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  • That Early New England, This Early New England, and Some of the Next
  • Michael Ditmore (bio)
As a City on a Hill: The Story of America's Most Famous Lay Sermon
daniel t. rodgers
Princeton University Press, 2018
356 pp.
City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism
abram c. van engen
Yale University Press, 2020
380 pp.
The Puritans: A Transatlantic History
david d. hall
Princeton University Press, 2019
518 pp.
Poems and Meditations
anne bradstreet, ed. margaret olofson thickstun
Iter Press and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2019
380 pp.
The Virtuous and Violent Women of Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts
emily c. k. romeo
University of Massachusetts Press, 2020
220 pp.
Invisible Masters: Gender, Race, and the Economy of Service in Early New England
elisabeth ceppi
Dartmouth University Press, 2018
276 pp.

[End Page 237]

There are some inexterminables we tolerate as best we can: death, taxes, nuclear bomb-proof cockroaches, and New England Puritanism. Of this quartet, the last strikes me as the most historically contingent and least natural. New England Puritans are difficult to get rid of, no matter how unpalatable many may find them, and whether one is sympathetic, antagonistic, or somehow agnostic. But from whatever angle, they are always contenders for sustained and renewed attention.

Consider: under travailing circumstances of 2020, "America's Hometown"—Plymouth—did its level best, masked and distanced, to celebrate the quadricentenary of that first deadly winter of the Mayflower's arrival, and in ways that equitably honor and dignify its pre- and post-Mayflower heritages.1 And if Plymouth celebrates, can Boston and all the rest of New England be far behind? Will we see, as in the bicentennials of the 1830s and again in the tricentennials of the 1930s, an unfolding series of town celebrations, monuments, studies, commemorative knickknacks, and such across New England? Surely so; but just as surely, we will also see unprecedented strains and tensions; the throwback costumes, recipes, and recitations are likely to seem worse than dated. One thinks of that cracked and bowed main beam of the Mayflower, mid-Atlantic: how many would now bother with its repair? Who possesses the equipment, skills, or motivation for the task?

This present selection of books, for all the divergent angles and aspects, affords but one somewhat prismatic, dispersed glimpse into the present states of New England Puritanism academically calibrated, and perhaps will offer some foretaste of what to expect as we approach 2030 and beyond. They are all, to be sure, state of the art, but they hardly represent all the scholarly activity at present or to come; however, they do provide a worthwhile vantage point for surveying something of—well, I wouldn't push the Plymouth allusions too far, but let's say a Mount Pisgah. I have divided them into three pairings: measured deflations of a classic sermon; the Puritans as they were; and forms of oppression. Without intending to, I found that pairings in each case settled in a literature-history dyad, suggesting that, despite our disciplinary overlap, we still have miles to go before such boundaries dissolve.

First and foremost, as a foundational homage for Boston's quadricentenary we would expect a full-dress rehearsal of Governor John Winthrop's profound and indispensable 1630 lay sermon on the Arbella as it crossed the Atlantic, "A Model of Christian Charity," laying groundwork [End Page 238] and spearheading the Great Migration into Massachusetts Bay and all that dominoed and degenerated therefrom.

We certainly would, except that virtually every detail of the preceding sentence has been severely scrutinized and found wanting over the past thirty years, to the point that even its authorship is now disputed.2 That can make for an especially embarrassing beginning, if every detail of one's ballyhooed origin has been pretty much obliterated. And that is deeply unfortunate, given the extraordinary investment put into the Model" by historians, politicians, and educators over the past sixty or so years. Up until the 2016 national election at least, it seemed that every national politician since Ronald Reagan routinely sampled the "Model"; generations of teachers and test-makers have found it especially useful for critiquing "American exceptionalism." But beginning...

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