- America's Gothic Fiction: The Legacy of Magnalia Christi Americana
In this concise study, Dorothy Baker offers an analysis of the resonances of the Puritan providence tale in the works of Poe, Stowe, Hawthorne, Sedgwick, and Wharton. In a brief introductory chapter, Baker sketches the generic features of the Puritan providence tale, particularly as reflected in the collected tales in book six of Cotton Mather's oft-reprinted Magnalia Christi Americana. She argues that the five nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers she has chosen rework and subvert Mather's early eighteenth-century tales in various ways. In particular, they rewrite his providence tales in a gothic mode, replacing his ethos-filled authoritative voice as minister and historian with storytellers of different voices and ethos.
For those unfamiliar with the Magnalia, Baker's second chapter provides a helpful explanation of its typical and unique features. For Baker, Mather's aim as historian and providential storyteller is straightforward: to show God at work in the lives of the great and the lowly in order to reinvigorate the Calvinism of his day. Drawing on Hayden White, she distinguishes the Magnalia from the historical chronicles of Bradford and Winthrop, showing that Mather's is a literarily shaped history with moral aims.
Following this discussion, Baker turns to the use of the Magnalia's providence tales by Poe—an intriguing choice of authors for such a topic. She argues that Poe was "steeped in the language and the literary forms of providential history and the providence tale" and that he often uses "Mather's topoi" but subverts them in various ways (39). His tales of deliverance at sea, for instance, unlike Mather's, sometimes kill off the righteous man who should be saved ("MS Found in a Bottle") and sometimes defy the idea of narrative closure altogether (Pym). Poe's unreliable narrators, as well, resist the conventional, godlike narrative voice of providential literature.
Stowe's reworkings of New England Calvinism have often been studied, and the author's love of the Magnalia from childhood on is well known (65). Baker argues more specifically that Stowe uses Mather's tales as "generic models" in her novels (66). Both The Pearl of Orr's Island and The Minister's Wooing privilege characters who rightly perceive the workings of Providence, and both novels draw on conventions of the providence tale in their embedded narratives of sea disasters, for instance. Baker argues that the plot of Pearl, often criticized as clumsy and unrealistic, is best understood as based on the conventions of the providence tale, with its emphasis on extraordinary events. Moreover, while [End Page 177] Stowe's designs on her readers are like Mather's, she supplants his voice with that of a female minister and historian—Candace in Minister's Wooing and Aunt Roxy in Pearl.
Like Stowe, Hawthorne read Mather and mentioned him regularly (though negatively) in his fiction. While critics have long discussed Hawthorne's investigation of colonial history, Baker asserts more specifically that Hawthorne critiques the premises of his sources, particularly of Mather. In readings of Grandfather's Chair, The House of Seven Gables, and several short stories, Baker argues that Hawthorne rejects monologic accounts of history in order to add other voices to what is always a subjective accounting of the past. The House of Seven Gables, for example, thoroughly revises the vituperative characterization of Thomas Maule in the Magnalia.
Similarly, in a chapter on Sedgwick and Wharton, Baker argues that Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, with its "manic plot" (124), is meant as a deliberate "cacophony" of voices as a representation of what democracy ought to be, in contrast to Mather's "tidy plots" (119). Moreover, Sedgwick privileges a marginalized woman (Magawisca) as historian and shows providential history to be "linked to self-interest and self-aggrandizement" (126). Wharton, in turn, structures her Massachusetts tales "Bewitched" and Ethan Frome to counter Mather by demonstrating the impossibility of constructing an absolutely certain, objective history. The final pages of the...