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The Puritan Origins of the American Self: With a New Preface Paperback – May 31, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

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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)

The Puritan Origins of the American Self is a classic text for American studies, and the splendid new preface makes it available for new generations. Known for its wide learning, clear and compelling prose, and above all for the strength of its twin arguments about the continuity of national culture and the flexible shape of American ideology, Bercovitch's book continues to be essential reading.”—Michael Warner, Seymour H. Knox Professor of English, Yale University
(Michael Warner)

“Sacvan Bercovitch’s insights about the formative power of the Puritan imagination remain as fresh and relevant in the post-9/11 world as they were in 1975, when he shaped a field of study. No one better understands than Bercovitch both the imaginative hold of the nation form and its intrinsic instability in a global network of allegiances and affiliations “—Priscilla Wald, Professor of English, Duke University
(Priscilla Wald)

About the Author

Sacvan Bercovitch is Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature at Harvard University.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; Reissue edition (May 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300172419
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300172416
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,290,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on November 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
Sacvan Bercovitch, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, presents in this important book an analysis of what he refers to as the "rhetoric of American identity" through the "sources of our obsessive concern with the meaning of America" (p. ix). He uses one central case study to explore this issue, "Nehemias Americanus," Cotton Mather's biography of John Winthrop, first published in 1702. In Winthrop Mather discovered not only "a reliable model of christic identity" (p. 24) but also the "idea of the exemplary American" (p. 35). This is especially because of Winthrop's sense of progress, wherein a "redemptive history" merged personal worth with national mission. Puritans, in Bercovitch's vision, saw themselves as "American Israelites, the sole reliable exegetes of a new, last book of scripture" (p. 113). He argues that Cotton Mather, perhaps the epitome of the Puritan thinker, assigned America the status of a "microcosm of the worldwide work of redemption, and macrocosm of the redemptive work underway in each of its chosen people" (p. 134). This blending of personal story--essentially a spiritual biography--with a national prophecy and mission has been a persistent theme in American history and was first apparent in the writings of the early American Puritans.

Bercovitch goes a step further with his analysis, however, by noting that this Puritan approach to personal/national identity provided a handy but complex structure for later generations to think of their place in the world. The result was a belief in human perfectibility and a strong utopian impulse in American intellectual thought and political tradition.
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By A Customer on February 21, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is the single most important study of the formation of "America"--its culture, history and literature. Professor Bercovitch's brilliant analysis of these Puritan texts should be essential reading to anyone even remotely interested in undertanding the often bizarre nature of American society. Working with original Puritan chronicles, diaries and other texts, Bercovitch shows that so much of what we take for granted in this culture has a distinctly Puritan origin. Read this book, and you will never view any aspect of this country the same way again.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Bercovitch proves his case that the Boston Puritans set the tone for the American mind, especially its belief that it had a special mission (from God) to create a 'city on a hill' which would redeem the rest of the world, especially decadent Europe. One can hear the same rhetoric from Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and GW Bush. Hence the name 'New' England, to distinguish the colony from bad 'olde' England. Bercovitch shows that Cotton Mather was the first to use the word "America" like we do, as a distinct place populated by people similar but different from Europe. Thus, as early as the 1600's, the colonists were thinking of themselves as Americans, and the split in identity with England would grow only wider, culminating in the inevitable revolution.

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.
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