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.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How the Puritans Got That Way, or, Why the Separation of Church and State is a Good Idea

To understand why William Bradford and his boatload of fervent Calvinists preferred the hostile wilderness to merry olde England, we need a quick review of European religious history. Here goes.

Everyone remembers that Henry VIII needed a divorce from Katherine of Aragon, whom he had married rather hastily in 1509. By the time he divorced her in 1533, she had been pregnant six times, but only one child, a girl (Mary) survived. He needed to marry somebody who would have a son. He appealed to the Pope, who said "No." King Henry said, "Fine, we'll stop being Catholic, and therefore we won't be under your authority."

The fact that an English king could even say this owes a lot to Martin Luther, who nailed his critique of the Church to the door of Wittenburg cathedral in 1517. We are so used to Protestantism in America, that we don't realize what a huge deal this was. The Catholic church literally held the keys to Heaven and Hell -- excommunication was the ultimate threat, because it meant eternal damnation. Any time you've got that much power concentrated in one place, corruption will occur, and it did. Luther and others were chafing at the Church's greed and moral laxity.

Henry VIII was able to grab the Church's English holdings, nationalize the buildings and farms themselves, and force everyone into a new state religion because the Pope had lost influence in Europe. Henry didn't care about the threat of excommunication, because Luther had asserted that the church really couldn't damn anyone to hell. Once that threat was removed, the Pope discovered, to his horror, that he couldn't get anybody to go to England with an army and kick Henry's butt. Spain would like to have tried, but everyone knew Spain didn't have the strength. Thus the Catholic church in England became the Anglican Church, with virtually the same structure, minus the nuns. Significantly, though, the Anglican Church answered to the monarch.

This created several problems that persist into the 21st Century. Again, we need to understand how religion worked in the 16th Century, and how different it is from our own perception of it. People did not generally have the personal relationship with God that Christians today see almost as a birthright. Instead, the church, now Anglican, stood between people and God in a formal relationship. God oversaw births and marriages and deaths, and the church acted as an arm of the government, mostly keeping family records and providing appropriate ceremonies. Men went into the Anglican priesthood not because they felt called to be spiritual leaders, but because they were the younger sons of noble families and thanks to entailments, they needed money. Often these prelates would pay curates a small salary to read sermons, perform baptisms, etc, while they enjoyed the company of the nobilty and eventually married younger daughters of the upwardly mobile. (Think everything Jane Austen ever wrote. She was a HUGE critic of this whole system.)

By the end of the 16th Century, a small but vocal group wanted major change in the church. These people called themselves Puritans (because they wanted to purify the practices of the Anglicans, who had kept a lot of the Catholic liturgy, saints, and religious practice, merely translating it from Latin to English). The Puritans wanted a Biblically based government, a personal relationship with God, and social accountability. The ultimate Puritan attempt at creating a new world order in England was Oliver Cromwell's civil war in 1642. He managed to fracture English society into a million pieces, with himself at the top of the pile, but it was a short-lived victory, and the kingdom -- and the church -- reverted to monarchial control in 1660.

{Note the lovely black armor Cromwell is wearing in this painting. The Puritans disapproved of frivolous color and/or ornament, and apparently this also applied to dressing for war.}

So what's the problem with a state church? Why couldn't the Puritans do their own thing and let the church quietly continue to deteriorate? Because it's a state church, that's why. Because the tithe -- the ten percent of one's income that belongs to God -- became a tax that belonged to the state. Payment of the tithe was in addition to other taxes, and it supported immense cathedrals, parish churches, and, of course, those sons of nobles who were otherwise unemployable and a menace to society. Puritans objected strenuously to paying money to support a system that was anything but religious. The government objected to people deciding not to pay the tithe, feeling this was a bad precedent. Instant conflict.

Many Puritans went to Holland, where religious freedoms were encouraged. It says something about them, though, that they soon made themselves obnoxious to even the tolerant Dutch, and out they went -- again. America seemed like a great idea, because the natives there could be discounted as minions of Satan, and the Puritans could establish the kind of society they thought the world should have.

Obviously the whole issue is far more complicated than this, but here's enough basic history to help you understand where William Bradford is coming from as he writes about the Puritans in America. It will also help you appreciate the irony of his position -- leaving everything comfortable and familiar for a new land in which he and his could practice freedom of religion, he immediately set up a society in which freedom of religion was denied to everyone who wasn't a Puritan. The phrase "learning by doing" does not, alas, always apply.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

So, Where ARE We Starting?

The study of American Lit must, if we're being honest, begin with a caveat. We are not studying the best writers of the 17th-18th Centuries. We're studying who we've got. In comparison to anybody, including our missing native oral historians, these people suck. Is that too blunt?

Think of it this way: If your life in Europe is so bad that coming to America -- no food, no comforts, no commerce, no welcome from the natives -- seems better, then you're probably not the introspective, writing type. (Puritans were the exceptions to this, but we'll get to them later.) On top of any predisposition not to write, let's add the energy it takes to stay alive when you have to either find or make every single thing that makes life possible. You will not have a lot of time, at the end of the day, to perfect your prose.

When we look at early American literature, therefore, we aren't looking for the apex of anything. We ARE looking at what we can think of as "reality writing," kind of like reality television in 1609. It's not polished, mostly not written for public consumption, and certainly not written to contribute to prose style. In other words, don't expect too much until the end of the 17th Century, and even then, keep in mind that the writers were more interested in didacticism than in writing for its own sake, or -- Heaven forfend -- for entertainment.

William Bradford is our arbitrary starting point this semester, for a number of reasons that all end with "Because I want to." As far as I'm concerned, he's the first person writing on American soil who has a genuine sense of BEING on American soil. In Virginia, we have a collection of British citizens who are mostly concerned with making money, and their writing has a certain real-estate-advertisement quality to it. They tended to assess everything in terms of its commercial usefulness. If you don't believe me, go read John Smith, between the lines, if possible.

Bradford and his fellow Puritans, in contrast, were interested in a new world order. Their overt goal was to establish in America the kind of theocratic civilization that should have happened in Europe. A prolific writer and a keen observer, Bradford gives us the best account we've got of the struggle involved in creating a "City on a Hill" while people are actively trying to kill you, and you're starving to death. Even better, for our purposes, Bradford understood Rule One: If it's not written down, it didn't happen.

Where to Start?

If we're going to be honest, first semester American Lit begins arbitrarily. What defines literature as American? When does it start? If we're going to be all legalistic about it, and sometimes I'm tempted to do this, we'd say it starts when the Revolutionary War ends. Before that, we were just a bunch of colonies and many people considered themselves Europeans.

The trouble is, we've got roughly 200 years of writing happening on American soil before the Revolution, and a bunch of that was Puritan in origin. You can say what you like about them, but those Puritans wrote continually, often asking God how they'd sinned to deserve America. We can't ignore that, because people have been asking those questions ever since.

Then there's John Smith. I'm tossing him to the wolves this semester, because he wasn't in any sense "American," and he didn't live here very long at all. When he WAS here, he managed to piss off everyone from the Queen to the cabin boys. I don't know if that necessarily disqualifies him to write about America, but it might disqualify me when it comes to reading about it. Plus, he had a horrible tendency to, well, lie, especially in order to make himself look better. I think we can skip him.

What do we do, you might ask, with the literature of the natives? Shouldn't American literature start with the people who were living here first? Yes. It should. We have to set forth here, however, one of the important dicta of literature in general. We'll call it Rule One: If it's not written down in a form other people can recognize, it didn't happen. Perhaps a subset of the rule would read thusly: If you are going to rely on oral tradition to pass along your culture, find a way to keep somebody who speaks your language alive. Otherwise, you will suffer the fate of the people who lived in America before the Europeans got here. I'm certain that they had an elaborate and sophisticated literature, but it was oral. Thanks to the Europeans' certainty that God was not on the side of the natives, nobody made it out alive, and the oral culture was lost.

Several versions of "authentic" American Indian narratives have cropped up, but alas, all of these, and I do mean ALL of these, are suspect. Just after the Revolutionary War, some people in the new nation began to idealize the natives and, belatedly, embrace their culture. (Thank you, Rousseau.) The problem is, no reliable sources for the native oral traditions existed, so the romantics made up what they thought the stories might have been like. Often they patched together traditions from many tribes and areas, to create a pastiche of styles and stories that are to real literature what a McDonald's hamburger is to real food.

I'm being flippant here because otherwise the magnitude of the loss overwhelms me. We can imagine how creative, interesting, and educational the literature of the native Americans was, but we can't experience it, and we will never be able to. It's gone, and we who study American Literature are stuck, particularly for purposes of this semester, with the history that is written, we all know, by the winners.