- The Story Upon a Hill: The Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction by Christopher Leise
In The Story Upon a Hill, Christopher Leise observes that the Puritans serve as "a remarkably versatile brand from America's past, a package that bundles together content that can be alternately priggish and progressive, ancient and modern, oppressive and protodemocratic" (1). The book aims, therefore, "to aid with efforts to unsettle the Puritan—particularly as popularly understood—in American fiction" (3). It is a study of how contemporary novelists revisit and revise the Puritans so as to replace a race-based national narrative of Puritan origins with a story more inclusive and diverse.
Chapter One begins with a strong account of how the Puritans became nationalized and secularized into the origins of American liberty and democracy. Leise emphasizes that early Puritanism contained a great deal of heterogeneity, later flattened by politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and scholars like Perry Miller. As a result, Leise urges scholars to avoid the term "Puritan" altogether as anachronistic and misleading, hoping to recover the diversity of early New English Calvinists. Here he pushes too hard. After all, every label for any group is invented; all of them can suggest more coherence than actually exists. Yet such terms exist because they enable us to discuss more than just the way particular individuals differ from one another. The label "Puritans," which came about as a slur in the seventeenth century to describe those who called themselves "the godly," allows us to think about what made this group a group, what these people shared in common. And early New England Calvinist settlers—"Puritans," in short—did share a great deal in common. The term, in other words, can be helpful or harmful. It depends on how it gets used.
Chapter Two moves from Leise's revisiting of Puritanism to the revisions of Hawthorne and Gaddis. It begins with some remarkable parallels between Marble Faun and The Recognitions, which enables Leise to argue that "Hawthorne and Gaddis both concern themselves with the manner in which models of Americanness are constructed" (39). In Hawthorne's case, the problem centers on "how New English Protestantism inscribes whiteness at its center" (47). For Gaddis, the problem is modern capitalism, which gets loosely linked to Puritanism through Max Weber. Sometimes the readings of novels are convincing, but the connections to Puritanism less so. Chapter Three, for example, persuasively links Slaughterhouse Five to the long tradition of captivity narratives in America, but less persuasively presents it as a criticism of the providential historiography undergirding Puritan writings. Nonetheless, the chapter demonstrates well how Vonnegut deploys an old genre for new ends. [End Page 309]
In chapters Four and Five, Leise moves to much firmer ground with Pynchon and Robinson, both of whom clearly revisit Puritanism in America. In Gravity's Rainbow, Leise sees a conversion narrative serving as "one of many frames" for the book (88), and he shows how Pynchon re-uses that genre to embrace "indecisiveness and revision as a productive challenge to the prevailing order" (85). Here and throughout, Leise advances his laudable goal of getting past origin stories that privilege an ethnic white Christianity to the exclusion of all other Americans (see 104), but he does so, unfortunately, by inserting his own mythology about Puritanism. Leise divides New English Calvinists into "conservatives" (who induce "fear, despair, and intolerance") and "liberals" or "progressives" (who encourage "acceptance, inclusion, and expanded tolerance")—terms that are far more anachronistic and misleading than "Puritan" (94). Predictably, all Puritans who ever held power are the bad conservatives; all Puritans who ever dissented (including Pynchon's ancestor) are good liberals, opening up the tolerance and inclusions we strive for today. This is, of course, a mythmaking of its own—though not always recognized as such.
Those tensions surface in Leise's reading of Robinson's Gilead, which is a very good account of how Robinson revisits Calvinism to highlight its diverse strands of thinking. As Leise rightly argues...