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Design in Puritan American Literature

Design in Puritan American Literature

William J. Scheick
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Design in Puritan American Literature
    Book Description:

    Puritan American writers faced a dilemma: they had an obligation to use language as a celebration of divine artistry, but they could not allow their writing to become an iconic graven image of authorial self-idolatry. In this study William Scheick explores one way in which William Bradford, Nathaniel Ward, Anne Bradstreet, Urian Oakes, Edward Taylor, and Jonathan Edwards mediated these conflicting imperatives. They did so, he argues, by creating moments in their works when they and their audience could hesitate and contemplate the central paradox of language: its capacity to intimate both concealed authorial pride and latent deific design. These ambiguous occasions served Puritan writers as places where the threat of divine wrath and the promise of divine mercy intersected in unresolved tension.

    By the nineteenth century the heritage of this Christlike mingling of temporal connotation and eternal denotation had mutated. A peculiar late eighteenth-century narrative by Nathan Fiske and a short story by Edward Bellamy both suggest that the binary nature of language exploited by their Puritan ancestors was still a vital authorial concern; but neither of these writers affirms the presence of an eternal denotative signification hidden within the conflicting historical contexts of their apparently allegorical language. For them, appreciation of the mystery of a divine revelation possibly concealed in words yielded to puzzlement over language itself, specifically over the inadequacy of language to signify more than its own instability of design.

    This book is a tightly focused study of an important aspect of Puritan American writers' use of language by one of the leading scholars in the field of early American literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6420-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    In this study I focus on several Puritan American writings as texts that invitereading, interpretation. I agree with J. Hillis Miller’s surprising but welcome recent argument for an academic return to an awareness of the text as a text. Before moving students into abstract realms of literary discourse, Miller contends, critics are obliged first of all to return to the “traditional task” of “the teaching ofreading,” the training of their students “in reading all the signs.”¹ Such a reminder is reinforced by Dominick LaCapra’s related response to critical approaches to literature that emphasize only its expression of unconscious...

  4. 1 The Necessity of Language
    (pp. 6-29)

    Sometimes the best laid schemes of the best of men and women do indeed go astray, and badly. This was certainly the opinion of William Bradford as he pondered in his later years the condition of the Pilgrims in Plymouth colony. It was, as well, the opinion of Thomas Morton as he fretted over the destruction of his settlement, and of Richard Mather as he considered ministerial responsibilities in his mission to make a clearing in the New World wilderness. And it was also the opinion of Edward Taylor as he reflected on the effect of Satan’s scheming on humanity’s...

  5. 2 The Winding Sheet of Meditative Verse
    (pp. 30-67)

    A little more than fifty years have passed since Thomas H. Johnson first presented Edward Taylor’s poetry to the public.¹ Since then, Taylor has emerged as the most outstanding poet of colonial America, even though his verse has remained obscure and enigmatic. Early commentary treated his poems collectively and primarily attempted to define the traditions informing them.² ThePreparatory Meditationsparticularly tended to disturb Taylor’s critics during the 1940s and 1950s, when various efforts were made to explain what seemed to some to be inept awkwardness or a Roman Catholic disposition in the poet’s work. Even today a similar hesitation...

  6. 3 Laughter and Death
    (pp. 68-88)

    Because the logogic crux was for the Puritan author, as we have seen in the previous chapter, a site of a nervous meditative apprehension of human corruption and deific perfection, it sometimes became a place for reverent laughter or for reflective mourning. The Puritan author found authority for humor primarily in the Renaissance valuation of language as individualistic expression, though this authority (as we noted in the first chapter) was modified by certain Reformed and Augustinian notions.¹ The Puritan author found authority for mourning primarily in the Reformed authorization of language as an allegorical instrument revealing divine truth, although this...

  7. 4 Breaking Verbal Icons
    (pp. 89-119)

    So far we have reviewed occasions when several seventeenth-century Puritan American writers tried to mediate the requirement to use language in celebration of the infinite wonder of divine artistry (Christ, nature, and history) and the inherent tendency of this language to become an iconic graven image of authorial self-idolatry. These writers fashioned logogic sites where they and their audience could hesitate and contemplate the potentiality of postlapsarian human language to reveal simultaneously both concealed authorial pride and concealed deific design. In the instances of Bradford’s use of the wordnecessity, Mather’s use ofart, Taylor’s use ofhandandbalanced...

  8. 5 Islands of Meaning
    (pp. 120-145)

    As our initial review of Renaissance and Reformed perspectives on writing indicates, the Puritan dual attitude toward the ambiguity of human language—at once a problem and an opportunity—had a long history. In the preceding chapters I have tried to explore one aesthetic feature of the Puritans’ profound exploitation of this binary nature of language. Specifically, in their exuberant and nervous artistry, Puritan authors often hesitated at an ambiguous logogic site to contemplate the intertwining of the divine and the human in postlapsarian verbal expression. No firm case can be made that this Puritan emphasis on logogic cruxes of...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 146-163)
  10. Index
    (pp. 164-167)