Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in and around Boston believed they had been called to the New World to fulfill God’s Providence. They were part of the Protestant Reformation, which they considered the most significant period of history since Christ himself walked the earth and one that would hasten the millennium.
For some twenty-five years before the publication of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, there had been, according to Kenneth Silverman, calls for someone to document the history of the New England colony. Many felt that Mather’s father, Increase, was in the best position to write such a magisterial work. Thus, Cotton, being not only Increase’s son but also the grandson of two other essential contributors to the Puritan settlement of America—John Cotton and Richard Mather—felt it his familial duty to take responsibility for this monumental ecclesiastical history.
In the estimation of Silverman, the book was begun in 1693 and was compiled from diaries, Increase’s correspondence, and manuscript histories of New England by William Bradford and William Hubbard. Mather and his father also were acquainted with survivors of the first generation of settlers, or their families. Although Mather had interviewed many of them, he wanted even more information. In 1700, the manuscript of the book was sent to England for publication. After many delays and discouragements, Mather learned that it had been published in 1702. He was dismayed, however, to find that the publisher had made some three hundred typographical errors in the text.
According to Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, the book’s Latin title means “great achievements of Christ in America.” The phrase originates from a Latin translation from the Greek of the book of Acts 2:11 that uses the phrase “magnalia dei,” or “wonderful works of God.” The title also might have derived from Magnalia Dei Anglicana by John Vicar, published in London in 1646. In any event, Mather’s title reflects the purpose of the book, which is to celebrate the marvelous works of Christ in the New World, particularly the rise of a Reformed Evangelical Church forced to leave a flawed Old World to practice Christianity as it was intended, and a church intended to serve as “a city on a hill,” in John Winthrop’s words, for the rest of the world to emulate. More immediately, Mather hoped to reinvigorate what he perceived as a flagging enthusiasm in his—the third—generation of New Englanders by citing the pure beliefs and heroic actions of the Puritan ancestors.
The collection of historical sketches and documents, including sermons, biographies, and historical narratives, spans eight hundred folio pages in double columns. Babette M. Levy points out that Mather includes seventeen of his previously published works, including a long biographical sketch of Sir William Phips, one of the later governors of Massachusetts. This sketch is out of proportion to the other biographies (including those of more significant people) in book 2. Such additions give the sense of a miscellany of history rather than a seamless historical narrative.
Critics have complained that the book is sprawling, heavily allusive, and pedantic. Mather’s writing style has been called artificial, turgid, fantastic, and overloaded, full of dense jungles of quotation, analogy, and other embellishments. The word “baroque” best describes an artistry that is highly ornamental, elaborate in verbal usages, and crowded with figures of speech. Many of the devices Mather employs, such as repetition, puns, paradoxes, anagrams, and other wordplay, are probably ones he found effective in the pulpit.
Although Mather was attacked as ostentatious, idiosyncratic,...
(The entire section is 1546 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Baker, Dorothy Z. America’s Gothic Fiction: The Legacy of “Magnalia Christi Americana.” Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007. In this study, Baker examines how nineteenth-century writers Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others, turned to Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana to “refashion his historical accounts as gothic fiction.”
Bercovitch, Sacvan. “Cotton Mather.” In Major Writers of Early American Literature, edited by Everett Emerson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972. Answers charges that Mather was egotistical and ostentatious by demonstrating his moral idealism, his subordination of self to Christ, and his belief in the unity of all knowledge.
Levin, David. Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663-1703. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Chronicles the first forty years of Mather’s life. Includes discussions of the Magnalia Christi Americana, its structure, and its biographical pattern of finding variety in one essential paradigm of good individuals.
Levy, Babette M. Cotton Mather. 1979. Reprint. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999. A basic study covering the life and works of Mather with a chronology, notes, and a bibliography. Includes a full chapter on the Magnalia Christi Americana.
Miller, Perry, and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings. 1963. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2001. An anthology of Puritan writings. An excellent introduction places the Puritans in their historical context, corrects popular misconceptions of them, and explains their beliefs.
Murdock, Kenneth B., ed. Selections from Cotton Mather. 1926. Reprint. New York: Hafner, 1973. Murdock’s introduction sketches Mather’s precocious childhood and remarkable career as scholar, writer, minister, and scientist. Critiques his historical method and writing style and traces his influence on American writers and thinkers.
Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. 1984. Reprint. New York: Welcome Rain, 2002. A thorough biography that includes an analysis of the Magnalia Christi Americana’s sources, structure, publication history, and significance.
Wendell, Barrett. Cotton Mather: The Puritan Priest. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963. First published in 1891, this biography reopened serious discussion of Mather, telling his story largely in his own words. Relies on diaries, letters, and published works.