Modernist Revisions: Blaming the Puritans

But Puritans, as they were called, if they were pure it was more since they had nothing in them of fulfilment than because of positive virtues. By their very emptiness they were the fiercest element in the battle to establish a European life on the New World.

William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy.

H.L. Mencken

What did the Pilgrim Fathers come for, then, when they came so gruesomely over the black sea? [...] They came largely to get away - that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves.

D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

After the Pilgrims and Puritans had been mostly celebrated as founding figures of New England since the late 18th century, had acquired mythic proportions during the revolutionary period, and had been idolized in 19th-century national discourse, they came under closer scrutiny in modernist texts. Of course, there had been quite a few critical voices earlier; during the so-called ‘American Renaissance’ (cf. F.O. Matthiessen’s 1941 book of the same title) of the 1850s - which actually was a ‘New England Renaissance,’ if anything - writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville among others were quite ambivalent about early Puritan history and mythmaking. Hawthorne most prominently scrutinizes the repressive forces of Puritan doctrine and dogma in his historical romance The Scarlet Letter (1850) and in short stories such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Maypole of Merrimount.” His introduction of the Puritan crowd at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter is revealing:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson’s lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King’s Chapel. Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. (45)

Hawthorne casts the new world utopia in a rather “gloomy” and “sad” light and throughout the text maintains an ambiguous stance toward Puritan rigor and American exceptionalism. His protagonist, Hester Prynne, is convicted of adultery and sentenced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her breast as a lasting reminder of her ‘crime.’ And yet, as Prynne gains the admiration of many community members for the dignity with which she bears her punishment (and also refuses to name her extramarital partner, a hypocritical Puritan clergyman), the narrator concedes that apparently “the scarlet letter had not done its office” (145; cf. Bercovitch, Office).

The reluctance of Hawthorne and other writers of the ‘American Renaissance’ to embrace the foundational myth of the Pilgrims and the Puritans anticipates the skepticism and disillusionment of modernist writers and critics, who thought that Puritanism wielded an immensely detrimental influence on American culture, literature, and intellectuality. From the moderns’ point of view, America’s early colonial history had been a Dark Age of fanatic religiosity from which Americans had recovered only gradually and to a limited extent, with Puritanism’s moralistic and anti-intellectual tendencies continuing to affect American cultural life. With Freudianism en vogue, critics engaged in “blaming the Puritans for the repressive tendencies in American life” (Hall, “Introduction” 1). This “Anti-Puritanism” led some intellectuals to suggest that “the central theme of Massachusetts history was the gradual emancipation of society from the authority of the ministers” (ibid. 2), a sentiment that is shared by George Santayana (cf. Genteel Tradition), Waldo Frank (cf. Our America), James Trus- low Adams (cf. Epic; Founding), and Vernon L. Parrington (cf. Main Currents). Much of American historiography in the 1920s - in stark contrast to the previous predominance of positive if not idealizing portrayals - is markedly critical of the Pilgrims and Puritans, who it either viewed as religious fanatics or as a sanctimonious plutocracy that camouflaged its interest in maintaining power under a cloak of religiosity. Hence, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not, as had previously often been suggested, the ‘cradle’ of American democracy; instead, Puritanism was criticized as inherently anti-democratic. James Truslow Adams quotes John Winthrop describing democracy as “the meanest and worst of all forms of government” (Epic 39) and stating that there “was no such government in Israel,” which for him meant that to have it in Massachusetts would be “a manifest breach of the 5th Commandment” (Founding 143). And G.P. Gooch pointedly quips that democracy may have been a child of the Reformation, yet not of the reformers (cf. History 8).

Illustration 6: Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne

The Scarlet Letter (dir. Victor Sjostrom, 1926).

James Truslow Adams in his study The Founding of New England (1921) approaches the Puritans from yet another revisionist angle. He argues that economic, not religious motives were crucial for emigration to North America. He points out the exclusivist nature of Puritan congregations, which granted church membership to only one out of five men in Massachusetts and barred all others from becoming members. Adams (among others) suggests that people continued to emigrate to America regardless of this exclusionary practice because they simply did not care about religious practice and religious orthodoxy:

They came for the simple reason that they wanted to better their condition. [...] They wanted to own land; and it was this last motive, perhaps, which mainly had attracted those twelve thousand persons out of sixteen thousand who swelled the population of Massachusetts in 1640, but were not church members. (Founding 122)

More recently, Uhry Abrams confirms this assessment when she states that “there was far less religious or social conformity than the myths would have one believe” (Pilgrims 29).

In the field of literature, William Carlos Williams’s 1925 collection In the American Grain is a good example of the modernists’ tendency to criticize the Puritans and the New England Way as repressive. Intolerance, hypocrisy, and religion are “substitutions for life” for those who with “tight-locked hearts” (63) stressed “the spirit against the flesh” (66): “The jargon of God, which they used, was their dialect by which they kept themselves surrounded as with a palisade” (63). “They must have relied on vigorous hypocrisy to save them - which they did” (67). Williams comments on the Salem witch trials in the colony in 1692 to conclude his argument:

In fear and without guidance, really lost in the world, it is they alone who would later, at Salem, have strayed so far - morbidly seeking the flame, - that terrifying unknown image to which, like savages, they too offered sacrifices of human flesh. [...] And it is still today the Puritan who keeps his frightened grip upon the world lest it should prove him - empty. (67)

By likening Puritanism to barbarism (“like savages;” “sacrifices of human flesh”), Williams inverts the hierarchy between Puritans and Native Americans that was established in colonial discourse (civilization vs. savagery) and thus articulates the most radical critique of his time.

Modern writers and essayists thus lamented the harm that the Puritan narrative of origins had done to generations and generations of Americans. They reconfigured the Puritan master narrative of divine liberation and emancipation into one of purposeful oppression both on an individual as well as on a collective level. As a consequence, the Puritans were considered useless if not obnoxious ancestral figures for a modern, 20th-century America, which resulted in a call for disidentification and for the deconstruction of a national narrative obsessed with the Pilgrims and Puritans’ Promised Land and some rock on a beach. As early as 1918, Van Wyck Brooks’s essay “On Creating a Usable Past” argued for the creation of pasts other than the Puritan in the face of a pluralistic America - a timely call that, however, would only be heeded seriously in the second half of the 20th century.

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