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EVA CHERNIAVSKY Night Pollution and the Floods of Confession in Michael Wigglesworth's Diary And if a man once go beyond those bounds of Gods speciall appointmet, & what nature alloweth or calls for, I know now where he will stay. —Michael Wigglesworth, untitled sermon Extravagance! it depends on how you are yarded. —Thoreau, Waiden The sabbath evening and the next day I was much distressed in conscience, seing a stable dore of Mr. Mitchels beat to and fro with the wind, whither, I should out of duty shut it or not; no temptations perplex me so sorely as such like, when I am not clear concerning my duty . . . this made me seriously and solemnly cry to heaven for light to my mind, and grace to obey with chearfulness all gods wil. And still I cry, Lord leave me not to er from thy ways subdue the enmity of my heart in tender mercy for thy name sake: pitty my poor fainting decaying body.' mono the many transgressions for which Michael Wigglesworth .reproaches himself in his diary, his failure to solve the riddle of the stable door is arguably the most telling. As Edmund Morgan observes Arizona Qiuirterly Volume 45 Number 2, Summer 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 Eva Cherniavsky in his introduction to the diary, Wigglesworth's deliberations in this passage are "almost ridiculously painful," and exemplify the zealous selfnegation that makes him "more plausible as a satirical reconstruction than ... as a human being." Yet the very exaggerations we find fantastic , Morgan contends, reflect a quintessentially puritan sensibility, which remains (mercifully, it seems) less developed in Wigglesworth's "more warm-blooded contemporaries." For Morgan, then, Wigglesworth 's extremism represents the ideal, the distillation of puritan identity which emerges as little more than a travesty of itself. This unsettling claim evolves out of a critical tradition which takes for granted Wigglesworth's unbending orthodoxy and questions only whether his particularly fervent and repressive strain of puritanism renders him typical or not. Wigglesworth is either a representative figure ofan unhealthy society, the argument runs, or an aberration in a fundamentally sound one. Thus Kenneth Murdock asserts that Wigglesworth's morbid imagination and "obsessive sense of guilt," though not altogether typical, are "simply exaggerations" of the "overwrought" puritan personality,2 while, more recently, Robert Daly has countered that Wigglesworth's disdain for human tenderness and the beauty of the material world make him in fact "atypical."' In their attempts to normalize Wigglesworth or to dismiss him, however, these critics ultimately evade the questions his presence raises. What is it, finally, in puritan culture which generates Wigglesworth's extreme responses, and what do these responses represent? Why, in other words, would the sight of an unfastened door provoke an attack of conscience as violent as this? Certainly, Wigglesworth seeks throughout the diary to recognize and repudiate the manifestations of his vile self, but elsewhere in the text the sinfulness of the actions and attitudes he confesses is self-evident. Repeatedly he decries his irrepressible pride, vain thoughts, failure to delight in holy ordinances , insistent "carnal lusts," and inability to regret his father's death. Only in this passage does Wigglesworth's scrupulous self-examination produce such an apparently senseless crisis, a crisis that is hardly explained by suggesting that Wigglesworth is "high-strung" and enervated by the jolting noise.4 It is, however, revealing that Wigglesworth's anxiety is realized not just as a crisis of duty, but, specifically, as indecision about whether or not to speak: Michael Wiggksworth's Diary17 I cannot tel whether it were my duty to giue them some hint that owe them. When I think 'tis a common thing, and that 'tis impossible but that the owners should haue oft seen them in that case, and heard them blow to and fro, and that it is but a trivial matter, and that I haue given a hint to one that dwels in the hous, and he maketh light of it; and that it would rather be a seeming to check others mindlesness of their own affairs, and lastly that there may be special reasons for it that I know not; why the case seemeth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 15-33
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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