The original Puritan experiment lasted less than one hundred years but indelibly marked American thought and expression. Emphasis on a godly life and personal motives shapes the journals of colonial governors William Bradford (1590-1649) and John Winthrop (1588-1694). Their documents reveal harsh dealings with merchandisers who invaded the colonies only to reap the wealth of the New World. The diaries of Judge Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) and Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) endorse the same catalog of virtues Benjamin Franklin lists in his Autobiography (1791). Puritan temperance, order, frugality, industry, and justice also suited the rational, moral sensibility of Franklin’s Enlightenment God, the deistic Watchmaker-Creator who let the world tick on unhindered.
Though Edwards’s harsh God had been replaced by a nearly indifferent craftsman, America’s habit of thought was focused on the quest for personal identity and spiritual journeys central to Puritan self-examination. The search for identity and meaning articulated in Puritan journals appears in many guises in America’s long-fiction tradition.Herman Melville’s (1819-1891) Ishmael (Moby Dick, 1851), Kate Chopin’s (1851-1904) Edna Pontillier (The Awakening, 1899), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) Amory Blaine (This Side of Paradise, 1920), and Toni Morrison’s (born 1931) Milkman (Song of Solomon, 1977) all struggle with the context and significance of their lives.
Puritan practice shaped American novels metaphorically long after the Spartan spiritual regimen weakened. Puritan preachers reveled in comparisons between the biblical world and their own. Pairing events across time created a deeper sense of significance for American life. Moses’s prophetic leadership made him a model for Puritan patriarchs. As men of God, their calling...
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