The Puritan Way of Death (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
For decades, students of the American culture have discussed the tensions which always have existed in the ever-expanding American society—the polar extremes of freedom and law, nature and civilization, and society and individual, to list only a few. When Frederick Jackson Turner announced his famous “frontier thesis” in 1893, many persons agreed with his basic assumption that when the frontier closed, a major safety valve was removed. Whether one accepts Turner’s view or the views of dozens of later revisionists, one must admit the value of the study and of its usefulness in attempting to deal with the concept of cultural tensions.
Although David E. Stannard’s A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change covers only the first one hundred fifty or so years of the American colonies and discusses only a few thousand persons—the New England Puritans—his conclusions have the potential for being as exciting as Turner’s, for he supports Leon Festinger’s theory of “cultural dissonance,” which is another way of describing the operant societal tensions. Perhaps the Puritans’ stress, a dichotomous uneasiness between death as an abstract concept and dying as a practical fact, and the ways they found for dealing with the stress, may be the genesis of later compromises and changes effected by the American culture to ease or to dissipate its tensions.
The Puritans attempted to deal with the stress on the basis of...
(The entire section is 1705 words.)
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