Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Confessions of an Emily Dickinson Hater

It is with extreme reluctance that I confess to a deep and abiding dislike of Emily Dickinson's poetry. I know that it's considered the best thing since movable type. I know that our very own textbook says, and I quote, "Her poems shed the unmistakable light of greatness." I know that as a teacher of literature I'm supposed to oooh and ahhh and marvel at her origniality in using dashes instead of punctuation and capitalizing weirdly.

I can't do it.

Where other people see a mysterious recluse, abiding by the rules of her own genius, I see a drama queen, hiding behind doors because she has realized that the best way to get lots of attention is to be hysterical most of the time. Her publisher, Thomas Higginson, met her in person twice, and afterward said he thanked God he didn't have to do it more often.

Emily took a toll on people. Her letters, such of them that survive, are punctuated with the same dashes as her verse, and they give her a breathless, schoolgirl quality. She doesn't speak directly, but in a series of ellipses, designed to convey that she feels something very powerfully, but declines to specify what. No wonder she became the darling of postmodernism; she could be saying anything.

And then there's the matter of slant rhyme. When the late Julia A. Moore used it, people rightly decided that she had a tin ear. When Emily Dickinson does it, it's genius. The only difference I can see is that Emily chooses better subject matter.

Here's the crux of my belief about Emily Dickinson. I think that her poems were "discovered" at exactly the right time. Her idiosyncratic style fit perfectly with the 20th Century's rejection of traditional poetic forms. Furthermore, since she was dead and was not, even when alive, all that communicative about her poetry, people could read into it, and her, whatever they wanted. Her singular lack of metric variation, her slant rhyme, her missing punctuation, could all be marks of genius, or they could be personal tics. We'll never know.

Yes, her poems are short. Yes, they're unconventional (for a given value of unconventional). Yes, her images are usually clear. Yes, she occasionally creates a striking phrase. I dont' care. I've tried to care, and I can't. You can sing most of her poems to the tune of the theme song for Gilligan's Island. She is as preoccupied with death as E.A. Poe, and as narrow as Anne Bradstreet, possibly even narrower. She wades in pools of grief and enjoys the expression of agony on other people's faces. She feels funerals in her brain, hears flies buzzing when she dies, and goes for buggy rides with Death. Frost beheads playful flowers, houses bustle when someone dies, and brains run smoothly in their grooves. She could be Ezra Pound's mother.

Naturally, I do not wish, by so exposing my own bias, to discourage anyone from going into transports of delight at Dickinson's poetry and strewing boquets about. The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste, and as E.D. herself said, "I taste a liquor never brewed." I don't think we mean the same thing.

In the interest of fair play, here is a blogger who has brought Emily into a different, and better light, and if you want to read a positive review, check this out. You'll like it. Be advised, there's some dropping of the f-bomb in this blog, along with some other "strong" language.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Civil Disobedience?

And just like this poor feline, most people who attempt civil disobedience in America learn that the leash is pretty strong, and so is the arm that holds it. Is that Thoreau's point in his essay "Civil Disobedience?"


Thoreau was quite unhappy about slavery and about the Mexican War. (This would be the war that "freed" Texas from Mexico. The problem wasn't exactly the war, but what kind of state Texas would be if and when it was admitted to the Union. Would it be slave or free? And what were we doing slugging it out with Mexico over Mexico's own territory? Can you just invade a sovereign nation and grab the land because you want to? Lots of people were unhappy about the Iraq --oops -- Mexican war.)

Thoreau was so unhappy, he declined to pay his taxes, for which offense he spent a night in jail. While there, he discovered that his body could be locked up, but his mind was free to ramble, and it rambled right on over to considering who has the right to tell him what to do. The government, he decided, does not have the right to govern him in ways contrary to his own conscience. It must respect him as an individual; he does not owe it respect as a government, unless it keeps its end of the bargain.

In case you purged everything that came earlier in the semester, remember that this is straight out of Rousseau, who believed that the only legitimate government is the one that supports the rights of the individual. Further, Rousseau asserted that individuals who are NOT so supported can choose to opt out of being governed. Rousseau, remember, believed that people were basically good. It was only governments that were bad. Thoreau saw the obvious problem with this and decided to say that government attracts to itself people who are not as good, as intelligent, or as "able" as most people. It's a kind of idiot farm, really. And as such, nobody has to pay any attention to it if they don't want.

Does this seem simplistic? It's a little naive, for sure, because Thoreau was operating on the basic principal that people would, left to their own devices, treat each other well and do the right things. Obviously he had never heard of Enron. And too, he was living in Concord, not in a slum in New York or Philadelphia, where he might have been less charitable about his landlord.

At any rate, he wants to refuse to support the government the only way he can, which is to withhold his taxes. Not content with that, however, he reminds his neighbors that they, too, are acting immorally when they pay taxes to a corrupt government. Further, he reminds us that merely "voting right" is slactivism of the worst kind; it does nothing to better the condition of one's fellow man. Even further, he says that in a society that imprisons men unjustly (and he implies that he was himself unjustly jailed), the only place for a truly just person is in jail right alongside them.

To "opt out" of government may seem like a great idea, but there are problems. For one, even in Thoreau's time, the taxes did more than pay for wars; they built roads, schools, and provided courts and law enforcement. In our own time, we might complain about taxes, but we do not have the money ourselves to pave our own highways, build our own schools, or hire bodyguards to replace public police.

Another problem is that governments do, in fact, offer us a kind of protection and legitimacy that we take for granted because they are invisible. We are free to travel about the world as American citizens, and if we get into trouble abroad, the embassies are there to back us up (sometimes). Not having citizenship can be a real problem -- just ask the Palestinians.

A third problem is what to do with those who decide not to be governed. Do they have to live in a special no-service area? Do they have to pay to use roads and schools? To whom do they resign, anyway: "Dear Congress, I hereby declare that you don't govern me"?

Thoreau resigned from paying the mandatory tithe in Massachusetts by saying that he does not wish to be enrolled in any organization that he never joined in the first place. It seems simple enough. It's only when we apply that idea to citizenship itself that it becomes quite a thorny issue.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Emerson and Nature

If you want to believe that Nature is sentient, and both loves and cares for humans, then it helps to live in an area like Concord, MA. The countryside there ripples in gentle folds, dotted with farms and generally prosperous. In Emerson's day, it was a bucolic paradise, close enough to Boston to attract a sophisticated population, and far enough away to be safe from the corrupting influences of civilization.
Emerson's house, The Old Manse (see the painting above), was an attractive one, large enough for his four children, plus servants, plus friends. Thoreau lived there for years, off and on. From the house, Emerson could stroll through peaceful woods and fields, where "Nature, red in tooth and claw" was rarely visible. Instead, his vision of Nature was one of peace and plenty, tamed by farms and made productive by farmers. Emerson could walk philosophically through rain and snow, knowing that his warm, snug abode lay nearby. That takes a lot of the sting out of the cold.

From this comfy position, it's possible for Emerson to write that Nature is a human being's spiritual guide, moral teacher, and source of wisdom. He can advocate contact with Nature as a cure for mental and physical disease, and can, without any sense of hypocrisy or irony, proclaim that Nature directs itself always to the good of humans, with a human-like benevolence. He doesn't mean, of course, that Nature "thinks" the way people think, but he does believe that it was designed (by exactly who or what, Emerson is vague) to benefit people.

Later in the 19th Century, people like Ambrose Bierce looked at this view of nature and scoffed mightily. They found it at best naive, and at worst, unforgiveably anthropocentric. In Emerson's world, humans are at the center of Nature, its point and focus. Nature reasons like a human, behaves like a human, and focuses creative energy on teaching humans and helping them develop sound bodies and minds. Nature functions a lot like a Boy Scout leader, to be honest. It's easy to believe in the utter goodness of Nature when one lives in Concord, and has scenes like the Old North Bridge, above, to comfort one. I still wonder, what would Emerson have thought if he'd lived in Canada and routinely been chased by mad walruses, or perhaps had his aunts nibbled by polar bears? I'm betting Nature wouldn't be so cuddly . . .
Henry David Thoreau, the Iconoclast of Concord, took Emerson at his word and set off, once, into the Maine woods, where he almost died from an overdose of Nature. The awareness that -- gasp -- Nature was indifferent to him created a crisis in his philosophy and a bit of a breach between himself and Emerson. Thoreau remained a Transcendentalist, but he backed way off from the idea that Nature is aware of humans and wants to help them. I think this is the saner, and safer, position.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Who is this man, and why is he staring off into the middle distance? It's a young-ish Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord, whose philosophy, articulated in a series of essays, spawned the movement we know as Transcendentalism. Emerson looks so calm and assured because nothing really bad ever happened to him.

Transcendentalism has its roots in Romanticism and its head in the clouds. Its heyday was from roughly 1835 to 1845, but its influence permeated the 19th Century. We can see its Romantic roots in the following tenets:

* People are basically Good.
* Nature is Good and the source of all Goodness.
* People can be perfect, and have unlimited potential.
* Individual experience is the only experience that matters.

It differed from Romanticism in that it taught that men and women were equal, and that the mind controlled the world, not the other way around.

The Transcendentalists' view of religion gave rise to Unitarianism as we know it. It differed significantly from earlier views, and was a complete rejection of Puritanical Calvinism. In short, it taught:

* God can be known, through nature and individual experience.
* God is in everyone, and everyone is in God.
* Everyone is part of a universal "over-soul" that unites all of humanity in Goodness.
* All religions hold some truth, and no one religion is right or wrong. Religion, however, is not necessary for a relationship with God.
* The Bible is unnecessary, because it is too narrow.
* Jesus is unnecessary, because people are Good and don't need a savior.
* Miracles don't happen, and never have.
* Human religious traditions are unnecessary and harmful.

Transcendentalists had a very Platonic idea of the world -- they believed that Truth existed outside our physical sphere, and could be found out there, along with idealized versions of things that our reality merely copies. Perfection could be dragged, presumably kicking and screaming, because that's always how things are dragged in literature, into reality by study, solitary contemplation of nature, and the exercise of optimism.

As a philosophy, Transcendentalism was positive and optimistic. It affirmed the worth of every person, and the dignity of humankind. As a practice, Transcendentalism, well, sucked. The 19th Century is replete with stories of communities founded to create (does this sound familiar at all?) perfect societies. The trouble was, people didn't behave in those "Good" ways that they were supposed to. It is a tribute to the firmness of the Transcendentalists' beliefs that they didn't turn cynical sooner, as one utopian community after another failed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson stands out as the primary articulator of Transcendental thought, but he had lots of company. Margaret Fuller was his co-editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, and had a very interesting literary (and personal) career. Henry David Thoreau went into the woods to find himself, and his chronicle of that experience has inspired generations of solitary thinkers and environmentalists. Bronson Alcott embodied the belief that people were Good and could have perfect societies, and even though he failed to create any, he managed to hang onto that belief. He also fathered Louisa May Alcott, whose Little Women books continue to charm their readers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Disjointed Series of Things to Think About

Okay, only for a given value of "Romantic," because we have to make certain we define it correctly, but here are some pre-test things to think about that might prove profitable on Thursday.

What makes Edgar Allan Poe "gothic" as opposed to merely another overwrought Romantic, staring down the abyss? The concept of the sublime only sort-of comes into play with Poe. I'd venture to say that none of his settings fall into the "sublime" category of nature that Romantics were so fond of, but his storms do. The thunderstorm in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is definately siblime. And, happily, it scares the mortal poo out of everyone. I digress. "Ligeia" has so many gothic elements, it's hard to list them all, but you can't go wrong with dead women, weird turreted bedrooms, Medieval wall hangings, and the suggestion of madness and decay. Don't forget ghosts, suspected vampires, and unreliable narrators.

Yet another Poe question intrigues me. He writes in the first person so that he can show the interiority of his narrators -- their emotions, thoughts, fears, and insanity -- in ways that you just can't do with an external narrator. This limits him, though, because it means that his narrators always have to survive. You know at the beginning of a first-person story that the narrator isn't going to croak at the end of it; otherwise how would that person finish the tale? Does this survival-of-the-narrator strategy hurts the overall horror factor of Poe's tales? I kind of think it does, because I'm always thinking, "If this was so scary, how did you make it out?" I suppose this is a good place to remember the differences between terror and horror.

One of the characteristics of literature of this period is its unwillingness to do all the work for the reader. The endings of everything from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to "Ligeia" leave the reader with questions. Why do these writers refuse to tie up all the loose ends, and how does that reflect the ideas of literary Romanticism?

Let's see, we might also find ourselves discussing the condition of women in the 19th Century and the things that shaped that condition -- Romanticism, Christianity, and the American legal system come to mind. How do women fare in the stories and poems we read these past few weeks? Which writers seem sympathetic to women, and which are clearly not?

Sojourner Truth can obviously be paired with Phillis Wheatley, although their lives never overlapped. The contrasts between the two are more important than the similarities, but one has to wonder what ST would have been like if she'd had Wheatley's education. Perhaps she would not have been as forceful an advocate for justice; the experience of injustice at the hands of her owners is what made her so adamant to protect others, after all. Wheatley was less an abolitionist because she had no abuse or injustice to protest. This lack of personal experience in injustice is also what kept a number of women quiet on the subject of women's rights. They were comfortable, and felt that other women's discomfort was their own fault.

One of the characteristics of Romantic literature is the unreliable narrator, or the unreliable experience. It would be helpful to think about the ways that Goodman Brown's experiences may or may not be real, and the ways the narrator in "Ligeia" might be unreliable. Come to think of it, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" may be pulling our leg, and so might "The Raven." I see a trend.

Some short takes: It's good to know the ways that the Enlightenment and Romanticism opposed one another. Situate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Fenimore Cooper in the same philosophical box, too, in their treatment of Native Americans. Women and slaves have some of the same problems, but not the same solutions.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Raving about "The Raven"

Here's an interesting thought to ponder: What if Poe was kidding when he wrote "The Raven?"

In an essay entitled "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven,'" Dennis Eddings has made a nicely substantiated case for Poe's most famous poem to have been a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the outrageous gothic poetry of his day. Eddings contends that Poe was too good a poet to make the kinds of mistakes that we see all over "The Raven."

Remember, Poe was a literary critic as well as a poet and short-story writer. He was deservedly famous for his acerbic comments about other people's work and some people read his critiques for the pleasure of his cutting remarks. He saved his particular nastiness for the group of poets who later got named -- hysterically, in every sense of the word -- the Spasmodics.

He accused this group of being overly self-absorbed, hystrionic, unreasonable, sloppy, and careless of rhythm, phrase, and tone. By the 1840's Poe was very much dissatisfied with the Romantics and particularly with Romantic poetry.

If we look at "The Raven" as a parody, some things make sense. All of the little mistakes (like uncertain rustlings of curtains and "tinkling" footsteps on carpet), become deliberate mockery of poets who got those things wrong on purpose. The progression of the narrator from merely gloomy to absolutely plunged into the depths of despair, and all this because he's talking to a bird, takes on a new, and far less sinister, meaning. The narrator is one of those ridiculous Romantics, who cannot keep himself from falling into his own navel.

Poe frequently said, in critiquing poetry toward the end of his life, that the unrestrained imagination leads to a "dead end." Eddings makes the case that, for the narrator in "The Raven," this is exactly what happens -- he gets more and more worked up by his own imagination, and winds up stuck in the dark with a talking bird. Hardly a helpful place to be.

Possibly the most conclusive evidence that Poe is satirizing Romantic poetry lies in the form of "The Raven" itself. It is exactly the same form that Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning) used in her poem "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Poe had reviewed Barrett's poetry unfavorably, so it's unlikely that he copied the poem for purposes of flattery. Instead, he seems to be doing, in "The Raven," everything that he criticized in Browning.

What did Poe say about the poem? He didn't get a chance to say, "Hey, this is satire!" because when it was published, it became a huge hit, and he never had the nerve to say, "Just kidding."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What "Gothic" Really Means

When we talk about the Romantic temperament, it isn't going to take us long to get to one of Romanticism's biggest contributions to American literature, the gothic horror story. Remember that Romanticism loves the supernatural, the sublime, and the exotic. Gothic literature can combine all of these elements into something that, well, collapses into a pond without a trace, meanwhile leaving us with our skin crawling and our heart rate elevated.

What does "gothic" mean, in this context? Originally, of course, it was a form of architecture and ornamentation, featuring flying buttresses and pointed windows with intricate stained glass in them. The actual term comes from the Goths, that Frankish tribe most notable for sacking Rome, and the architecture is a kind of misnomer; it really has little to do with the Gothic tribes. In literature, which is our area of interest, we have Horace Walpole to thank for the term and the beginning of the genre.

Walpole and The Castle of Otranto. In 1765, Walpole wrote (in England, so don't mistake him for American literature) a novel destined to become hugely popular. Its medieval setting, complete with castle, helpless females screaming in dark, vaulted cellars, and general air of creepy melancholy earned it the name "gothic." The name stuck, and thanks to the popularity of the novel, the genre flourished.

Most of this gothic fiction was bad beyond belief. The amazing ability of humans to glom onto a formula and milk it for all it's worth did not start with 1980's lawyer novels. Walpole's imitators had many elements in common, and here are a few of them. Please note how the correlate to the elements of literary Romanticism.

Ingredients of Gothic Fiction

  • exotic locations -- look for haunted moors, craggy landscapes, and lots of fog; thunderstorms are popular, too, preferably supernaturally strong ones

  • Medieval-ish settings -- castles and manor houses, often haunted, usually dark and foreboding, inhabited by people wearing old-fashioned clothing and looking deathly pale

  • helpless women -- think Kate Capshaw's character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. These women scream a lot, wear filmy nightgowns at inappropriate times, and faint inconveniently.

  • supernatural elements -- we prefer, of course, the spirits of the vengeful dead, but any spirits will do. Don't forget the malevolent house, the haunted bridge, and the demonic forest.

  • Various mysterious maladies -- think bizarre inherited diseases, curses from beyond the grave, dark family secrets, and all kinds of neuroses, twitches, and nervous tics

  • Strange and terrible events -- for a given value of strange and terrible, of course. The 19th C. version of gothic horror can't match modern horror movies, but a good gothic story will suggest all kinds of torments, physical, mental, spiritual.

  • Generalized anxiety -- the reader experiences sensations of suspense and dread
Gothic Writers to Cherish When we think about the gothic form in American literature, Edgar Allan Poe is always going to be first in our brains, at least until the early 20th C. when we have H.P. Lovecraft. Poe isn't the only person in the genre, however. Most 19th Century writers experimented with gothic stories, at least a little bit. Even though they're not traditionally considered "gothic," we can see how "Young Goodman Brown," "My Kinsman Major Molineaux," and even "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" have elements of the genre. What they lack in castles they more than make up for in atmosphere.
In Europe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and even Charles Dickens contribute to the genre. If you enjoy it, you will enjoy them. Don't forget Robert Lewis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or, at the end of the 19th Century, Oscar Wilde's fabulous (and creepy) The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Thank You For Not Reading

The 19th Century brought about a flourishing of the literary arts in America, for a given value of "flourish." We have literary giants like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, who are still read because they're that good. Then we have the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. Here's a short list of people we won't be reading, and why.

James Fenimore Cooper. Mark Twain wrote (to my mind) an absolutely hilarious piece called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," that catalogues the awful inconsistencies in Cooper's writing. You should read it. What you shouldn't read is Cooper himself. Caught up in the Romantic view of native Americans, he filled his novels with noble savages who were just short of Godlike in their abilities in the natural world. The main character of his Leatherstocking series is a white man raised by Indians. This person, Natty Bummpo by name, (and yes, it is just ridiculous), has been given amazing abilities by his adopted culture. What he hasn't got is a lick of consistency. He talks like a Boston brahmin in one sentence and like an ignorant redneck in the next. Cooper had a tin ear. I know there's a Fenimore Cooper society out there, but I won't be joining.

Herman Melville. I confess that I actually like Moby Dick, but that's because I enjoy digressions and description. Read Moby Dick and you could probably run a whaling ship yourself. The trouble with Melville is that he's inconsistent. Sometimes he rises to amazing heights of insight, as he does with Captain Ahab. Other times, he wallows in pathos, writes awkwardly, and forgets what he's doing. I put "Bartleby the Scrivener" on the same plane as Charlotte Temple. Melville matters, though, in who he influences. His picaresque novels inspire a whole generation of writers like, well, Mark Twain, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, and their ilk.

Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mrs. Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, was a 19th Century blockbuster, and on the positive side, it brought to light the appalling conditions that slaves and their families faced. It humanized the slaves by showing whites that slaves had emotions that were just like white emotions. This came as a shock to some people, even in the North. The problem is that, on the negative side, the novel is both polemic and sentimental. Stowe also couldn't sustain the effort, and nothing else she wrote reached the pinnacle (if that's what it was) of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Oh, and she wrote in dialect, and did it better than Fenimore Coooper, although a ten-year-old would've been better than Cooper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Welcome to Romanticism!

The second weirdest thing to come out of Geneva after John Calvin was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We might think of him as the anti-Calvin.

Rousseau's life, spanning the years 1712-1778, was marked with controversy, both because of his philosophy and because he was apparently a really annoying person. In addition to fathering a tribe of illegitimate children for whom he took no responsibility, he quarreled with everybody, even people who agreed with him, sort of like Thomas Paine with better brains.

The Short Course in Rousseau looks like this:
  • Modern civilization is bad for people. It makes them soft, lazy, and unnatural.
  • People in their natural, uncivilized state, are inherently noble, for a given value of noble.
  • All natural appetites and impulses are good and healthy. Attempts to stifle these by "civilizing" are unhealthy and anti-human.
  • The only legitimate government is one that has the universal approval of the governed, acting according to their aggregate wishes. (And what planet was Rousseau on where this is even slightly likely?)
  • The truly noble, honest human is the savage, whose life has not been blighted by European culture.
  • Studying the arts and sciences just produces more culture, which creates weak people.
You can readily see that this is an antithetical reaction to the Enlightenment, with its glorification of science and reason, and its split of body and soul. Not only did Rousseau advocate a "whole" person, but that person was inherently good -- it was society that was bad. (The idea that good humans created this bad society is one that Rousseau comes back to again and again, but never really solves.) This good person flies in the face of Calvinist and Catholic teaching about original sin, and so, Rousseau spends much of his life in conflict with major religious forces.

Rousseau's philosophy increases in popularity after his death, and will inform much of American literature in the first half of the 19th Century. The concept of the noble savage is his, and it creates a renewed interest in the Native Americans, who are in short supply on the east coast of America and therefore safe to idealize. (Nobody suggests that those savages bashing brains on the frontier are noble. They must have been "civilized.") Literary romanticism, with its idealization of the natural world, the natural man, and raw, unfiltered emotions, comes straight from Rousseau. It will lead everywhere from Poe to Whitman, so buckle up.

Rousseau's major works include his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, (1750), wherein he explained how the study of arts and sciences perpetuates the corrupting influence of modern society. Anything that could remotely be labeled "cultural" was helping to perpetuate oppression of the individual. The notable exception to this was music, which Rousseau loved, performed, and wrote.

The Social Contract (1762) described the problem of government: we need to be organized somehow, but most of the ways to do it (monarchy for example) are wrong. Government needs to reflect the will of the people, banding together for the common good. Any person who wants can opt out of this system and be free of the government. I over-simplify, of course, but this is the gist. Note the emphasis on the individual, for whom the state exists. This opposes the more common European scheme, where the state exists for the individual to serve.

Emile, or On Education (1762) proposed the ideal education for a young man, one that was directed by his own natural inclinations rather than by a state intent on "civilizing" him and bringing his desires and expectations into line with conventional thought. In this polemical novel, Rousseau also asserts that women exist only to serve and please men, and bear children. Goodbye Enlightenment ideas about equality.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some Things to Think About . . .

. . . if you know there's a test coming. Yes, here are some ideas that might help you think about the essay portion of next week's test. The opinions are my own, not something I want you to spout back, as you well know.

Ben Franklin and women: Of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin is the one who had the most forward-looking attitude about women. From his early Silence Dogood letters, through the "Polly Baker" satire, and all the way to his abolitionist activities at the end of the century, Franklin affirms that women have just as much ability to reason, learn, and be productive intellectuals as men have. In fact, he asserts that the reason women seem preoccupied with trivia is because they aren't encouraged to read and think and wrestle with bigger issues. Abigail Adams agrees with him; Phillis Wheatley is evidence for his point of view, and yet, the Revolution doesn't improve conditions for women at all. Why do you suppose that was?

John Locke and human worth: How can a nation that proclaims "liberty and justice for all," allow the ownership of slaves? Are the Founding Fathers being hypocritical, or expedient, or what? This is one of those questions that plagues me, because I think they really did not see Africans and women as "people" in the Lockian sense, and THAT raises a whole 'nother set of issues, doesn't it?

Slave narratives and captivity narratives -- Once again, we have similarities that, if people were paying attention, would have screamed "Slavery is wrong!" Like Mary Rowlandson and the Puritans before his time, Olaudah Equiano compares himself and his fellow slaves to the Jews in Egypt. His compares his journey to the journey of the children of Israel out of slavery and into freedom. As some people pointed out in class, it's not quite the same thing, though. Even though Equiano gains his freedom, he doesn't get to go home. His family, his culture, his whole world is gone. It would be wise to be able to compare the two genres, and contrast them, too.

Thomas Jefferson and John Locke: Go ahead. Make my day. Explain how Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is based in Locke's philosophy. This is so easy, it's like taking back the country from the British.

Jonathan Edwards and God: While we're explaining things, it might be good to think about how Jonathan Edwards, that uber-Puritan, that throwback to the austere faith of his fathers, was also a revolutionary. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is certainly a hellfire and brimstone sermon, but it's not conventionally Puritan because of the freedom of choice it offers. What does that mean, do you think? Is Edwards going soft? Is Puritanism changing? Has somebody figured out that Calvinism has huge problems? Inquiring minds want to know.

Jefferson and the aristocrats: Yes, I almost typed "Aristocats," which was a Disney movie, I think. Jefferson advoated an aristocracy of ability, not birth. What do you think he meant? I wonder what talents we need now, to create an aristocracy of merit. We tend to confuse "celebrity" with aristocracy, so we have famous people who are of absolutely no benefit to society. We have very talented, helpful people who cannot get anything done for our society because they aren't famous, or because their ideas are unpopular. Jefferson would, I think, be spinning in his grave if he could see who Americans venerate now. What has changed that makes us value Paris Hilton, say, as some sort of aristocrat?

Wheatley and poetry -- you'd better believe you're going to have to explain what makes her a.) neo-classical and b.) derivative.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Literary Tour -- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, MA, and you can tour his birthplace. Normally I think the "birthplace" tours are stupid. I mean, what possible influence can a place of birth have on a writer, unless that writer is born, say, on the back seat of a Greyhound bus, or in a royal bed somewhere. What does it matter?

In Hawthorne's case, though, I have to make an exception. His great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, was one of the Puritans to come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony after the first wave of colonists. He quickly became a judge in Salem, and if the Puritans had been given to levity at all, his name would have been Hanging Bill. He was widely known for the harsh penalties he doled out. His son, John, was one of the judges in the witch trials, and not surprisingly, given who his father was, the only judge who never repented of his actions. Not a snuggly family.

By the time Nathaniel's father, Nathaniel Sr., came along, the family was in rather reduced circumstances, and Nathaniel Sr. was the captain of a merchant ship. He died in Suriname when his son was quite young, and from then on, the family lived in a variety of places in New England, with a variety of relatives. None of them stuck in Nathaniel's mind quite like Salem.

When he was in his twenties, Hawthorne added the "w" to his name for reasons he declined to specify, at least anywhere we can find them. Most people feel he was trying to distance himself from his Puritan ancestors and their harsh ideas about justice. If this was the case, he certainly didn't avoid the topic of Salem, Puritanical hypocrisy, or injustice masquerading as morality. Most of his short stories and novels deal with some form of those topics.

A lot of high school students have to read The Scarlet Letter, and because they are young and (we hope) haven't had much experience of a.) adultery, b.) Puritans, and c.) subtle psychological torture, they miss most of the fine points. The short story "Young Goodman Brown," also a high school favorite, shares many of these same components, with a large dollop of allegory thrown in for free. Hawthorne was very gifted at subtle plot gestures, which is why people still read him.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Second Question from Boston

This one's going to be fun. Imagine that we are building a library NOW for people to use to educate themselves. Nominate a book for this library and explain why it should be included. If someone who posted before you chooses "your" book, then choose another one. It can be a book from anywhere, any time period, including our own. And, just to steal everyone's thunder, I'm going to go first. Bwahahahahaha.

Wrestling With the Big Conundrum

. . . Which sounds a bit unnerving, but oh, well. Here's some more food for thought, but it's not Thursday's Question, yet. It's kind of hard not to notice that just about every writer that we study, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson, is a New Englander, either by birth or by virtue of moving here shortly thereafter. What gives?

I have some theories, but that's all they are. I think the first one goes back to the Puritans' love for education and their need for an educated clergy. They didn't just let anybody preach who might have felt led to do so. Preachers had to have a college education, so they could rightly instruct the flock. As a matter of fact, one popular speaker at Old North Church (Second Church) was denied the pulpit because he had not been sufficiently educated.

These people founded Harvard, remember, when they were still swatting Native Americans with one hand and starving with the other. I don't think that education equals writing NOW, but it surely did then, and the New Englanders had the possibly correct view that before you could spill wisdom OUT of your brain, you had to put some IN.

In any event, there's an amazing group of writers I can find here in Boston and the nearby areas. In addition to our Revolutionaries, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton, we will later find Nathaniel Hawthorne (a descendant of one of the Salem judges), Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May, Ralph W. Emerson in Concord, and his friend Henry David Thoreau. When we expand our writers to the Northeast, it includes almost everybody -- Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Washington Irving. The only person south of the Mason-Dixon Line is Edgar Allan Poe.

While I think the Harvard influence accounts for some of it, I suspect that the focus of attention in the southern states was different. For one thing, the communities south of Philadelphia were smaller (with the exception of Charleston, SC), and more agricultural. For another, people weren't as likely to be educated, or to own many books beside the Bible. Obviously there were exceptions, particularly in Virginia and South Carolina, but the general thrust of intellectual life in the south is not literary.

And there's this. If you're going to enslave people, you can't think about it too much. Slavery becomes a deterrent to intellectual growth, and that includes writing and literary effort, because it is very hard to support the inhumane treatment of humans, if one spends any time at all thinking about it. The northern colonies relinquished slavery pretty quickly, in part, at least, because they didn't have huge farms that needed armies of farmworkers. The south felt that it couldn't let go of the free labor. I'm not saying this was the only literary difference, but it has to be on the table.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Adams' Library and other Curiosities

The main reading room at the Boston Public Library may be the most wonderful space for study that I've ever seen. I'm stunned that I'm not still there. . . Once again, this is not my photo. I brought my digital camera and forgot the cable that attaches to the computer. Sigh. My pics will show up eventually.

The thing that took me to the BPL is that it houses 2,700 volumes of John Adams' 3,500 volume personal library. Mind you, it's not the easiest thing in the world to find. It's on the third floor in the Rare Book and Manuscript Room, a beautifully appointed space at the end of a maze of seemingly dead-end corridors and tatty storage areas. Odd beyond odd.

Why is Adams' library so important? Because information is important, that's why, and in Adams' day, books were the only avenue to much of that information. We are so used to multiple channels of learning -- texts, video, Internet, even teachers -- we forget that in the 18th Century, if you wanted to learn about anything, you needed a book. Since lending libraries wouldn't be around for another 200 years, you needed to OWN the book, or have access to someone willing to loan you such a valuable thing.

Books, even those published in America, were expensive to produce. People didn't waste publishing resources on trivia, so you would not see copies of, say, Lusty Witches of Salem. What almost every household did have was a Bible, and often some books of sermons, and maybe a translation of a Latin rhetorician, to teach logic. After that, the more wealthy households would have books of poetry from England and France, works of major Roman thinkers like Cicero and Cato, and sometimes the philosophical volumes of Rousseau, Locke, and Kant.

Reading these works would be an education in itself, and true education was impossible without access to books. This is why Benjamin Franklin's ready access to a library is so important. He needs to know so many things, and books are his only avenue for finding them. Remember, his father didn't keep him in school, so he absolutely had to self-educate.

Adams, being a lawyer, had a somewhat specialized library of law books, many of whom he bought from the estate of his foremost law professor. He also had some amazingly interesting books that he commented on extensively in the margins. The surprising member of this collection? A very heavily annotated copy of An Historical and Moral View of the Progress of the French Revolution, by Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Wallstonecraft (later) Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein. That Adams owned and extensively used this volume is astounding, given Wallstonecraft's well-known assertions that women were intellectually equal to men and should be given equal education and civil rights.

I would like to see what Adams wrote in the margins of this book, but I lack the nerve. Anyone at all can request access to Adam's books; you only have to know the name of the book and have a plausible reason for wanting to study it. If it's not out touring as part of an exhibit, the staff will bring it to you in a small reading room, and keep a beady eye on you while you use it. I couldn't bring myself to do this, because curiosity isn't a good enough reason to be allowed to handle a book, and I wasn't really going to lie about being an Adams' scholar.

Monday, October 5, 2009

First Question From Boston

Let's have a discussion over time and space, shall we? Two questions are burning through my brain as I try to navigate Boston (and BTW, a 350-year-old city and cars are a bad mix. I'm so glad we didn't try to rent one, but it does leave us at the mercy of cabdrivers. I digress.)

My first question occurs as I look at the neighborhood where Phillis Wheatley grew up, and where her statue is. (This is NOT my photo. Yet.) Was it exploitative of her "family" to give her a classical education and then publish her poetry as an African muse? True, they didn't make money from the transaction, but does that make it okay? If it is, why? If it's not, why?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More Books We Will Not Read -- If We Have Good Sense

The 18th C. in America sees the rise of writing as entertainment, not just a means of expressing religious or political views. True, most of this writing still has a didactic purpose, but it's a lot more creative than it used to be. At the absolute top of the writing pile, we have Benjamin Franklin, whose lucid prose makes him still a delight to read. At the bottom of the pile, we have a whole scrum of writers you've never heard of, and with good reason. They're awful. Here are a few of them.

Ebenezer Cook -- poet, sort of. His book-length poem satirized the colonists for being, in the words of Swift, "nasty, brutish, and short." The book was called The Sot-Weed Factor, and might possibly be the first treatise that blames tobacco for everything.

Thomas Godfrey -- playwright, alas. His play, The Prince of Parthia, has been hailed as the first drama in America. He modeled it on Shakespeare, but had none of the Bard's talent, so, alas, it is putrid.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge -- novelist, in the worst way. Brackenridge considered himself a poet, dramatist, novelist, lawyer, and judge. We will hope that he was better in the latter professions than he was in the former. His novel, Modern Chivalry ran to four volumes, and has been read by a total of six graduate students since. All of them renounced academe and became sports-management consultants. (This would be him, at right.)

Joel Barlow -- poet, doubtful. Horrible, horrible poet. His The Columbiad was considered awful in its own day, even, and proves that long poems featuring Christopher Columbus are usually a mistake.

Royall Tyler -- playwright and actor, responsible for the bad reputations of both. His propagandistic play, The Contrast, did okay for the time, but now is widely considered unreadable. Tyler was apparently too busy seducing the wives, daughters, sisters, and friends of his associates to spend much time writing. He was attracted to John and Abigail Adams' daughter, and they acted swiftly to boot him from their company.

Susanna Rowson -- novelist, the same way Jonathan Edwards is a comedian. An actress, writer, and later schoolmistress, Rowson felt her novel, Charlotte Temple, would protect young women from giving in to the blandishments of people like Royall Tyler. The book features a young woman who, seduced and abandoned by a jerk, dies in disgrace and poverty. Naturally, this was a huge best seller. For YEARS. Go figure.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Brief History of the Revolution

So you think you know what moved America from being a British outpost to being a nation in its own right? Check your facts against our Highly Selective Satirical History. And remember, more good revolutions are won with the pen than with the sword.

1754-63 The French and Indian War. England and France have been at war for 1200 years, but this time they got smart and decided not to fight it on their own soils. A young George Washington is less than stellar in this series of bloody skirmishes.

1760 King George III crowned. Just because you’re born in a royal bed doesn’t mean you’ve got good sense. He wound up talking to trees.

1765 The Stamp Act and the Quartering Act piss off the colonies. Quartering is particularly abominable, because nobody wants a houseful of rambunctious, hungry soldiers . . .

1768 . . . who arrive in Boston because Parliament has heard that its taxes are unpopular . . .

1770 . . . and kill people because they don't have anything else to do. The Boston Massacre is proof that armies need to be kept busy, or they'll get into trouble.

1773 The Sons of Liberty throw tea in Boston Harbor as a gesture of defiance. People start drinking bergamot tea, which is a gesture of gastronomic stupidity.

1774 First Continental Congress meets, and meets, and meets.

1775 The Second Continental Congress meets and eventually adopts the Declaration of Independence, which is Thomas Jefferson sounding more like John Locke than John Locke. War breaks out, more or less.

1778 The French, seeing an opportunity to REALLY get even with England over the whole F&I war, support the rebellion, pretty much guaranteeing a win.

1781 Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, stunning the British, who declared early that it would all be over by teatime, Christmas at the latest.

1783 The Treaty of Paris – America is a nation, and Britain is broke.

1787 The Constitutional Convention finally creates a government. For several years, we were running on adrenaline, apparently.
And these uniforms don't look silly at all. As a matter of fact, the red ones are just perfect for fighting in a wilderness setting.
The writers of the Revolution -- Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine -- were men of passionate rhetoric and (except for Paine) remarkable intelligence and diplomacy.
The post-revolutionary writers, architects of the new government -- James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton -- were a lot duller, but necessary. If Thomas Paine wrote the constitution, Ron Paul would have been canonized by now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Perfection in Thirteen Steps

Benjamin Franklin may be the closest we get to a national saint, which is a little strange, because he wasn't all that saintly. He WAS, however, immensely likeable and his vast literary output is the first widely-read American literature that wasn't primarily religious.

Another of Locke's disciples, Franklin decided that perfection is attainable, and he set out to attain it. In his characteristic fashion, what he did was create a list of virtues and then a weekly schedule by which he practiced them. If he weren't Ben Franklin, we might think he was OCD.

Anyway, if you're determined to achieve moral perfection, here's Ben's list. Devote a week to each one, in turn, until they become habits. Watch out, though. Ben warns that if you have any success at all, you will screw up number 13 and be proud of your humility.

1. Temperance:. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. Frugality. make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Okay, I hate to admit this, because it's like admitting to enjoying Brussels sprouts and oatmeal (which I DO actually like), but I'm quite fond of Jonathan Edwards. I think we misunderstand his intentions in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and Edwards, the man, just fascinates me. Really.

Here's another Puritan upstart, like Cotton Mather, who matriculates at an appallingly young age. He read, and understood, John Locke at 14. Most of us have just about figured out how to tie our shoes by then. He believed passionately in a loving God, and unlike his Puritan brethren, he was overtly evangelical. In other words, he wasn't buying this strictly deterministic view of the world, thanks to Locke. He treated his wife with outstanding tenderness and respect, in ways that were very uncharacteristic for the time. In fact, much of his work indicates that he felt women were intellectually and spiritually equal to men, and he often studied the women of the Bible as worthy examples of faith and practice. Finally, when he lost his church at Northampton, he went off to Stockbridge to be a missionary to the natives, a hardship post that he accepted with humility and grace. He almost made president of Yale, except that his smallpox vaccine went bad and killed him.
On the negative side, he did not understand the meaning of the word "compromise," and he struggled with a working definition of "tact." He so loathed the Halfway Covenant that he smashed his own reputation trying to abolish it, and his unswerving devotion to other people's holiness split the Presbyterian Church right down the middle for a while. (Yes, by this time the Puritans had morphed into Presbyterians, mostly, with a side order of Congregationalists.)
As a writer, Edwards takes after Locke in many ways. He is clear and direct. (Really, he is. It's just our unfamiliarity with 18th Century formal English that makes him seem difficult.) He relies on reason (Locke again), not emotion, most of the time. He always knows what he wants his writing to accomplish. It makes sense, which is very Lockian. A lot of his writing is still in use in seminaries and philosophy departments.
Keep in mind, as you read "Sinners," that Edwards is trying to wake up a church that has become complacent and spiritually dull. Yes, he describes God as a vengeful deity who would be completely within His rights to roast every human in hell, but at the end, he emphasizes God's love and grace as free to all who want it. (And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a HUGE departure from the strict predestination of the Puritans.) A fascinating man, and the first American philosopher and intellectual that I can stand. Cotton and Increase Mather just don't count. Sorry.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Moving On to Enlightenment and Awakening

As we leave the seventeenth century behind, let's not make the mistake of thinking that American literature, or history, for that matter, comes in neat historical boxes. The era of Puritan thought did not, by any means, end when Cotton Mather died in 1728, nor did the Enlightenment in American begin in 1700. Eras, philosophies, and relationships intertwine in a most disorderly fashion. Get used to it.

In 17th Century Europe, philosophers realized that Galileo was right about the universe. It did seem to be governed by "natural" laws that did not require supernatural intervention. Even though this was not called the Age of Enlightenment until the 1770's, my own personal date for its beginning is with René Descartes and the publication of his Principles of Philosophy in 1644.

The short-short version of Cartesian philosophy is this: People can use reason -- the ability to think about things -- to learn truth. Aristotle had asserted that experience was the only valid teacher, and all truth could be derived from it. Descartes said that some things were accessible only through reason, but they are still true. He also affirmed that natural laws could govern the world without help from supernatural sources. Finally, Descartes is responsible for the "mind-body split" that divides the world into material objects and the mind that thinks about them. "Mind," for Descartes, is close to being what "God" is to William Bradford.

In the Cartesian universe, everything has been wound up, presumably by God, and set in motion according to natural laws. Within that system, people have about as much free will as they have under John Calvin's predestination, but it's going to open the door for Deism, later. Oh, how nervous this made the Puritans. So, they ignored Descartes, and hoped he'd go away.

John Locke, the most important British philosopher ever, was impossible to ignore. His ideas fueled the American and the French revolutions, and still resonate with us today. They underlie our government, and were largely responsible for the shift away from Aristotelian logic.

Locke's philosophy, like that of Descartes, can't be compressed very easily into little digestible bits. But that's not going to stop me from trying. Just remember that this is "Locke Light." The real thing is a lot more complicated.

Locke was a utilitarian; he defined the "moral" thing as that which would do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Many governments operate on this principle, and it beats the heck out of governments who only want to do good to the six guys who have all the power. Next, Locke explained that all men (not women, yet), in their "natural" state, are equal. In other words, all this "blue-blood" stuff about aristocrats being a higher order of human is just wishful thinking. Bad news for monarchs, who made a good living by convincing people that they were special and should not be messed with.

These equal men have the natural right to own property. Men have other natural rights -- life, freedom, and health. Sound familiar? It should. A just government, Locke said, is one that supports these natural rights and then gets out of the way.
To support the idea of natural rights, which people are born with, Locke goes into a complex argument about where they come from. It doesn't involve God, but instead affirms the inherent worth of human beings, thereby opening the door for later Humanists. Locke's idea, which now pretty much permeates Western thought, is that humans are born as blank slates (his literal tabula rasa), onto which experience and reason write character, personality, and life choices. This is much more appealing than the Puritan idea that humans are born as disgusting, sinful beings, destined for hell, so, naturally, it caught on.
Weirdly enough, Locke profoundly influenced a man with whom he otherwise had little in common -- the architect of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards still believed in original sin, but he couldn't quite lose the idea that Locke was right -- people are made, not born.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some Test Review Hints

Here, faithful blog followers, is a small reward. Thinking about these questions will help you immensely on the test tomorrow, AND give us a jumping-off place for some discussion later. I'm not giving you "right" answers here, but rather my own ideas on the subject. Yours should be different. (Remember, I am not interested in hearing from you what I already think. I want to know what YOU think, and why.)

Troubling Question #1: Why did the Puritans' "City on a Hill" go down the tubes?

There are lots of good ways to answer this, and most of them have to end somewhere around the "nobody's perfect" statement. It's hard to create a perfect society with imperfect humans. One answer has to come, though, from Christianity itself. Can anybody show me any place in the New Testament, where God tells Christians to separate themselves from the world and set up a government? I thought not. A religion that concerns itself primarily with the relationship of individuals to God is not going to make a good framework for a theocracy. Plus, have you ever noticed that in theocratic governments, it's always some human calling the shots?

Troubling Question #2: Why did William Bradford hate Thomas Morton so much?

Again, this can go a lot of ways, but we do have to consider how this relates to the "City on a Hill." If you are going to establish a Perfect Society, it helps if everybody's on the same page about what that is. Imagine how angry Bradford must have been when he saw Morton throwing parties and consorting with natives and (shudder) dancing. We just can't have a perfect City on a Hill with him whooping it up next door. Worse, people were starting to look at the activities at Merrymount and think, "Hmmm, that looks like more fun than listening to five sermons a week." Obviously, Morton has to go.

Troubling Question #3: What role does humility play in Puritan literature?

Most of the virtues practiced by the Puritans would be considered legalistic in even the most conservative churches today, but humility is one they got right. When we read Bradford and Anne Bradstreet, and even Mary Rowlandson, the striking thing we see is each writer's humility before God and before other people. Bradstreet, who clearly has a poetic gift, doesn't brag about it, and did not consent to the publication of her work. Rowlandson, who has been dragged into the wilderness and suffered atrocious treatment, says it's no more than she deserves. Bradford is so humble, he never even mentions himself by name in his history of Plymouth. More deeply, no Puritan writer will ever blame God for his or her difficulties, despite believing that both good and evil come from God. Why? Because the Puritans recognized that God's ways are not their ways, and God's thoughts are not their thoughts. They did not feel that God owed them an explanation, nor did He have to justify Himself to them. Who were they to call God on the carpet?

Troubling Question #4: What was Cotton Mather thinking when he said, "If a drop of Innocent Blood should be shed in the prosecution of the Witchcrafts among us, how unhappy are we! . . . But on the other side, if the storm of justice do now fall only on the heads of those guilty, Witches and Wretches which have defiled our land, How Happy!"

Cotton Mather has always bothered me. His writing borders on incomprehensible in places, and when we CAN comprehend it, we often wish we didn't. I have to keep reminding myself that belief in witchcraft and in supernatural explanations for natural things was not just common -- it was the default belief. It still troubles me that he could believe people like George Burroughs and Rebecca Nurse guilty of malevolence, based on nothing more than dreams and visions. The trouble with this kind of thing is that we're always ready to believe evil of people we don't like and disagree with, even now. Sigh.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Spectral Evidence -- Well, It Sure Looked Like You

The Mathers, Cotton and Increase, are particularly vexed by something called "spectral evidence." What in the world is that?

It's when someone sees the "spectre," or apparition, of another person, doing some evil act. The actual person can be miles away at the time, but witches were believed to lend the devil their bodily form, and further, people believed that the devil could not assume their appearances unless they gave permission.

This is how people could be convicted of acts of witchcraft despite being able to prove that they were nowhere near the scene of the acts. Their "spectres" were there, and that was enough. Sometimes these spectres showed up in other people's dreams, and this was also admissable as evidence. A huge number of the accused in Salem were imprisoned on the basis of spectral evidence, against which there was no defense. If someone says they saw your apparition doing something evil, you would not be able to prove that it wasn't.

Increase Mather was so deeply troubled by the abuses inherent in this, that he wrote a letter urging judges to admit spectral evidence only as support for stronger, empirical evidence. By itself, Mather decreed, the evidence was worthless. The devil could certainly assume the form of an innocent person as well as a guilty one, and therefore innocent Christians would suffer.

The end of spectral evidence put an end to the witch trials. It seems that actual, physical proof wasn't thick on the ground, and in the years following, judges like Samuel Sewell would repent of their use of it.

A Solution for Social Ills -- Hang the Witches!

Imagine you are a Puritan living in Massachusetts at the end of the 17th Century. You are majorly bummed, because your colony has lost its charter (which means even Quakers can vote), you're being attacked by Indians regularly, and people just aren't as pious as they used to be. To make matters worse, your daughter has been having fits -- fainting, screaming, crawling around on the floor. What the devil is going on?
In one of her more lucid moments, the kid tells you that she's bewitched, and that her tormentor is none other than the pastor's servant, Tituba. The light comes on! That's what's wrong with the world -- there are witches among us! If we just get rid of them, then we'll get our charter back, the Indians will leave us alone, and possibly the Quakers will all evaporate, too.
Okay, so it's not this cut-and-dried. Before we make fun of the Salem judges, and the people who allowed the trials to happen, we have to really imagine that we're Puritans in 17th C. New England. First of all, like nearly every educated person in America and Europe, we believe that witches exist. We also believe strongly in spiritual warfare, and we know that the devil walks among us. We also know that every year sees outbreaks of witchcraft in Europe, and recently in Sweden hundreds of people have been arrested for it. (If you thought this was a Monty Python-esque medieval issue, you're off by several hundred years.)
Second, we have zero outlets for adolescent angst, and have been having regular trouble with teenaged girls. Boys are no problem, because they are allowed to go outside the house and work -- hard -- with tools and guns. Girls must focus their energies on sewing and baking, neither of which use up much of their imagination or physical strength.
Thirdly, we believe that the invisible, spiritual world is as real as the material world, and can directly influence it. We are worried by Descartes, who has said that natural phenomena have natural causes, and have embraced Newton, because we regard gravity as a supernatural force. We are not stupid; we have a particular world view that says that evil can intervene directly in the lives of humans, and that people can wholly give themselves over to it. Is that wrong?
Cotton Mather has gotten a bad rap when it comes to the witch trials -- yes, he was a credulous, pompous, bombastic, uber-Puritan. In his defense, though, he urged caution in believing the afflicted, when they named others as witches, and he ultimately decided spectral evidence was inaccurate. He was also an empiricist, a member of the Royal Society, and responsible for smallpox innoculations in Boston and the surrounding area.
Like most people, he's complex. Too bad he can't write for squat. His prose is full of quotations from Greek and Latin, and his phrases and word choices all have an ornate, Latinate flair. Even people in his own time found him hard to follow, and subsequent generations find him almost unreadable. His Magnalia Christi Americana, however, influenced people from Benjamin Franklin to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it still has a lot to tell us about those early Puritans in America.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Captivity Narratives

One of the little-known secrets of American history is the popularity of kidnapping as a fund-raiser for native tribes, particularly in New England. About 1,500 people were taken captive in the years between 1675 and 1750. Most of them vanished, but about 300 were ransomed, often for goods that included arms and ammunition. Talk about counterproductive.

Kidnapping highlights another of the huge cultural differences between the natives and the colonists. Taking civilian prisoners was a common practice among American tribes. In addition to other advantages, it kept the gene pool from getting too stagnant. It replenished the tribal numbers that dropped because of frequent skirmishes. It even served as a kind of economy, because captives became slaves who did the scut-work of their captors.

The colonists, on the other hand, came from a culture that never took civilian captives and regarded the practice as ungentlemanly, to say the least. It was one more example of the barbarous nature of the natives. All of a sudden, though, they found themselves bartering for their wives and children, and when those negotiations failed, the natives had no qualms about killing the captives or selling them into slavery to the French. Having your family kidnapped was a serious problem; the odds were good that you'd never see them again.

Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, a link to which can be found at the bottom of this post, was the first in a long genre of captivity narratives -- stories of the people who survived their kidnapping and returned to tell the story. These were the 17th Century equivalents of popular novels. People read them for entertainment, and they were widely disseminated. Note the date on the first page of this copy of Mrs. Rowlandson's story -- it's almost 100 years after she was captured.
The account of the brutality she suffered fueled anti-tribal sentiment for two hundred years. It reinforced the stereotypes of native Americans as vicious, savage, inhumane brutes who would kill innocent women and children without mercy. And, to be fair, they did kill, and torture, their captives without mercy. We shouldn't fall into the currently popular trap of imagining that the natives were gentle tree-huggers, pushed off the land by ruthless colonists. The natives gave as good as they got, for quite a while.
In Mary Rowlandson's case, the grievance was part of King Phillip's war -- a brief, bloody confrontation between the scattered colonial outposts and the Narrgahanset tribes whose corn they stole. (Apparently stealing from savages isn't a sin.) In retaliation for theft and the burning of crops, the Narrgahanset attacked Lancaster, MA, in the winter of 1676, killing people and burning their houses. Some twenty-four were taken captive, and among these were Rowlandson and her children.
In the course of her captivity, she suffered the death of her youngest daughter (and the wrenching abandonment of the same), malnutrition, forced marches, servitude, and torture that included everything from ashes in her eyes to being told (untruthfully) that her captors had eaten her son. On the other hand, in true Puritan fashion, she experienced this as God's just sentence on her for her sins, and felt His hand sustaining her. She sometimes experienced kindness from her captors, and was eventually restored to her husband, along with her two surviving children. (Forgive the spoiler.)
Her narrative is important to American literature because she's the first American writer to actually be considered a prose stylist. Her organization of the narrative, her reflections on the meaning of her struggle, and her unstinting portrayal of the whole eleven weeks are all done with a sophisticated sense of rhetorical purpose. No wonder she was popular long after her own time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sex and the Single Puritan

Well, actually, the single Puritan didn't have sex, or wasn't supposed to have sex, and would be in a world of hurt if he or she was discovered to be having sex while also being single. But the Puritans' view of sex within the context of marriage was surprisingly enlightened.

Read Anne Bradstreet's poems "To My Dear and Loving Husband," and "A Letter to My Husband, Absent upon Public Employment." Notice the physicality of their affection. She isn't just talking about how much she misses Simon, she's talking about how she misses his warmth, his actual body.

Would this have been shocking to a Puritan? Nope. Puritans viewed sex as a gift from God, and everybody could enjoy it all they wanted, in the context of marriage. Think of it this way, it was one fun thing they could do even in the wilderness, (although probably not on the Sabbath).

We need to understand what a radical departure this view of sex was from the tradtional Catholic view that predominated even in non-Catholic parts of Europe. This view held that sex was depraved, evil, and dirty. The only reason to ever have any was to reproduce, and even then, it was better if no one enjoyed it very much. The Puritans, on the other hand, looked at the Bible and found that God is in favor of sex. Since God created it, people should enjoy it, even women.

We are so used to our own culture's weird ways of thinking about sex that we don't understand how amazingly novel this was. Anne and Simon Bradstreet can have a really intimate marriage, and eight kids, and actually enjoy each other without feeling guilty. Not only that, but husbands who refused to perform their "conjugal duty" were apt to find themselves in trouble with the courts. We might expect that women would get punished for this, but it's amazing that men would be taken to task for "depriving their wives," as well.
This might substantially increase the appeal of Puritanism, but it does come with some major caveats. First, sex was for married people of opposite genders, only. Second, masturbation was punishable by death until 1690, and third, people who had sex outside of of marriage could look forward to a lifetime of censure and disapproval. Offspring from illicit unions also bore the brunt of the culture's displeasure.
We should not expect the Puritans to be permissive about sexuality outside of the Biblical mandates; remember how they feel about savages, Anglicans, and people who sell guns to the natives. They're' not known for being a tolerant bunch. Nonetheless, we have to give them their due in moving marital sex out of the "sinful" category. Just don't expect to read anything more graphic than Anne Bradstreet.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Books We Won't Read . . .

. . . but you should know about them anyway. Several influential texts either shaped the Puritans' worldview, or articulated that view to others. The fact that printing presses sprang up in Puritan colonies almost as fast as the first houses just goes to show how very much the Puritans valued education and literacy.
The Geneva Bible -- This translation of scripture was created by dissenters for dissenters. It was the work of John Calvin's brother-in-law, William Whittingham, and others, done in, where else? Geneva. The translators worked from Hebrew and Greek documents, bypassing the Latin that had Catholic connotations. The New Testament was finished in 1557, with the Old Testament following almost two years later. The Geneva Bible was THE popular Bible in English-speaking Europe, predating the King James by fifty years. It did not wane in popularity until the middle of the 17th Century, going through 144 editions.

The King James Bible -- Also known as the "authorized" version, this one was popular with Puritans after John Winthrop used one in 1630. It's a little surprising that a Puritan would use this version, because King James made certain that the anti-king references in the Geneva Bible were removed. A lot of the heavily Calvinist wording was changed as well. The KJV was finished about 1607 and has remained popular because of the beauty of its language. It is not, as some have suggested, the version God Himself authorized.

The Bay Psalm Book -- The work of a man named Stephen Daye, this 1640 text translates the entire book of Psalms into rhyming English. Needless to say, some of the rhymes are a little strained. The idea was to create scripture that could be sung. It was hugely popular for awhile, but then people's good taste rebelled against the forced rhymes and the detraction from the meaning of the originals.

The New England Primer -- This textbook for young children is, amazingly enough, still in print. Its first edition came out somewhere between 1687-1690, and it has gone through many editions since. The 1770 edition is considered the "best," in terms of print quality and content, but there's a lot of competition. The Primer uses images and stories from the Bible and from the natural world to teach children to read. Some of the images are pretty gory, which is probably why it's still popular. Children have a natural affinity for the bloodthirsty. In place of the usual "A is for Apple," the Primer states, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." There's also a picture of the unfortunate Uriah's wife, naked, on a rooftop, which was probably the Puritan child's equivalent to the National Geographic.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Puritans and the Children of Israel

If you have been faithfully reading the book of Exodus -- and I'm looking for the Readers' Digest Condensed Version but no luck so far -- you will see that the story of the Israelites in captivity in Egypt has some parallels with the Puritans' situation in Europe. Both groups are persecuted by powerful governments, both are led into the wilderness by God-inspired leaders, both have to suffer a time of trial and deprivation, and both have a "promised land" that is already inhabited by heathens, who will have to go.

Some differences obtain, however. The Israelites were slaves; the Puritans, freeholders. The Israelites were freed by God's direct, miraculous intervention; the Puritans used boats and charters. The Israelites rebelled against God time and time again, testing God's patience; the Puritans constantly sought God's will and struggled to stay inside it. Moses (pictured at right, about to smash the Ten Commandments on some unrighteous heads) gave the Israelites the law, which he got straight from God; the Puritans adapted existing civil law to create their own governmental system.

Nonetheless, what we will find in William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, and Mary Rowlandson, is the unwavering conviction that the Seperatists in America are God's chosen people, the New Israel, sent to take hold of the New Canaan, the promised land of America.

In 1630, the Puritan preacher John Winthrop, in talking to a boatload of Pilgrims bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously said "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken... we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God... We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going."

No pressure here.

(Essay test question: What does it mean to be "A city on a hill," and does America still consider itself one? Why or why not?)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Puritans and the Problem of Evil

If we want to understand William Bradford and the Puritans, we have to wrestle with the problem of evil. How do we reconcile the following facts?

1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is good.
3. Evil exists in the world.

The study of the problem of evil is called theodicy, and it goes back as far as human thought can be traced, so let's not expect too much of our own quick overview. In short, many modern theologians take the view that God has imposed limits on His own omnipotence in order to allow human beings to truly have free will. This means that people have the ability to make real choices, and those choices are not restricted by God in any way. Since this means that people can choose evil -- intentional, malevolent harm -- evil exists.

The Puritans weren't having any of this "God limits Himself" stuff, and they also did not believe in free will. Strict Calvinism means that people are following God's script to the letter and cannot deviate from it, even if they want to. That lead the Puritans to believe that the fourth part of the syllogism above must be:

4. God is responsible for evil as well as good.

Nevermind that this is a direct contradiction to scripture; it is the central tenet of Puritan religious thought. If evil happens, God caused it, NOT merely "allowed" it. If something evil happens to an individual -- let's say the savages murder a child -- it's because God is punishing that individual for something he or she did. This is why, when his wife is dying, Cotton Mather is downstairs in his study, asking God what he did wrong, instead of upstairs comforting her.

Other solutions for the problem of evil exist, and the thinking person has to sort it out for himself, or herself. The Puritan view is probably not your best option.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Quick Timeline

I know we've all had this in history classes, but here's a quick timeline to help you put people in perspective for this first section of AmLit. All dates are A.D.

1001 Leif Ericsson settles somewhere in America. Since the Vikings were kicking mortal hell out of everybody in Europe, no one cares much about how far away they get. Plus, the Vikings did not know Rule One.

1492 The rest of Europe catches on that there's Something Out There. Columbus mistakes the Bahamas for India.

1497-1506 Amerigo Vespucci explores Central and South America. Bad news for the natives.

1524 Giovanni Da Verrazzano explores the east coast of North America.

1565 Permanent Spanish settlement at St. Augustine in what is now Florida.

1607 John Smith and his crew of entrepreneurs establish Jamestown, England's first permanent settlement, in what is now Virginia.

1619 Slaves arrive in Jamestown from Africa. If you want to know how far slavery goes back in America, the answer is "all the way."

1620 The Puritans land at Plymouth and set up another English colonial outpost in what is now Massachusetts.

1630 The Massachusetts Bay Colony is founded by Puritans, for Puritans. John Winthrop, not William Bradford, is the first governor. Bradford was the governor of the Plymouth Colony, to the south.

1636 Puritans create Harvard College. Yes, it really is this old.

1637 Thomas Morton writes New English Caanan, complaining about the Puritans' treatment of everyone. He has also sold rifles to the natives, resulting in much colonial bloodshed.

1642 Civil war in England, as Oliver Cromwell attempts to reform everything. Ask how the Levellers fared in this bid for freedom and democracy.

1650 Anne Bradstreet writes poetry in America. You may find yourself wishing she hadn't.

1656 The Quakers show up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans are not amused, but then, they're never amused. Puritans are not big on other people's religious freedom.

1675 Mary Rowlandson is kidnapped by the natives. Her experiences will become the hugely popular Narrative of Captivity and Restoration. This year also sees the brief, bloody war between Indians and Colonists, known as King Philip's War.

1692 Strict Puritanism falters in New England, and Satan must be the culprit. The Salem witch trials begin.

1693 Cotton Mather writes his spiritual history of the Puritans in America, The Wonders of the Invisible World. This book adds fuel to the witch trials and establishes Mather as more literary than his father, Increase.

1697 Samuel Sewall confesses that his condemnation of innocent people as witches was a sin. Over a dozen jurors and judges will similarly apologize for the deaths they caused.