- My Puritan Origins
When I heard that Yale University Press was reissuing Sacvan Bercovitch’s The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) with a substantial new preface, I suggested to Sandra Gustafson that we invite a group of younger scholars in the field to offer some reflections on this canonical work in early American studies, some thirty-six years after it first appeared. I was curious to learn what a new generation of early Americanists thought of Bercovitch’s classic analysis of Puritan rhetorical modes. Was Puritan Origins still, as former EAL editor Philip Gura once called it, “a primer in our field” (603)? Does Bercovitch’s way of situating early American discourse—via an interpretive mode he calls “contextual close reading” (The Office of the Scarlet Letter xxi, n.)—still matter, especially in light of the radically altered scholarly landscape of early American literature, “a discipline,” as Gustafson and Gordon Hutner note, “where we have seen our shared archive so thoroughly exploded” that even the notion of mapping “a coherent field” (249) now seems naive?
The essays that follow—by Matthew Brown, Sandra Gustafson, Sarah Rivett, and Michael Winship—reconsider Puritan Origins from a range of perspectives, including book studies, transnational approaches, religious-secular studies, and recent shifts in the study of Puritanism itself, from traditional modes of intellectual and social history to a multivocal Puritanism embedded in comparative popular cultures and folk belief systems. Taken together, the essays register, a generation later, the status of Bercovitch’s vision of early American rhetoric and its foundational legacies for American culture. Above all, this gathering of thoughtful, engaged, at moments deeply personal responses demonstrates the vitality of our field, especially in light of recent theoretical “turns” and archival discoveries in the discipline.
That Early American Literature should sponsor such a “symposium” seemed obvious, since the journal’s founding at the University of Massachusetts in 1966 and Bercovitch’s scholarly emergence virtually coincided. A chapter of Puritan Origins initially appeared in 1974; upon publication [End Page 377] the journal assigned it two reviews—by the Edward Taylor scholar Donald E. Stanford and the early American historian Michael Zuckerman—in recognition of what the journal deemed the book’s “importance” (Stanford 109).1
In addition, the arrival by the early ’70s of EAL as the premier site for American Puritan scholarship corresponds with the rise of Bercovitch’s own reputation as the field’s foremost scholar in typology studies, a mode of literary-cultural analysis that blossomed a few years earlier. The advent of typology scholarship was perhaps most famously signaled by Bercovitch’s 1967 essay “Typology in Puritan New England: The Williams-Cotton Controversy Reassessed,” his challenge to Perry Miller’s misreading of typology as index to the rhetorical richness of early American expression, a blind spot that, according to Bercovitch, prevented Miller from appreciating “the emotion and creative vitality behind much of the literature” (“Typology in Puritan New England” 190). His status was firmly established a few years later in Typology and Early American Literature (1972), a collection of important essays edited by Bercovitch and to which he contributed a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary bibliography, a volume that first appeared as a special issue of EAL in the spring of 1970 (vol. 5). In the introduction Bercovitch speaks of how typology as interpretive system revealed “the creative energy of early New England writing” (Typology and Early American Literature 4), as it pointed to typology’s potential in “encourag[ing] further study into the development of American symbolism and of corresponding themes and modes of the national culture” (6).
By drawing on and then applying Erich Auerbach’s foundational essay “Figura” (1936) to early American texts, Bercovitch argued that typology offered a powerful mode of close reading to the process of “defining the anatomy of the American Puritan imagination” (Typology and Early American Literature 6). The exemplary text that, for Bercovitch, revealed the aesthetic power and largest cultural implications of typology was of course Cotton Mather’s biography of John Winthrop, titled “Nehemias Americanus” in Mather’s multilayered epic history, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). In short, during the decade between 1965 and 1975 Bercovitch did much to establish...