The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts

The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts

The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts

The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts

Synopsis

A radical new interpretation of the political and intellectual history of Puritan Massachusetts, The Making of an American Thinking Class envisions the Bay colony as a seventeenth century one-party state, where congregations served as ideological `cells' and authority was restricted to an educated elite of ministers and magistrates. From there Staloff offers a broadened conception of the interstices of political, social, and intellectual authority in Puritan Massachusetts and beyond, arguing that ideologies, as well as ideological politics, are produced by self-conscious, and often class-conscious, thinkers.

Excerpt

Introductions, I am told, ought to serve as invitations, enticing the reader to peruse the text and engage with the argument of the author. When such a book is yet another study of New England Puritanism, perhaps an apology might be more in order. Few topics in early American history have been so thoroughly chronicled, analyzed, and painstakingly dissected. From spiritual sensibility to social structure and from demographics to divinity, the religious "precisionarians" that settled Massachusetts have received coverage far in excess of their numerical significance in seventeenthcentury British America. No one appreciates more than I the trepidation with which a general student of American (or even colonial) history takes in hand the umpteenth tome promising to revolutionize our understanding of the famed New England Way. the least I can do is offer an explanation of how this book came to be written and why it is worth reading.

Like so many other studies of the New England Puritans, this book originated in a critical confrontation with the work of Perry Miller. My colleagues in graduate school had warned me about Miller. He was a notorious idealist and the progenitor of a tradition of unabashedly elitist intellectual history. More ominously, his work had a beguiling effect that sent otherwise healthy-minded young people scurrying into the archives to study the minutiae of a curmudgeony folk whose idea of a good read was Michael Wigglesworth morbid poem, The Day of Doom. As an aspiring student of antebellum southern history, I felt fairly confident in my immunity to such contagion. I was wrong.

I found Miller both utterly persuasive and profoundly disturbing. Elegant and urbane, Miller's works successfully explained the history of Puritan Massachusetts by evoking a New England Mind culled from a narrow range of remarkably abstruse and knotty theological treatises. Although subsequent scholarship has refuted many of the details (and even some of the essentials) of Miller's vision, his basic strategy of explicating the behavior of the Bay Puritans in terms of their theological beliefs and carefully formulated doctrines has been more than vindicated by its dominant role in the literature of Puritan studies. As a social historian with pronounced natu-

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