Puritans and Economy

Our discussions of Puritanism have focused largely on their spiritual and social aspirations, but it’s important to note that Puritans also had economic motives for migrating to New England. One of the factors “pushing” Puritans to leave England was their anxiety about their own economic status. Puritans tended to come from what was known as the “middling” classes. They were not generally wealthy, but they enjoyed financial independence and relative security. Economic changes in England, however, threatened the future security of some Puritans, and some of them were thus moving to America in search of greater economic security. In early-17th century England, there was a swelling class of paupers and drifters, and some Puritans feared that they too might end up impoverished, given the direction of economic change.

Not surprisingly, Puritan anxieties about their economic status had spiritual reverberations. Because of their great uncertainty about the state of their souls (would they be saved?), Puritans tended to look for “signs” of God’s favor. The best sign of God’s grace, of course, was a new birth or conversion experience, confirmed by a virtuous mode of life. Part of living a good life was working hard. And if hard work led to some worldly measure of success, then that too was a good sign that one lived in God’s grace. Although economic success or failure could not be taken as a certain indicator of grace, it was nevertheless a sign. Hard-working Puritans thus lived in fear that they might be reduced to poverty and dependence if they remained in England.

Once in New England, furthermore, generations of Puritan families found that with hard work and discipline, they could prosper on the land — sometimes gained only after conflict with Indians. Although they seldom gained great wealth, they often managed to secure independence and competence for themselves and their families. Their religious culture and even some of their laws discouraged profiteering, greed, and lavish consumption, but they very much valued the prospect of making a decent living.

(Although I haven’t reviewed it in some time, I am drawing here in part on Alan Taylor’s excellent chapters on New England in American Colonies, which is available on reserve in the Cofrin Library.)

“Early American Murder Narratives”

Reading: Karen Halttunen, “Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror,” in Richard W. Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Power of Culture” Critical Essays in American History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), 66-101.

In this masterful essay, Karen Halttunen not only traces an important cultural change — from the Puritan execution drama to the 18th-century murder narrative — but she also provides a compelling analysis of the significance of “the birth of horror.”

This essay requires careful reading. As Halttunen moves forward in time from the 1600s to the late 1700s and early 1800s, her argument becomes increasingly sophisticated, until she pulls everything together in the final few pages. Be sure to read the entire essay.

To understand Halttunen’s argument fully, it’s important to know how she uses the words liberal and liberalism. She is not referring to our modern-day political distinction between liberal and conservative. Instead, she is using liberal to refer to a worldview developed during the 18th-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. According to the liberal vision, human beings were essentially good, and they were able to act with a large measure of freedom. (Note the contrast with the 17th-century Puritan worldview, in which humans were essentially sinful and therefore had limited ability or freedom to pursue the good.) I’m going to leave it to you to figure out the role of liberalism in Halttunen’s argument, but know that it does figure into her central conclusions.

Here are several questions to consider as you read:

  1. Read the first two paragraphs of “Early American Murder Narrative” very closely. What change does Karen Halttunen say that she is exploring? What “historical significance” does she cite for her work?
  2. According to this essay, what important social and cultural functions were played by the Puritan ministers and Puritan beliefs, within the context of the execution drama? Does Halttunen cast Puritanism in a favorable or unfavorable light?
  3. How did post-1750 murder narratives differ from execution sermons? How did they explain evil?
  4. What major shifts or transitions does Halttunen describe? (From X to Y.)
  5. What’s the largest and most significant argument that Halttunen makes in this essay?

Note: If you found this article to be interesting, check out Halttunen’s book-length study of murder and horror, titled Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination.

p.s.–Karen Halttunen graciously posted a comment below, in which she poses a very interesting question. Take a look.

The Puritan Enterprise

Reading: Jim Cullen, “Dream of the Good Life (I): The Puritan Enterprise,” in The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), 11-34.

In the context of America, Puritanism refers to a joint religious and social movement, to an attempt on the part of thousands of reform-minded English Christians to establish Christian communities in New England in the early-to-mid 1600s. In the “Great Migration” of the 1630s, tens of thousands of Puritans crossed the Atlantic Ocean and undertook the difficult and often dangerous task of colonizing the “New England” region, substantially north of Virginia, an earlier British settlement. (Click for a map of early British settlements in North America.) While the Pilgrims (who founded Plymouth in 1620) had already given up on the established Church of England, the Puritans at least theoretically wanted to purify the church by stripping it down to its New Testament essentials. For all intents and purposes, though, when the Puritans forsook England for America, they were creating their own autonomous churches, which they hoped would be the center of their new towns. In leaving their homeland, then, they sought freedom, but it was a limited freedom, because they envisioned tight-knit and homogeneous communities.

In some cases, at least, they succeeded in creating such communities, even as they experienced their fair share of conflict. (Click here for a map of the New England colonies.) The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured an Indian and a plea to “come over and help us.”
Massachusetts Bay Seal
By the mid-1600s, Puritans did actually make efforts to convert Indians to Christianity, but they also brutally fought Indians (such as the Pequots) who refused to surrender valuable land. They hung several Quakers, who seemed a civil and religious threat, and even as their vision of a Christian commonwealth fell victim to imperial demands for toleration in the 1690s, they executed nearly twenty alleged witches on the basis of highly problematic evidence.

Puritan New England has alternately been conceived as a cradle of American democracy and a cauldron of American intolerance. Jim Cullen documents these ambiguities regarding Puritan New England, but he also finds something admirable in the “Puritan Enterprise,” — namely their “faith in reform” (15), which he sees as a fundamental component of the American Dream.

They sought to reform not only the church, but also society in general. Cullen doesn’t go into much detail about how they structured their society, but it’s worth noting that local congregations and town meetings lay at the heart of their social and political organization. Massachusetts Bay Colony was not a theocracy — the ministers did not rule. But the religious system did overlap with the political system. Each town taxed its residents to support the local church, which everyone was expected to attend. Up to the 1690s, in order to have the right to vote in colony-level elections, Massachusetts men (only men could vote) had to be full members of their local congregation, which is to say that they had to experience a spiritual conversion and satisfy their peers that they were good Christians. (Because of their “new birth” experiences and their history of upright behavior, the full church members were called “visible saints.”) Although Cullen doesn’t mention it, most towns had more inclusive policies for their town meetings, where all independent men could generally participate, regardless of their status in the church. (On this point, see Michael Zuckerman’s work on New England towns.)

Although some New England towns managed to sustain cohesive, Christian communities for a generation or so, as time went on, a variety of pressures damaged the enterprise. The growing white population of New England led to dispersion and also provoked intense and disruptive conflicts with the Indian inhabitants of the region. By the end of the century, too, the empire intervened and imposed toleration and severed the connection between church membership and voting. Puritanism was by no means dead, but during the 1700s it began to evolve in different directions, as David Hall suggests in his essay from the Companion to American Thought.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What core theological beliefs did Puritans share?
  2. Why did Puritan beliefs tend to cause them anxiety? What strategies did they develop for dealing with that anxiety?
  3. How did Puritans tend to define the good life?
  4. What problems undermined the Puritan experiment?
  5. What enduring influences might Puritanism have had on American culture?

Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Herman Melville, known today for his novel Moby Dick, published “Bartleby the Scrivener” in 1853. The narrator of the story, an elderly lawyer, recounts his relationship with the “unaccountable” and “inscrutable” Bartleby, a copyist who briefly worked in the lawyer’s office. As the story is set primarily at a place of business — the lawyer’s office — it is relevant to note the historical economic context within which Melville wrote.

During the early-to-mid 1800s, the United States was deep into the midst of what historians call the “market revolution.” Not only were market activities and capitalistic logic becoming more widespread, but capitalist values affected social relationships as well. Business owners seeking to maximize efficiency and profits were replacing skilled laborers with machinery (operated by cheap, unskilled labor) wherever feasible. As a result, fewer and fewer manual laborers could hope to achieve economic independence, a goal long cherished by American farmers and workers alike.

Master craftsman had once trained journeyman to be masters themselves, but industrial capitalism increasingly displaced this sort of small-scale production by skilled, independent artisans. Employers gradually became mere “bosses,” thus shedding responsibility for overseeing and training workers. Unlike the master, the boss had no obligations to his workers. To be sure, the industrial system improved productivity and fed economic development, but it did not do so without fundamentally altering social relationships, for better or for worse. (Orestes Brownson offered an insightful analysis of these problems in an 1842 essay, which is available here.)

In “Bartleby,” the lawyer’s employees are in many ways like human copying machines. (They get paid by the page.) Like industrial workers, furthermore, Nippers, Turkey, Ginger Nut, and Bartleby seem to have few prospects for improving their lots in life. The lawyer does not seem especially aware of their plights, but the arrival of Bartleby, as he explains, threw his entire office into disarray.

It might be argued that Bartelby refused to play by the rules of the capitalist, wage-labor system, and he thus forced the lawyer to confront the tensions buried within his vision of himself as a benevolent man.

As we discuss this story, there are several questions that we might consider:

  1. How does the narrator present himself at the beginning of the story?
  2. What kind of fellow does he seem to be?
  3. Why might Melville have made the narrator dwell on the characters of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut?  What do these characters reveal? How might these characters been seen as examples of bad living?
  4. How would you describe Bartleby’s behavior?
  5. Why didn’t the narrator deal more harshly with Bartleby?
  6. Why was the narrator concerned about the contagion of the word “prefer”?
  7. What is the central conflict of this story?
  8. What value systems does the lawyer employ to try to resolve his dilemma?
  9. How would you evaluate the narrator’s moral character by the end of the story?
  10. How else might the lawyer have handled the Bartleby dilemma?
  11. To what extent might the narrator be said to be living a “good life”?

Wise Blood, 2

Reading, Flanney O’Connor, Wise Blood, 117-231.

The plot thickens in this second half of Wise Blood, as Haze’s preaching scheme collapses in violence and Enoch’s wise blood leads him also to violence and to devolution. These two plot lines intertwine at certain points, but they have very different ending points.

As O’Connor follows Haze, she makes short work of his project to found the Church Without Christ, by having it generate both a doppelganger “Prophet” and Enoch’s crazy scheme for providing the “new jesus.” The Church Without Christ, with its would-be new jesus who is “without blood to waste” (140), represents Haze’s attempt to deny the existence of both sin and truth. Hoover Shoats (a.k.a., Onnie Jay Holy), tries to convince Haze that “if you want to get anywheres in religion, you got to keep it sweet” (157), and he thus offers an “up-to-date” “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” (153, 151), which, he proclaims to the moviegoers, is “based on your own personal interpretation of the Bible” (153). Here and elsewhere, O’Connor is pretty clearly trying to attack various modern, watered-down forms of Christianity that don’t acknowledge human sinfulness and therefore have no need for grace or redemption. This strand of O’Connor’s critique has many facets that are worth exploring.

By the end of the novel, however, something has happened to Haze, and he undergoes a significant transformation. The critical question to ask is, why does Haze change? And, what’s the nature of his change?

Enoch, too, undergoes a major transformation as his storyline comes to an end. It’s worth asking again, what’s the deal with Enoch? What drives him? What is this “wise blood”? Oddly, the narrative voice comments directly (albeit negatively), on the symbolic meaning of Enoch’s final transformation. How might Enoch’s plotline (including this transformation) be fit into O’Connor’s larger critique. Absurd as Enoch’s story may be, it has a point.

Ultimately, O’Connor does not use Wise Blood to make a positive statement about her vision of the good. Instead, she draws “startling figures” for her “almost-blind” (and presumably hostile) audience in order to expose the absurdity (absence of meaning) in modern (secular) culture. If this interpretation is correct, it raises the question, why might she have taken this approach to conveying her message?

Wise Blood, 1

Reading: Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, to p. 115

Flannery O’Connor wrote Wise Blood to make a point — to offer a critique of modern, secular society and culture. Her 1962 author’s note provides us with some idea of what she was up to. The protagonist Hazel Motes, she tells us, was a Christian malgre lui — a Christian in spite of himself. Put another way, Hazel couldn’t escape from the reality of Christ. O’Connor also reveals that she admires this character for this very reason. Virtually echoing Niebuhr, she concluded her note by asserting: “Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery.”

At first glance, certainly, the novel seems to be something of a mystery, too. It’s crucial to note at the outset that this is a work of fiction, which means that O’Connor chose to make her point indirectly. In other words, the characters are not speaking directly for her, voicing her own opinions. In fact, there are very few statements in the book with which O’Connor would agree. How’s that for oblique? Ironically, one of the few statements that O’Connor would have believed was uttered by the fraudulent blind preacher: “you can’t run away from Jesus. Jesus is a fact” (51).

For another hint about O’Connor’s project, consider this reflection on her own writing, from 1957: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him [or her!], and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. . . . For the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners, 33-34).

Given the “startling figures” that she created in Wise Blood, it’s fair to say that she believed that she was writing the novel for Americans who were “almost-blind.” Haze and Enoch, in particular, can be seen as caricatures, as can many other characters in the novel. (Literary scholars have labeled O’Connor’s prose as “grotesque,” which is a literary style that features disturbing exaggerations.) Through the absurdities that she depicts, O’Connor mocked the absurdities that she saw in the modern, secular world.

So where does this leave us? The first half of this book probably raises more questions than it answers. O’Connor has not yet shown all of her cards. But there several important questions to consider. First, there is the puzzle of Haze’s preaching. Why does he start preaching, and what kind of message does he preach? Also, why does he pursue Asa Hawks and his daughter? In short, what seems to be driving him? Second, what’s the deal with Enoch? What does he mean when he refers to his “wise blood”? Finally, what message might O’Connor be sending through her creation of the general setting of the book? How would you describe the city in which Haze and Enoch meet? What might that city represent, in a symbolic sense? These questions are at least a start, but the novel will continue to develop in surprising directions in its second half!

Robert Ingersoll, “The Divided Household of Faith” (1888)

Reading: Ingersoll, “Divided Household of Faith

Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) was the most prominent American freethinker of the 19th century. He was a very popular (if scandalous) lecturer, and he spoke in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States during the 1880s and 1890s. In his youth, Ingersoll had been influenced by Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, as well as by many other writers and intellectuals (he read widely). He also revered the work of Charles Darwin. Because of his studies, he came to reject many of the beliefs of Christianity, which he condemned as an absurdity. He declared himself an “agnostic,” by which he meant that he claimed no knowledge of any supernatural reality. (See the last two sections of his essay, “Why I am an Agnostic.”) Like many other critics of orthodox Christianity, Ingersoll promoted a humanistic ethic, judging actions or policies right or wrong based upon their impact on human beings, rather than on their accordance with religious rules.

In the “The Divided Household of Faith,” Ingersoll criticized the American churches for failing to come to terms with the new discoveries of science (especially astronomy, geology, and biology) and with the (relatively) new moral consensus regarding such issues as slavery.

I see several main questions to ask of this text:

  1. How did Ingersoll criticize Christian beliefs? What beliefs in particular did he go after?
  2. What attitude did Ingersoll adopt towards science?
  3. How might Ingersoll’s beliefs compare and contrast with pragmatism?
  4. What positive beliefs did Ingersoll express here? (By positive, I mean beliefs that go beyond the negative points of his criticism.)

It’s also worth noting that Ingersoll’s father was a Presbyterian (albeit a liberal Presbyterian), and that he grew up in a quite Christian region of upstate New York and went on to serve in the Civil War. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William James, then, he was to a certain extent rejecting the truisms of the culture from which he emerged.