- William Faulkner and the American New Jerusalem
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 1992
- p. pp. 25-43
- View Citation
PATRICK McHUGH William Faulkner and the American New Jerusalem If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand lose her cunning. —Psalm 137:5 EW views of America—its history, its culture, and especially its literature—are now emerging from a renewed inquiry into the methods, the moral purposes, and the historical consequences of Puritanism . In The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch reassesses the Puritan sermon or "jeremiad," detecting there a rhetoric that endures well beyond the decline of the Puritan state and, indeed, well beyond the influence of puritanical morality. Sepatable from any specific moral value, the rhetoric of the jeremiad establishes a moral injunction to fulfill a social task: the Puritans were to fulfill the prophecy of an American Eden, a New Jerusalem to be created out of the wilderness of the New World. Thus the jeremiad offered the promise of the future as the guide and purpose of present actions and made the pursuit of a more perfect world a religious duty. Promising not only eternal salvation but also an earthly paradise, this rhetoric constitutes an especially powerful version of the Protestant ethic. It expresses an "unshakable optimism" whereby "God's punishments were corrective not destructive"; thus any disparity between the American Eden and the Ametican reality indicates not an impossible task but a lack of effort and commitment to duty and purpose (Bercovitch 7). In short, the American jeremiad "inverts the doctrine of vengeance into the promise of ultimate success" Arizona Quarterly Volume 48 Number 1, Spring 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004- 1 6 10 20Patrick McHugh (Bercovitch 7), and thereby transforms failure and misery into reason for renewed hope, faith, and dedication. According to Bercovitch, this rhetoric played "a significant role in the development ofmodern middleclass American culture" (18), setting the pattern fot a history that includes not only major American literary figures, but also the promises of the Constitution, the assurances of Manifest Destiny, the immigrants' economic search for a better standard of living, and the African-American struggle for civil rights, a pattern easily recognized in today's popular understanding of the American Dream. Bercovitch's book has particular relevance for Faulkner studies, both because a recurring theme in Faulkner's fiction is the Puritan legacy in America, and because critical attempts to address this theme have too often themselves been a part of that legacy. Far from an "unshakable optimism," Faulkner writes of the inescapable suffering of the American experience. For him, the American New Jerusalem is not the promise of the future to hope for and work toward, but an already-fulfilled promise of on-going misery. The Puritan vision of community as a shining city on a hill becomes in Yoknapatawpha County a rotting patriarchal plantation, conceived in man's hubris, created out of the woods and swamps of Mississippi by the slaves' sweat and blood, and indelibly marked by the repression of women. For Faulkner, moreover, this community is not an aberration of the Puritan principle but its embodiment, not a failure to achieve the American Dream that can be overcome with tededicated effort, but a failure inherent in the Dream itself. The patriarchal legacy of the Compsons and the Sutpens is the earthly manifestation of an idea, a vision, which simultaneously realizes its earthly limits, its faults, and its ultimate folly. Rathet than an Ametican jeremiad, Faulkner writes of the tragedy engendered by the human attempt to create a more perfect world, and its inevitable failure: the ttagedy of the American New Jerusalem. Critical attempts to interpret Faulknerian tragedy have historically followed the dictates of the American jeremiad, which, according to Houston Baker, is more endemic in American literary criticism than in Ametican literature (Baker 21).1 Puritan rhetoric is evident early on in Faulkner studies, and is common even to otherwise opposed interpretative positions. Frederick J. Hoffman, in his i960 Introduction to William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism, recounts how early "liberal" and "humanist" critics dismissed Faulkner as a "naturalist monster" lack- The American New Jerusalem27 ing a "moral vision"; then, after Faulkner's Nobel address, in which he "asserted himself as a moralist, as a writer pre-occupied with moral essentials...