of the American Self by Sacvan Bercovitch indicate the degree to which the concepts of the Puritan errand and covenant with God served as models for accounting for later, specifically US-American, social, cultural and political developments and practices.

Not surprisingly, Harvard University - founded by the Puritans in 1636 as the first institution of higher education in North America - became the center of Puritan scholarship beginning with the long-since canonical work of Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller, among others. It is a remarkable fact that the scholarly reappraisal of the Pilgrims and Puritans took off at the moment when American studies as a new academic discipline was launched in the 1930s. Both Perry Miller and Samuel Eliot Morison found the Puritans to be not dull conformists, but intellectuals who were ‘exhilarated’ by their faith. Miller’s influential studies such as The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century

(1939), The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953), and Errand into the Wilderness (1964) as well as Samuel Eliot Morison’s seminal study Builders of the Bay Colony (1930) placed the Puritans at the center of a national foundational narrative, which thus also became foundational for American studies. Conservative Puritan scholar Samuel Eliot Morison argues that the Puritans believed what they preached and he sees it as Winthrop’s intention “to inspire these new children of Israel with the belief that they were God’s chosen people; destined, if they kept their covenant with him, to people and fructify this new Canaan in the western wilderness” (Builders 106). It should be noted that Native Americans, however, hardly figure in early Puritan scholarship, which thus contributed to no small degree to popular misconceptions about early North American history.

Sacvan Bercovitch argues in The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) that “[t]he persistence of the myth is a testament to the visionary and symbolic power of the American Puritan imagination” (186) and that “the Puritan myth prepared for the re-vision of God’s country from the ‘New England of the type’ into the United States of America” (136).

That the (re-)discovery of the Puritans in American history and the establishment of American studies under the arch of American exceptionalism coincide is by no means accidental. Scholars of the so-called Myth and Symbol School turned to the Puritans and Pilgrims and the New England Way in order to identify culturally specific symbols and patterns to bolster the notion that the US was indeed exceptional (there is an astounding amount of Puritan scholarship in the establishment and consolidation of American studies as an academic discipline, of which for the purposes of this chapter I could reference only a fraction). The foundational paradigm of Puritanism embraces the assumption that the origins of American society are exclusively white and European, and credits white Anglo- Saxon Protestants with the formation of the US nation. Not all of the Myth and Symbol scholars shared the same affirmative interpretation of Puritan culture, but the majority placed the Puritan elite center stage and marginalized all other groups - Native Americans, Africans/African Americans, women, indentured servants, etc. - in their work on American beginnings. It is thus unsurprising that this body of work led subsequent generations of Americanists to criticize it for heralding and backing an exclusivist US-American ideology. Philip Fisher’s analysis of the first generation of Puritan scholars in American studies points in that direction:

Beginning with the work of Perry Miller in the late thirties, the explanation of America as a long history of Puritan hope and decline resulted from the fact that academic intellec?tuals, looking into the past to find not necessarily its chief actors but precisely those congenial figures whose analytic and critical stance most resembled their own, discovered in the Puritan writers what was for them the most intelligible feature of the past, the one mirror most filled with familiar features. They too were intellectuals engaged in holding up a mirror of admonition or exhortation to their society. In theocratic New England they found embodied the secret self-image of all intellectual cultures, a society in which the critics and intellectuals were not marginal, but actually in power. (“Introduction” x)

Fisher’s statement shows that scholarship is tied as much to the time in which it is practiced as it is about the time that it addresses; if scholars fail to reflect on their own positionality, the outcome of their work may be easily marked by - more or less subtle - ideologically motivated simplifications of their subject matter. Crispin Gill, for instance, sees in the study of Puritanism and, by implication, in the model of the Puritans an effective antidote to the protest movements of the 1960s in America:

In time, youth finds that its new discoveries, like sex, are not really original. There were Harvard students who, during the early days of the 1969 troubles on the campus, realized that there had been a rebellion in America before them. [...] [T]he men and women of the Mayflower have much to say to the young rebels of today. What is more, the Pilgrims were constructive rebels. They were not content with denouncing one form of society, they persevered until they had built another which did give life and reality to their ideals. (Mayflower 182)

In a somewhat similar vein, Andrew Delbanco describes the first generation Puritans as follows: “[T]he founders of New England were drop-outs - with all the indignation, idealism and wounded righteousness that the term implies” (“Introduction” xxii). Yet, whereas in 1970, Richard Reinitz could still write that “Puritanism was an English movement which became the single most influential factor in the shaping of American culture and society” (“Introduction” i), such aggrandizement was no longer acceptable in the 1980s and ‘90s. In 1984, Jan C. Dawson - following the earlier critique of the modernists and Van Wyck Brooks’s writings - declares America’s Puritan tradition “the unusable past” (cf. her book of the same title). Richard Slotkin, a representative of the Critical Myth and Symbol School, has pointed to the violence at the center of the Puritan experience in the ‘new world’ (cf. Regeneration 5). Other critics look for alternative ‘possible pasts,’ stressing the fact that the Puritans were not the only residents in North America at that time. Uhry Abrams sees the myth of the Pilgrims and the Puritans as a regional New England narrative that for a long time has erroneously dominated discussions of American beginnings by ignoring for instance the Jamestown colony, which was founded more than a decade before Bradford landed in America and more than two decades before Winthrop’s Puritans arrived there, after all (cf. Pilgrims); she thus holds that Puritanism as a paradigm in American studies scholarship not only presents a highly idealized version of American beginnings but also marginalizes other stories of American genesis. Whereas Uhry Abrams in her book of the same title rather schematically contrasts “the Pilgrims and Pocahontas,” more recent work done on early American history adopts a postcolonial studies approach and operates with the concept of “messy beginnings” (cf. Schueller and Watts’s essay collection of the same title) with a three-fold aim: first, to analyze the Puritan project beyond the rhetoric of the Promised Land as colonization, pure and simple - the Pilgrims and Puritans were part of a hierarchical settler colony and acted as colonizers upon the indigenous population; second, to draw attention to other groups in early American history and their versions of the national prehistory; third, to analyze the complicated ways in which these different groups interacted. Approaching early American history and specifically the settlements in New England from the perspective of postcolonial criticism, Schueller and Watts suggest that

the colonization of what became the United States and the formation of the nation involved a complex series of political negotiations, machinations, violent encounters, and legal maneuvers that attempted to define differences among various groups: the Puritan clergy, the emergent bourgeoisie, the white backwoodsmen, the mixed-bloods, American Indians, and African Americans. (“Introduction” 5)

Thus, the earlier scholarship of the Myth and Symbol School in its historical, cultural, and political context must from a postcolonial studies perspective inevitably come into view as part and parcel of the master narrative of white Anglo- Saxon Protestant America.

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