American Literature and the New Puritan Studies

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Bryce Traister
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     2017.
     254 pages.
     $80.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9781108514972.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his introduction to American Literature and the New Puritan Studies, Bryce Traister quickly establishes that the collective work of “New Puritan Studies” is to reshape the field by turning to “multiple and unconventional perspectives that challenge us to reconsider our received knowledge about New England Puritanism’s formative place within a United States national culture” (1). To do so, Traister has assembled the works of scholars coming at Puritan studies from differing vantage points: contributors employ frameworks ranging from analysis of material culture to Native American studies to global contexts, effectively decentering American Puritanism by refuting any notion that the Puritans can be isolated from the global, cultural, and material contexts of their time. Traister divides these broad-ranging approaches into three sections, titled “Unexpected Puritans,” in which contributors turn to figures such as Thomas Hobbes, Sabbatai Sevi, and Benjamin Colman for their similarities and challenges to conventional Puritan practice; “Puritanism’s Others,” which interrogates the contemporary gendered, imperial, and colonial contexts of American Puritans; and “Puritan Afterlives,” which shifts the dialogue of Puritan studies toward analyses of material culture, digital humanities, and ultimately attempts to argue for the ways that these myriad approaches should inform Puritan and early American scholars in the present day.

Among the high points of the collection is Michael Schuldiner’s chapter on Benjamin Colman, in which Schuldiner considers rhetorical norms and polity by underscoring Colman’s seemingly transgressive advocacy for “mirth in the meetinghouse” (54). Colman’s embrace of mirth was unconventional for its time (not merely within Puritan society), but Schuldiner contends that, by allowing for laughter to be part of worship—while also minimizing the importance of public conversion narratives and making the church more inclusive overall—“Colman thus removed significant restrictions on church membership” (56). In his time, of course, noteworthy theologians such as Cotton Mather bristled at Colman’s reforms. Yet Schuler argues for the importance of Colman’s more inclusive church polity as a factor for both attracting the younger generation to the church and ushering in a more modernized kind of worship. By contrast, Brice Peterson’s chapter, “Pregnancy and Anxiety: Medicine, Religion, and the Occult in Cotton Mather’s The Angel of Bethesda,” offers a compelling rationale for Mather’s desire to regulate the body—in this case, the bodies of pregnant women. Peterson asserts that Mather craved “micro-managerial control” over pregnant women’s bodies due to a “deep concern about the unknowable and unpredictable” (127). The unborn child represents a vulnerable soul that literally needs “delivered” from evil, in Mather’s belief, and his attempts to exercise control over pregnant women can be seen as a resistance to a more inclusive modernity.  After all, Peterson notes, female midwives had gained significant respect and unique access to pregnant women who were otherwise removed from the public sphere, and this isolation inherently posed a threat to Mather’s ministerial control.

Arguably one of the most important and challenging contributions to this volume  is Betty Booth Donohue’s essay on the Native American influence on the writings of missionaries such as Edward Johnson and Roger Williams. Donohue proclaims that “American Natives are permanently inscribed in many American texts, and such texts often bear a Puritan imprimatur” (111). Here, the case for the intersection between Native aesthetic and narrative traditions and Puritan writing is clearly articulated, although it is difficult to parse out precisely what to make of these permanent inscriptions. Donohue further argues that Native agency is expressed through these modal and generic inclusions in the writings of missionaries, in part because “these narratives have created a framework for American thought, rhetoric, politics, and literary interpretation that until the twentieth century largely went unchallenged” (115). While the possibility for recovery—and celebration—of Native rhetorical traditions is a promising possibility for this New Puritan Studies, Booth seems quick to gloss over the more negative implications of this appropriation. As Booth admits, the “literary interpretation” has privileged an exceptionalist and romanticized ideology of America (and, by extension here, its Christian roots by way of the Puritans). The impulse to disregard simply repeating this trope is understandable, but it would be helpful to at once champion the Native traditions that scholars can rediscover while also providing a more rigorous analysis of what this borrowing of Native poetics, style, and rhetoric might tell us to further complicate our understanding of colonialism.

Traister’s editorial structuring of a New Puritan Studies is impressive, juxtaposing a variety of critical approaches in a way that allows readers to consider how these different methods of scholarship can inform one another. In his conclusion, Traister argues that the “grand narratives” (221) of American literature—and of the Puritans—need to be interrogated by reexamining the figures and texts that the scholarship had once exceptionalized. Individually and collectively, the essays Traister has assembled should provide scholars across fields and methodologies with new tools to dismantle these grand narratives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carol Bitzinger is a doctoral student at Ohio State University.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bryce Traister is Professor of English and American Studies at University of Western Ontario.

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