Sunday, November 28, 2004

No Mather How You Cut it, Bercovitch is a Bitch

Finally, finally, I finished Sacvan Bercovitch’s Puritan Origins of the American Self this morning. It is a book that I cannot promise I developed any deep understanding about. The only promise I can make is that I read whole sections without a stitch of comprehension. I know that another American studies writer (Gene Wise, I think) said that Bercovitch had been driven to write this originally as a dissertation and that he had been fortunate to have a committee and especially an advisor who had let him write it, regardless of the fact that much scholarship about Puritans had already been done. I thought of that during my many comprehension-deficit reveries as I read. What kind of a person is driven to write a book like this? Who honestly cares THAT much about this period of history?

I began to understand it in chunks. At one point near the end of chapter one, when I was just about to give up on understanding the book at all, I had an epiphany that made me go back suddenly and highlight sections because I finally understood what he was saying on “Puritanism and the Self” (about which more in a moment). Similarly, near the end, I suddenly understood that perhaps one of the main ideas of the book had more to do with historiography than with literature, and those are significant points. But still I can’t say that this book is one I’ll be citing quotations out of from memory.

Well, to begin with, Bercovitch himself says that his purpose is to “outline the process by which Puritan themes, tensions, and literary strategies were assimilated into American Romanticism,” a goal I think he lives up to, though as I said, I don’t know that he entirely sticks to literature as a form, which seems to be what he’s promising (x). Another confusing part for me is that he seems to be focusing on Cotton Mather’s biography of John Winthrop. I wondered for more than half the book, then, how Bercovitch was going to sustain a 200-page analysis of Mather’s short biography. I just didn’t understand what he was doing. I finally (embarrassingly late) understood that it was just exemplary of the points he was making. It did help incredibly that Mather’s biography was appended to the book. Though I have it in any number of American literature anthologies sitting around, I found it useful to be able to refer to it while I read. It would serve some of these other American studies texts to do the same.

Bercovitch argues about Mather’s biography that Mather compares “Winthrop to a wide range of exemplary figures, from the epic champion to the Reformation martyr,” transforming the various biographical norms “into a distinctive concept of the representative American saint” (2). Bercovitch notes that early criticism of Mather’s biography as “an exercise in filiopietism” was not correct because the portrait was not “entirely flattering” (2). Mather reveals that “the clergy had to rebuke Winthrop for excessive leniency, that he incurred grave financial debts, that many eminent persons disliked him, that his controversial policies brought him to an ‘ignominious hearing’ before a general assembly,” and that he experienced terrible self-doubt in his old age (2). So it was not a purely flattering biography; it contained valuable historical information.

However it also follows the form of biographies of medieval Saints’ lives. In fact, says Bercovitch, in his account Mather refers a number of times to Ambrose, who wrote of “the pattern of sainthood and secular authority” (6). He certainly could have influenced Mather.

Bercovitch brings up the idea of the Exemplum Fidei, which I translate to mean example of faith. At the time of the reformation, biographies were written as examples of people with faith to influence other believers or to influence others to believe, presumably. The Reformed biographies had specific characteristics that meant that their stories moved from the “individual to the universal” (8). In this kind of writing, there was a “mode of imitatio,” or imitation, “that emphasized the spirit rather than the letter of the deed.” So writing according to this pattern would emphasize “the miraculous pattern of Christ’s life unfolded in organic stages of spiritual growth” (9). These are some issues that would be considered in evaluating Mather’s biography.

Another issue to consider about the time of the Puritans I thought was interesting was the consideration of the individual. Bercovitch discusses the concept of the early production of mirrors. I have heard this before, and he brings up that “it had become fashionable to link the production of mirrors during the Renaissance with the growth of modern individualism,” which he says might be “true for the humanist Renaissance” (14). But Puritans like Richard Mather still believed that “the mirror radiated the divine image. They never sought their own reflection in it, as did Montaigne and his literary descendants [...] The Puritans felt that the less one sees oneself in that mirror, the better” (14).

Bercovitch also brings up the idea of the Auto-Machia, which has to do with the “Puritan psychology” that is concerned with the “contrast between personal responsibility and individualism” (17). According to Bercovitch, “the Puritan had to come to terms with himself,” (23) and in doing so spiritual biography was helpful as a “guide for living up to the demands of dogma (24). In a sense, the Old Testament itself “could be read as a collection of exemplary Lives, diverse enough in action, personality, and vocation to apply to any saint in age” (27).

When Mather writes of Winthrop, says Bercovitch, his artfulness lies in the fact that he can at the same time write of “the literal event, the scriptural parallel, and the christic referent” (33). So he functions on these three levels of telling the actual life story, making the reference to a biblical story, and then making the story an analog to Christ’s life. It truly is a complex and impressive achievement. Bercovitch says the process “illuminates the intricate threefold rhetorical pattern which unites all the narrative elements of the biography, the personal and biblical levels entwined in the christological” (33).

The next chapter is called “The Vision of History.” Here, Bercovitch enlarges on the idea that we see from reading colonial literature, that the Puritans believed that they were the chosen people, and they saw their plight and travails in the new world as analogous to the struggles of the Isrealites in the Old Testament. More specifically, they saw that “Every believer was a typus or figura Christi” (36). And New Testament lessons support this understanding. Bercovitch’s example is of St. Christopher, who as a martyr, “was not literary crucified” but he “carried the cross of Christ in his heart” (36). In other words, the New Testament gives examples of this figurative Biblical understanding, so it offers a precedent for us to understand these metaphoric religious writings. Bercovitch notices in this chapter, though, that once these metaphoric connections are made, the writers of the time no longer make historical connections to their past (i.e., the old world) or ostensibly to history—so this is another place in my American Studies reading where I see the origins of the American tendency to act as though we invented history here.

The next chapter is “The Elect Nation in New England.” Bercovitch brings up here the point where Mather argues that America is to be “a refuge for those whom God ‘means to save out of this generrall callamitie,’ as the ark had saved Noah from the flood, and as New Jerusalem would harbor the elect” (102). It’s a great example of the view of this new world as a chosen place.

Bercovitch makes a good point about what was happening at the time. The Europeans who had come to New England “had the failure of European Protestantism behind” them, they were “cut off from family and friends by ‘soe vast an Ocean,’” spiritually split with the Church of England, removed from the English culture. Bercovitch argues, “Granted that [their] true home was heaven, [they] still needed a federal identity” (103). So, “the New England Puritans gave America the status of visible sainthood,” which brought about “the link between New England and the American Way” and what Bercovitch called “the eschatological anthropomorphism of spiritual biography,” which resulted in the “American dream, manifest destiny, redeemer nation, and fundamentally, the American self as representative of universal birth” (108).

The next chapter, “From Hermeneutics to Symbolism” was by far the most difficult. It’s certainly not something we would pull off the shelf for pleasure reading. Here Bercovitch talks about the signification of the narrative of the new world, where the Old World was “a second Babylon” so that the New World could be considered the “universal spiritual Babylon” and the crossing of the ocean was to be like a baptism of sorts (113). There’s more in this chapter, but I found myself mostly drowning in it, utterly lost. Some of the points I did understand, though, felt a little repetitive, having to do with the idea of portraying the story of the colonies as the story of saints.

The final chapter is “The Myth of America.” I was interested to see how Bercovitch saw the difference in the way the Maryland and Virginia settlers wrote. He says “they personified the New World simultaneously as a nourishing mother and an undefiled virgin (a mixed metaphor that adds pungency to the later concept of the rape of the land)” (137). How Southern, I say. But also how appropriate, when one considered the landscape here. When Bercovitch quotes examples such as “Beauties of naked Nature,” he explains that while phrases liked that might have been seen in Elizabethan literature, they would have been “virtually unthinkable in colonial New England” since “the Puritans could be just as erotic in their imagery, but they conceived of the American paradise as the fulfillment of scripture prophecy. The Southern myth was essentially utopian” (137).

Ultimately, the Puritan sense of identity formed our “tradition of national biography” (148). Bercovitch cites Critic Daniel Boorstin’s opinion that American biography is “a cross between medieval Saints’ Lives and the Greek Legends of the Gods” (148). The idea behind this is that ever since the Revolutionary War, biographies of leaders have always been a part of a “progressing spiritual biography of America” (148). Bercovitch explains that in our biographies, the biographers’ concern with “moral character” is “Subordinated to ‘the ideal American,’ ‘the embodiment of the true spirit of the nation,’ the ‘epitome of American history,’” and so on (148). Bercovitch says this applies to biographies of all sorts, from folk heroes to political biographies. Ultimately, “they render the hero an ‘idealization of American motives,’” giving him or her “all that is most noble in the American character” (149).

Frankly, reading this chapter is enough to make one feel more than cynical about biographies. They seem little more than exercises in propaganda. Bercovitch explains, “the littera-historia serve above all to illuminate the ‘thing signified’” (150) and I am reminded of the truth about historiography, that history itself is a story that someone had to make certain decisions to tell. These ideas are important because the way we are told history as a story has a great deal to do with these myths, or what Bercovitch calls our “tradition of national biography.” He points out in his book that decisions that were made in the seventeenth century by a group of puritans inform the way we look at our sense of self now. The explanation and examples are often so arcane that I can’t connect to them, but a couple of times, I understood and saw a tiny glimpse. Bercovitch even admits that it might even have been an accident that the Puritan myth survived (184), but it is more likely it survived “by merit, because it was compelling enough in content and flexible enough in form to invite adaptation” (186). The story of the saints, the biblical stories, the way we view what is good and holy, affects the way we judge ourselves and judge others. It affects the way we view what happened in the past, and I imagine it will have something to do with what with think about things that happen in the future.

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