American Jezebel Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although the United States dutifully pays homage to its Puritan forebears on Thanksgiving Day, few Americans could give a detailed account of why the Puritans came to claim this new land as their own, much less explain their religious views. Even more problematic is the great historical void in the collective American consciousness, where the image of Plymouth Rock dissolves into the Boston Massacre with cinematic ease. As American Jezebel, Eve LaPlante's splendid biography of her ancestor Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591-1643), makes clear, much occurred in the interim that is worth remembering.

Hutchinson, who gained notoriety for her strident religious views in Puritan New England, lived most of her fifty-two years in the anonymous role of the English housewife. Unlike her contemporaries, however, Hutchinson was eventually able to transcend the gender limits of early colonial America. Eve LaPlante, to her credit, adroitly contrasts Hutchinson's experience as a woman with that of modern women in Western society. Women of Hutchinson's time lacked more than just the right to vote. They were virtually bereft of all rights and were invisible in the public sphere.

LaPlante succinctly describes this situation, but she could have clarified the legal basis for the condition of women in Hutchinson's time. Under a principle known as coverture, English common law held that a woman ceased to exist as a legal entity upon marriage. This complicates the historian's task. At best, history is but a partial record of how victors triumph over the vanquished. In terms of early colonial America, the situation is even more difficult. The written record was created by those few select males who were educated—an advantage seldom obtained by seventeenth century women. Thus, a modern historian who wishes to understand the women of this period nearly always faces the silence of the early colonial woman. In the case of Anne Hutchinson, as LaPlante reveals in meticulous detail, Hutchinson's life ran counter to the establishment view of women and their role in society.

To understand Hutchinson, one must turn to her father, the Reverend Francis Marbury, a clergyman who so chafed under the authority of the Church of England that he was sentenced to more than two years in jail. Hutchinson may have inherited her father's rebellious nature; she certainly benefited from his considerable scholarship. This college-educated clergyman possessed an intellect so keen that it often put him at odds with his less talented, poorly trained colleagues. While it is possible to overstate Francis Marbury's influence upon his famous daughter, that he left his stamp upon her is undeniable. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the striking resemblance between the father's career in England and the daughter's life in colonial New England. Both recognized their intellectual superiority in relation to their contemporaries, and both were ostracized for expressing views that ran counter to those of the religious establishment. Such differences may seem trivial from a modern perspective, but LaPlante convincingly argues that they had lasting effects upon the embryonic American society.

The Protestant Reformation came late to England. In 1534, King Henry VIII severed his nation's ties to Roman Catholicism and established what is known as the Anglican Church, or the Church of England. Puritanism sprang into being in the 1550's as a reaction to this official church: Its followers felt that the Reformation in England had not gone far enough, that the Church of England had to rid itself of any remaining Papist or Catholic influences. Those differences with the official Church led Puritans to seek sanctuary in Holland and later in the New World. In one of the great ironies of history, the Puritans of New England proved to be just as intolerant of religious dissent as the British government. What prompted their eventual censure of Hutchinson may now seem an arcane bit of religious dogma, but the effects were both immediate and far-reaching.

LaPlante explains with ease and skill the doctrinal differences between Hutchinson and the ruling powers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Governor John Winthrop and his followers held that salvation could only be achieved through a covenant of works: A believer would become one of the elect—one of God's chosen—by adhering to the requirements of the church and the government. Anne Hutchinson, on the other hand, believed...

(The entire section is 1819 words.)