Authorizing Experience

Authorizing Experience: Refigurations of the Body Politic in Seventeenth-Century New England Writing

Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Authorizing Experience
    Book Description:

    The emphasis on practical experience over ideology is viewed by many historians as a profoundly American characteristic, one that provides a model for exploring the colonial challenge to European belief systems and the creation of a unique culture. Here Jim Egan offers an unprecedented look at how early modern American writers helped make this notion of experience so powerful that we now take it as a given rather than as the product of hard-fought rhetorical battles waged over ways of imagining one's relationship to a larger social community. In order to show how our modern notion of experience emerges from a historical change that experience itself could not have brought about, he turns to works by seventeenth-century writers in New England and reveals the ways in which they authorized experience, ultimately producing a rhetoric distinctive to the colonies and supportive of colonialism.

    Writers such as John Smith, William Wood, John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Benjamin Tompson, and William Hubbard were sensitive to the challenge experiential authority posed to established social hierarchies. Egan argues that they used experience to authorize a supplementary status system that would at once enhance England's economic, political, and spiritual status and provide a new basis for regulating English and native populations. These writers were assuaging fears over how exposure to alien environments threatened actual English bodies and also the imaginary body that authorized English monarchy and allowed English subjects to think of themselves as a nation. By reimagining the English nation, these supporters of English colonialism helped create a modern way of imagining national identity and individual subject formation.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2302-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-13)

    AMERICA reveres few terms as passionately as it does “experience.” No concept plays a more crucial role in the stories told about the nation’s founding or in the reasons given for America’s distinctive cultural features. That it was not ideology or theory that made America but experience is a story first told at least as far back as the Revolution. As Jack Greene has pointed out, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 used the “concurring testimony of experience,” “unequivocal experience,” or “indubitable experience” to authorize their revolutionary actions and constitutional principles.¹ The frequency of the link made between...

    (pp. 14-31)

    AMONG seventeenth-century arguments against the English colonization of North America, none were more powerful than those based on climate. To be sure, native inhabitants were thought to pose a danger to the colonists. And, as if the threat of native violence were not enough to deter prospective colonists, opponents of colonization could offer a laundry list of other reasons why colonization efforts should be abandoned. Their reasons included but were not limited to problems such as the logistics of transporting sufficient numbers of people to various parts of the globe, the economics of financing those expeditions and the colonies themselves,...

    (pp. 32-46)

    IN WHAT is arguably the founding text of New Historicist criticism,Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt explains that “[s]elf-fashioning is always, though not exclusively, in language.”¹ Indeed, as if in anticipation of recent studies that equate the onset of modernity with the rise of writing, Greenblatt focuses on the role representation plays in how certain “middle-class” English writers established their “personal identity” and obtained social authority within the relatively rigid hierarchical structures of early modern England.² In theory,at least, these attempts at self-fashioning by “middle-class men” who lacked social power posed a challenge to English monarchy.³ As Greenblatt explains, however, systems...

  7. Chapter Three A BODY THAT WORKS
    (pp. 47-65)

    AS CLARENCE J. GLACKEN pointed out long ago, seventeenth-century English writers understood the relationship between “environment and national character” to be a causal one.¹ They thought that climate determined the character of a culture and, consequently, the character of those individuals who belonged to the culture. John Smith, for example, developed this theory of character into an argument that promoted the colonization of New England, claiming that New England would not only yield a bounty of natural resources but also flower as a culture because its climate resembled that of the “ancient Citie and Countrey of Rome” (1:333). This argument,...

    (pp. 66-81)

    AS PERRY MILLER noted long ago, New English civil and religious institutions were designed at least in part to be “a working model to guide” the political allies they had left behind in England.¹ New Englanders soon learned, however, that their institutions were often seen more as a threat to English government than a cure for its ills. InPlain Dealing: Or, Newes From New England(1641), Thomas Lechford claims that the years 1638 to 1641 during which he lived in Massachusetts Bay proved to him that the political system of New England undermined the political authority on which the...

    (pp. 82-94)

    SCHOLARS of American literature concluded long ago that the writings of the seventeenth-century Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet could well be the origin of American women’s literature.¹ Bradstreet’s work is said to provide “a model for future generations of women” because of her “insistence on the primacy of personal experience.”² In the face of masculine “denial” “of the value of her experience and abilities” as a woman, Bradstreet remained “[t]rue . . . to her Puritanism and her female experience” and produced the “glorious gynocentrism” that marks her “as a forerunner of other women struggling to enter (and therefore subvert) the...

    (pp. 95-120)

    IT IS AN article of faith among scholars of colonial American culture that American national consciousness can be traced to the experiences of New English colonists in the latter half of the seventeenth century.¹ In the words of Richard Slotkin, these experiences mark the “beginning of the century of struggle over royal government that would end in the War of Independence.”² Scholars typically cite two events as crucial to the story of America’s experiential birth. First, the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1661 is said to have brought the Puritan colonies under greater scrutiny and exposed the rather lenient...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 121-160)
    (pp. 161-178)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 179-182)