- Religious Exceptionalism and American Literary HistoryThe Puritan Origins of the American Self in 2012
As the question of the United States’ future has come to the fore of public debates, a reconsideration of its origins seems not only appropriate to the times that we are living in but perhaps also essential for Americanists.1 Fostering links between early American literary history and later periods certainly makes the field more resonant with the larger field of American studies. Such links may also extend our discussion about early America’s temporal arc into the realm of the popular imagination outside of the academy, which inevitably develops its own notions of US origins, often independent of our own. Yet the question of origins—specifically Puritan origins—and their influence on the emergence of nation and nationalism is a difficult and unpopular line of inquiry for an area of study suspicious of reifying an exceptionalist narrative.
We see the arc from the Puritans to the present day as potentially useful in the classroom but too teleological and too singular for our scholarship. Narrative and genealogical histories of America from the colonial period to the present day have become increasingly elusive with the transnational, hemispheric, Atlantic, and comparative conceptual frameworks that we have all come to accept as not only more historically accurate but also politically efficacious. Such approaches present an intellectual challenge to the exceptionalist paradigm established by the founding figures of early American literary studies, most influentially Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch. Inevitable and necessary for the field’s survival, this intellectual challenge permitted the field to evolve in accordance with broader transformations in literary studies—the canon debates of the 1980s, the culture wars of the 1990s, the redistribution of geographic alliances of the [End Page 391] last decade, and so on. However, one of the main challenges now facing American literary studies is that the exceptionalist narrative has not been replaced with an alternate account of literary and cultural continuities across time. We celebrate a history of plural pasts, contested beginnings, and multivocal encounters, because this is a more honest and appealing way to tell the story. But outside of the academy, we also live in a world that does not grasp the subtly of our theoretical interventions. The conservative revolt that we have been in the midst of for some time does not share our hesitancy with the origins thesis and, moreover, gains momentum from an exceptionalist framework despite our best efforts to dismantle it. This is a religious manifestation of our national culture, not because every conservative person or every conservative position has evangelical roots, but rather because the rhetoric of origins and exceptionalism expounded by the Right is almost always inherently religious in form, convention, and epistemology.
In intellectual and popular terms, religion stands as a defiant challenge to our scholarly reluctance to bring the colonial past across the 1820 temporal divide. Michael Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom (1662), like all of the classic Puritan jeremiads, has immediate resonance in contemporary politics. The New York Times reporter David Rhode’s captivity account, “Held by the Taliban,” shares an uncanny resemblance to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (1682), adhering both to the same structural sequence of removes and the comfort of Christian prayer in moments of greatest despair.2 Formally and rhetorically, the Puritans are in fact alive and well in our society; in our classrooms we use this to make what our undergraduates may perceive as a dry set of texts more enticing as the past illuminates the present and vice versa. This is an instructive lesson for our scholarship too, not so we can revive the old exceptionalist narratives, for we understand their limitations, but rather so that we can begin to construct new intellectual histories and literary genealogies that plot fragmentation, epistemic rupture, and discontinuity alongside a competing axis of theocratic persistence across four centuries of American history.
A special joint issue dedicated to exploring connections across different time periods that appeared in both American Literary History and this [End Page 392] journal revealed a general consensus that we traded the “origins thesis” two decades ago for a more archivally...