Puritanism in Early America

By George M. Waller | Go to book overview

Kenneth B. Murdock:


THE PURITAN LITERARY ATTITUDE

THERE is nothing in the religious literature of Puritan New England to match the richest pages of the great seventeenth-century Anglicans. It is a far cry from the poems of Herbert and Vaughan to the verses of Anne Brad- street and the jog-trot measures of Michael Wigglesworth Day of Doom, or from the magnificence of Jeremy Taylor's prose or Donne's to the best that the colonists wrote. But this is not to say that that best had no merit. There are many flashes of poetry, many passages of eloquent prose, and, throughout, a style that rarely descends to mere tame mediocrity. The work of the best writers in colonial New England shows that they wanted to write well as one way of serving God, and reflects both their zeal and their concern for fundamental stylistic values.

The more this work is examined in the light of the handicaps the colonists faced and the standards they set for themselves, the more impressive it becomes. In seventy years they made Boston second only to London in the English- speaking world as a center for the publishing and marketing of books, and they produced a body of writing greater in quantity and quality than that of any other colonial community in modern history. Its merits may escape him who reads as he runs, but to the more patient it may offer fuller insight into the best qualities of the Puritan settlers and their eagerness to find an adequate literary creed for pious purposes. The study of it may encourage a valuable humility in the face of the problem of religious expression as it exists even in our own times.

It is important first of all to realize that the American Puritan who wanted to be an artist in words -- or, to put it more explicitly, who wanted to communicate his thoughts and emotion to others in such a way as to convince and move them-was faced by certain tangible handicaps. He was a colonist, and New England, compared to London, a wilderness. George Herbert in his quiet Wiltshire parish, John Donne in the deanery of St. Paul's, or Jeremy Taylor in the calm retirement of the Golden Grove, enjoyed advantages denied the pioneer Bostonian. They had within reach -- at the most only a few days' journey away -- the best libraries and the best intellectual society of which England could boast. Their place as scholars and artists was recognized; they could count on readers and hearers able to appreciate fully not only the substance of what they wrote but whatever literary skill they showed in it. They might be mystics or rationalists, high-church men or liberals, Calvinists or Arminians, and there were enough like-minded readers to welcome them. They might use the classics or the church fathers, experiment with all the devices of rhetoric, and seek out new images for their ideas, secure in the knowledge that learned readers trained in an artistic tradition would acclaim

From Literature and Theology in Colonial New England by Kenneth B. Murdock. Harvard University Press, 1949. Reprinted by permission,

-89-

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Puritanism in Early America
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Introduction v
  • Contents *
  • The Clash of Issues *
  • On Puritans 1
  • The Puritan Way of Life 4
  • The Fall of the Wilderness Zion 22
  • The Twilight of the Oligarchy 35
  • Massachusetts: Its Historians And Its History 53
  • Builders of the Bay Colony 62
  • The Puritan Pronaos 68
  • The Devil and Cotton Mather 79
  • The Puritan Literary Attitude 89
  • The Moral Athlete 98
  • The Puritan Oligarchy 108
  • Suggestions for Additional Reading 113
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