The Puritan Legacy

At the heart of so many works of American history and literature is the interplay between symbol, image, and myth. American historians and writers are concerned with the origins of symbol, image, and myth, as well as the process by which they confound our sense of reality and history. In the preface to Virgin Land, Henry Nash Smith defines myth and symbol as "larger or smaller units of the same kind of thing, namely an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into an image" (Smith, xi). More importantly, myth and symbol--as well as the consequent image--constitute "collective representations," in many cases "exert[ing] a decided influence on practical affairs" (Smith, xi). In his study of the West, therefore, Smith identifies the many Western myths--the myth of the Garden, the garden as safety valve, the agrarian utopia--and also confirms their tendency to persist, despite their opposition to reality. Ronald Reagan's remarks at the opening of "The American Cowboy" exhibit at the Library of Congress in 1983 capture the essence of Smith's 260-page argument in one sentence: "Americans believed about the West not so much what was true, but what they thought ought to be true."

Reagan's assessment is true not only of the West, but of America in general. That is, Americans root their national identity "not in history but in self-told mythology" (The American Story, 5). Schematic interpretations including the "four morality tales" and the "peculiar and distinctive dialogue" aid in understanding the role of symbol, image, and myth throughout the history of the United States. But, Sacvan Bercovitch's The American Jeremiad provides an alternative which, although seemingly narrow, encompasses these approaches and others in a profound discussion of the supposed "American mission."

How have I come to the realization that The American Jeremiad is one of the most comprehensive explanations of American mythology? I reached this conclusion through an analysis of "The List" in reference to The American Jeremiad. That is, one by one, I attempted to relate the items on our list to Bercovitch's argument and, in the end, confirmed the importance of the Puritan jeremiad and the Puritan mission to American rhetoric--and American memory--in general. Bercovitch asserts in the epilogue to The American Jeremiad that the "ritual of the jeremiad bespeaks an ideological consensus--in moral, religious, economic, social, and intellectual matters--unmatched in an other modern culture" (Bercovitch, 176). Viewed in the context of the jeremiad, then, the list reveals America's concerted and constant effort to overcome adversity--to recognize corruption in a struggle to improve as a nation.

Many of the items on our list are directly addressed by Bercovitch in The American Jeremiad. Bercovitch cites Thomas Paine's "use of biblical precedents, his emphasis on providence, and...the figural blueprint he presents for American exceptionalism" in Common Sense. Furthermore, Paine makes reference to "a fallen Old World..., an Egyptian England..., and a New Canaan charged by the design of Heaven with the cause of all mankind" (Bercovitch, 121). Even the Federalist Papers embrace the Puritan cause--according to the Federalists, Americans were "already corrupt to the core," thus "the real disposition of human nature was to recognize our common misfortune" (Bercovitch, 138). Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation were likewise the products of Puritan thought. On a national fast day in 1863, Lincoln proclaimed that "the war was a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the end that the whole people might be redeemed" (Bercovitch, 174). Other items that are incorporated into Bercovitch's argument are: the Declaration of Independence, Northwest Ordinance & Ordinance of 1785 (westward expansion), the Bill of Rights, Benjamin Franklin, Trail of Tears (Andrew Jackson), Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Nathaniel Hawethorne's The Scarlet Letter, Upton Sinclair (muckraking), the Nineteenth Amendment (the feminist movement), and Frederick Jackson "Turner's Frontier Thesis of American History."

Bercovitch's argument extends through the mid-nineteenth century, while our list includes numerous works and events of the twentieth century. This does not pose a problem, though, for one can easily continue his argument and include nearly all of the items on our list. The pictures from the moon landing, for example, comply with Bercovitch's thesis in that America's exploration of the moon was part of God's plan. That is, America's ascent into space was part of its manifest destinyÑthe same manifest destiny that granted the United States ownership of the North American continent. Successful missions in space--successful missions in general--were contingent upon America's acceptance of a covenant with God. Perhaps, then, the failure of the Challenger constituted a manifestation of God's wrath?

Even in a purely secular sense, the pictures from the moon landing comply with the Puritan jeremiad. That is, generally, success can be attributed to social cohesion, self-discipline, and self-sufficiency, while failure can be linked to greed, indolence, and ignorance. Thus, American history is seen by Bercovitch as a series of lessons--Americans make mistakes, but more importantly, they learn from these mistakes. Or, in the language of the Puritans, America's acknowledgment of--or fascination with--its sins allows its people to progress toward a more perfect union with God. Thus, Rachel Carson writes Silent Spring and Tim O'Brien writes The Things They Carried, not because they have lost all faith in the United States, but because they wish to advance society through their laments. They same can be said for the majority of the items on the list, from Arthur Miller's The Crucible to the memory of the Birmingham riots to the movie Glory.

How does Bercovitch's argument encompass both the "four morality tales" and the "dialogue" theories? First, the American jeremiad can be viewed in the context of each of the morality tales. The "mob at the gate," just as the jeremiad, recognizes America as "a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness" and at the same time warns us to "be aware, lest the forces of darkness overwhelm us" (The American Story, 8). With regard to the "triumphant individual," although the Puritans are not recognized for their acceptance of individuality, that is not to say that this tale does not comply with the jeremiad. Rather, the "triumphant individual," as a member of a select society, is able to "make it on [his] own" (The American Story, 10). The third morality tale, "the benevolent community," is clearly in keeping with the Puritan tradition and John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity." In fact, the central aim of the Puritan endeavour was to achieve a society in which men not only respected and loved God, but likewise respected and loved one another. Lastly, the "rot at the top" tale is one of "corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility among the powerful"--again, Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity" advises the people to be weary of the powerful (The American Story, 12).

The "dialogue" theory pits two parties against one another in an attempt to reconcile an American identity. The "party of Hope" recognizes America as having "no past, but only a present and a future" (The American Adam, 7). On the contrary, the "party of Memory" acknowledges America's fixed legacy of corruption (The American Adam, 7). The third party, the "pary of Irony," exhibits a "tragic optimism" and "an awareness of the heightened perception and humanity which suffering made possible (The American Adam, 8). Bercovitch would contend that the two parties rarely exist apart from one another. That is, Americans are forced to contend with their past, but at the same time they are impelled to overcome their past--to be hopeful of the future. Thus, Bercovitch would maintain that American mythology is perceived within the context of this third party's beliefs.

In his Studies in Classical American Literature, D.H. Lawrence cites as the "true myth of America" that "she starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin...[a]nd there is a gradual sloughing off of the old skin, towards a new youth" (The American Adam, 1). That is, the Puritans relocated to America in the seventeenth century in an effort to rewrite history. Perceiving the Old World as a failure and the victim of God's impending wrath, the American Puritans sought a new life--one in which society collectively agreed to progress toward a perfect relationship with God and with one another. But, the Puritans could not erase the past. Rather, they contended with it, as well as their own failures, through the rhetoric of the jeremiad. Thus, the rhetoric of the jeremiad established not the Puritan mission, but the American mission. Generations after the Puritan theocracy has vanished, the American jeremiad continues "to impose metaphor upon reality" (Bercovitch, 62).

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