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The Puritan Origins of the American Self: With a New Preface Paperback – May 31, 2011
This month's Book With Buzz: "The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware
From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers "In a Dark, Dark Wood" and "The Woman in Cabin 10" comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel, "The Lying Game." See more
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“The issuing of The Puritan Origins of the American Self, with a fascinating new preface by Sacvan Bercovitch, is an occasion for celebration. A landmark contribution to American studies, the book is also a model, still vital and generative after many years, for any attempt to analyze the ideological dream-life upon which nations are founded. Bercovitch has an uncanny ability to be at once knowing and innocent, a sophisticated master of the textual archive and a wide-eyed stranger, like Kafka’s Max Rossmann, amazed by what he is witnessing on the shores of the New World. A major and enduring achievement.”—Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University (Stephen Greenblatt)
“Now reissued with a powerful new preface by the author that extends the argument through the scholarly waves of the past three decades, this American Studies classic makes a compelling and provocative case for continuities in the rhetoric of America from Puritanism to our own times.”—Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies.Harvard University (Werner Sollors)
“Now framed by a luminous new Preface, this book offers something still too rare: a brilliant and boldly erudite interpretation of America’s distinctiveness that is not exceptionalist but comparative.”—Jonathan Arac, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English, University of Pittsburgh (Jonathan Arac)
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The reason I didn't give this book 5 stars is that Bercovitch claims that Cotton Mather's ideology stretched all the way to RW Emerson. While there may be some external similarities in both stressing the uniqueness of America, the differences between the two are much more prominent. Succinctly, Emerson stood against virtually everything Mather stood for, staunchly denying Mather's Calvinist Christianity, veering past Unitarianism into agnostic pantheism. In the end, Emerson's deconstruction of biblical religion has contributed to the devastation of the 'nation' that Mather knew, one based on Biblical ethics.
According to Bercovitch, the New England Puritans were the first colonists to refer to themselves as Americans (page xxxviii). At the time, all other colonists used the term to refer only to Native Americans, not to themselves.
Among other things, Bercovitch shows that Barack Obama was a copy-cat. He copied the expression "change we can believe in" from a July Fourth orator in 1850 (see pages xxvii and xxxix). Obama's stated desire to "restore our image as the last, best hope on earth" was copied from President Lincoln (see pages xxviii and xxxix). In short, in his presidential campaign, Obama was calling on us Americans to renew our American identity, the identity of the American Self that Bercovitch ably explains in the preface to the 2011 edition of his book.
After reading Bercovitch's preface, I have come to the conclusion that certain New England Puritan writers were extremely imaginative. The imaginative spirit of the Homeric epics lived on in those writers. The imaginative spirit of the biblical author known as the Yahwist (author of J) lived on in them. The imaginative spirit of St. Paul and the anonymous authors of the four canonical gospels lived on in those authors. Of course the imaginative epic spirit also lived on in the Puritan poet John Milton, most notably in PARADISE LOST and PARADISE REGAINED.
As is well known, Caesar Augustus (Octavian), who is rightly considered to be the founder of the Roman empire, commissioned Virgil to write the epic that is known as the AENEID. Evidently, Virgil was not satisfied with his completed draft and planned to revise it further. However, before he could undertake to revise it, he died. He had stipulated that his draft should be destroyed. But Caesar Augustus over-ruled him and published his work. He seemed to understand that people do not live on bread alone.
Certain New England Puritan writers also understood this as they composed their imaginative epic. Collectively, they are the founders of the American Self, as Bercovitch puts it. For better or worse, those writers are the founders of the manic-depressive American culture that Americans have lived in both before 1776 and after 1776. Bercovitch himself does not emphasize the term manic-depressive as I plan to do here, even though he uses the term in passing (page xxxiii). I am the one using this term to emphasize what Bercovitch ably describes.
However, in emphasizing this characterization, I do not claim to be making an original observation that nobody else has made. See, for example, John D. Gartner's book THE HYPOMANIC EDGE: THE LINK BETWEEN (A LITTLE) CRAZINESS AND (A LOT OF) SUCCESS IN AMERICA (2005) and Peter C. Whybrow's book AMERICAN MANIA: WHEN MORE IS NOT ENOUGH (2005).
In his book BUSH ON THE COUCH: INSIDE THE MIND OF THE PRESIDENT (2004; rev. ed. 2007), Justin A. Frank, M.D., psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, contends that George W. Bush manifested the symptoms of megalomania, which Dr. Frank differentiates from simple mania. Is strikes me that Gartner and Whybrow are discussing simple mania in their books, not megalomania.
In any event, according to Bercovitch, the strategy of the New England Puritan jeremiad, as he styles the genre that emerged as an integral part of their emerging imaginative epic, became the strategy of the typical jeremiads in American civil religion. The strategy was to sound the alarm at the possible prospect of the terrible failure of the meaning of America - that is, the meaning of America in their imaginative epic. A failure would deny hope itself of the meaning of America. For all practical purposes, the meaning of America for those writers was connected with their imaginative epic regarding the covenant, an idea they borrowed from ancient Hebrew scripture. The strategy of sounding the alarm about the possible terrible failure was a summons to covenant renewal. The summons of renewal was a call to draw back from and avoid the abyss of the failure of the meaning of America as envisioned in their imaginative epic - an abyss the depths of which no man or woman knows. (See page xxxiv.)
When I characterize their way of thinking as manic-depressive, I mean that the abyss they imagined represents the depressive polarity. Whereas the imaginative epic about the covenant represents the manic polarity. In my estimate, what Bercovitch described as the American Self (his capitalization) is manic-depressive. It's in the American cultural DNA as it were to be manic-depressive.
Now, once you catch on to the abyss that is lurking out there at the prospect of failure of the meaning of America, then you will be able to understand how and why "American optimism" is designed to be a strong check against plumbing the depths of the abyss. Granted, Charles Dickens' character Mr. Micawber in DAVID COPPERFIELD was not an American. Nevertheless, Mr. Micawber's optimism can be understood as related in spirit to "American optimism."
Now, despite Obama's rhetorical efforts to try to revivify the American Self and the American sense of the covenant, I have to wonder if the American civil religion has died and is therefore beyond being revivified.
After all, Jonathan Kozol has published one jeremaid after another calling attention to illiteracy in America, but to no avail. So what's wrong? Is Kozol simply not skilled enough as a jeremiad writer to evoke a suitable response? Or has the American civil religion of old died?
I know, I know, I myself may be speaking from the depths of the abyss regarding the lack of response to Kozol's jeremiads about illiteracy in America. Nevertheless, illiteracy in America is a problem that should be addressed.
But enough about the failure of the American covenant!
Bercovitch explains how later writers contributed to the imaginative epic that the New England Puritan writers had started. But Bercovitch does happen to mention the spirit of epics in oral tradition, a spirit that Virgil imitated in writing the AENEID and Milton, in writing PARADISE LOST and PARADISE REGAINED. According to Bercovitch, later American writers worked out a model of the American Self that had two distinctive parts: (1) a figure of spiritual commonality whose uniqueness lay in his or her determination to do his or her "own thing" in his or her "own way" and (2) individualism enshrined as self-interest to signify a cultural ideal of personal self-fulfillment. (See page xxxvi.)
When you put these two features together, how is this model supposed to work out? Here's how Bercovitch puts it: "And rhetorically, success in America was available to all. Examples of success were to be identified with, not envied or submitted to, and through identification they were to be celebrated as confirmations of equality, proof-texts of your possibilities" (pages xxxvi-xxxvii).
Remember that we humans form our individual personal identities through our identifications with certain persons in our lives. But individual persons have different talents. According to Bercovitch, "The exceptional talent represented an exceptional nation" (page xxxvii). Inasmuch as we produce exceptional talents, we can celebrate those exceptional talents as evidence of our exceptional nation that enable such exceptional talents to be developed. In theory, all of us have some talents that we can develop and thereby make our own social contribution (i.e., the American covenant). In short, we may not all be equal in talent, but we are all equal in the sense that all of us in theory can develop our talents so that we can make our own social contribution.
As Bercovitch notes, in the evolving American imaginative epic as developed by later writers, "Failure was un-American" (i.e., the abyss) and "Success was the American Way" (page xxxvii).
Ah, but what all may be understood as success, eh? For example, is money the only measure of success, so that the more money you have, the more successful you presumably are? But couldn't you have a lot of money and be a miserable example of a human being? If you have a lot of money, what else can you do with it besides spend it? In theory, you could hoard up your money. But you cannot take your hoard of money with you when you die. So you might as well spend it, or you will have to pass it on to others through your will. So accumulating money alone does not seem like the best measure of success. But this brings us to the next step. Besides making a lot of money, what other kinds of things do we Americans admire people for doing? If we as individuals have different talents, then we should be "measured" (as it were) with respect to our talents and how we have used our talents to make a social contribution.
As perverse as this may sound, this way of measuring people would allow us to evaluate Kozol as a talented writer of jeremiads, even though his jeremiads about illiteracy in America have failed thus far to produce any concerted action to combat illiteracy in America. In short, we can give him credit for fighting the good fight against illiteracy in America, even though he has not slain the dragon against which he has been fighting for so long. In effect, Kozol has called attention to the positive potentiality of literacy and to the potentiality of our emerging American culture to have more functionally literate citizens in our country than we have at the present time.
The American cultural theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), whose English family ancestors left East Anglia on the same ship that brought Roger Williams to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, also worked diligently over the years to call attention to the positive potentiality of literacy, most notably in his book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982; 2nd ed. 2002), which has gone through more than thirty printings in English and has been translated into eleven other languages. In later publications Ong repeatedly emphasized the positive potentiality of literacy: "Writing is a Humanizing Technology" (1983), "Writing and the Evolution of Consciousness" (1985), "Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought" (1986), "Orality-Literacy Studies and the Unity of the Human Race" (1987). But like Kozol's jeremiads about illiteracy in America, Ong's claims about the positive potentiality of literacy have not turned the tide of our contemporary American culture toward combating illiteracy in America in positive ways. But perhaps events during Ong Centenary Year in 2012 will help call new attention to his emphasis on the positive potentiality of literacy. I hope so.
I also hope that President Obama's speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, on December 6, 2011, helps turn the tide of our contemporary American culture toward a renewal of the American covenant. Thus far, President Obama's performance as president has not been exactly inspiring. He has a well-established track record of making big-sounding speeches and of talking a better game than he plays as president. People do not live on bread alone, but they also do not live on big-sounding speeches alone. Big-sounding speeches should be followed up with meaningful action.
In his book OBAMA ON THE COUCH: INSIDE THE MIND OF THE PRESIDENT (2011), Dr. Frank has offered a detailed analysis of Obama's personal psychodynamics, including a perceptive analysis of why Obama talked a better game as a presidential candidate than he has played as president. It should come as a surprise to no one that Dr. Frank does not find the symptoms of megalomania in Obama that he found in GWB. Even though Dr. Frank himself does not spell it out explicitly in his book about Obama, it strikes me that Obama manifests simple mania, not megalomania, as Dr. Frank defines and explains these two kinds of mania in his book about GWB.
Now, in his book about Obama, Dr. Frank spells out more explicitly the psychological tendency to resist change than he does in his book about GWB. If Dr. Frank is right about our psychodynamic to resist change, then the psychodynamic that he identifies as central to megalomania is the same psychodynamic that leads us to resist change.
In terms of the American Self defined and explained by Bercovitch, what Dr. Frank describes as simple mania is the central psychodynamic of the American Self and the central psychodynamic of the American jeremiad and of the American civil religion, both of which emphasize the American covenant. But what Dr. Frank describes as the central psychodynamic of megalomania is also the source of our resistance to change.