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  • Providence Tales and the Birth of American Literature
  • Jonathan Levin (bio)
James D. Hartman . Providence Tales and the Birth of American Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. 202 pp. ISBN 0-8018-6027-X, $38.50.

Providence tales are stories, often gathered in popular miscellaneous collections, which Puritans (and other Nonconformist Protestant ministers in England) told in order to confirm the working of providence in human lives. One title epitomizes the scope and ambition of these collections, Richard Baxter's 1691 The Certainty of the World of Spirits, and Consequently of the Immortality of Souls. Of the Malice and Misery of the Devil and the Damned, and of the Blessedness of the Justified. Fully evinced by the Unquestionable Histories of Apparitions, Witchcrafts and Voices. Written as an addition to many other treatises for the Conviction of Sadducees and Infidels (47). In James D. Hartman's account, providence tales take up a wide variety of themes. Besides "Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and Voices," they recount all variety of wonders and prodigies, including miraculous survivals (and miserable disasters) at sea, and eventually, in the New World, captivities among the Indians. Building on the scholarship of Michael McKeon on the origins of the English novel and of David D. Hall on New England Puritans' religious experience, Hartman defines the providence tale broadly and presents it as a neglected source of later American literature. The providence tale thrives both in England and America in the seventeenth century, and so the book is in fact as much concerned with English as American literary and religious culture. It offers a thorough, detailed account of a significant literary genre that has, as its author suggests, been too often ignored or misconstrued.

As Hartman demonstrates, however ambivalent they might have been about playing to the lower faculties of their audience, ministers who recognized the potential impact of new narrative techniques used them to demonstrate the manifest working of God's providence in accounts of human lives, especially when those lives proved subject to cruel, inexplicable, or otherwise disorienting forces. Throughout, Hartman underscores the role of the new science in shaping what at least began as a distinctively religious narrative project. Many of the British authors of providence tales were Protestant ministers "who believed that religious faith could be fully justified on grounds compatible with reason" (19). Many further adopted the new scientific worldview, and some, like the Cambridge Platonist Henry More and the New England minister Increase Mather, were actually members of the Royal Society. In looking to record popular accounts of prodigies and wonders, these authors aimed to achieve a standard of empirical evidence recently canonized by Francis Bacon, who had himself written on such topics. Hence, as Hartman skillfully argues, these accounts of the strange and mysterious, while designed to demonstrate God's full and immediate reality to an [End Page 659] increasingly skeptical and secular world, actually contribute to the further secularization of that world.

The authors of these tales--which often circulated in one form or other before being collected with other tales, and were almost always based on some sort of "true account"--rely on two principal techniques to underscore the reality of their wondrous accounts: eyewitness testimony and realistic (if also often sensational or melodramatic) detail. Eyewitness testimony is often given reluctantly, or so at least the authors of such tales insist, in order to shore up the authority of that testimony. By modern standards, Hartman suggests, a reluctant witness, demonstrating no unwonted pride at being witness to the working of providence, is a trustworthy witness. Hartman further emphasizes the use of the plain style, associated at least in part with the rise of the new science, to underscore the "simple" and "honest" character of the narrator. These accounts also utilize a descriptive realism, including a frequent emphasis on "low" or frank details, to confirm the associated reality of more remarkable events. The tales further tend to be sensational and melodramatic. They often include minutely detailed accounts of horrific punishments inflicted, as the tales imply or sometimes state, to make God-fearing believers of those who experience or observe them, as well as those who read such firsthand accounts of them. Hartman...


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