The "impact of Puritanism" might refer to the continuing effect that the Protestant denominations, descended from the seventeenth-century Puritans, had on American society and literature. We can also speak of the manner in which nineteenth-century Americans' understanding of their history, of the actions of their Protestant forefathers two centuries earlier,...
The "impact of Puritanism" might refer to the continuing effect that the Protestant denominations, descended from the seventeenth-century Puritans, had on American society and literature. We can also speak of the manner in which nineteenth-century Americans' understanding of their history, of the actions of their Protestant forefathers two centuries earlier, affected their lives and their literary work.
Much of the literature produced by New Englanders such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau focuses on the conscience of the individual and the necessity of taking a separate path, when necessary, from that of society if society is judged to be wrong. This is a central tenet of Protestantism in general and of the specifically Calvinist branch of it from which the English Puritans are descended. Emerson's long essay "Self-Reliance" is probably the most cogent argument in favor of individualism in the works of the New England writers.
The abolitionist movement is also often seen to have its roots in the spirit of the "dissenters"—that is, any of the Protestant groups who broke off from the Anglican church. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was the daughter and sister of Calvinist ministers. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., another prominent abolitionist, was the son of a Congregationalist clergyman. Though not all of these writers were conservative Christians, the dissenting attitudes of their forefathers, with regard to both previously established denominations and political matters not directly related to religion, affected their thinking and their work.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is a writer who is characterized not so much by Puritan-derived ideas as by his ambivalent conception of his ancestors who founded and governed New England two centuries earlier. A major theme of his work is the harshness, and even the hypocrisy, of the early Puritans and their condemnation of anyone who deviated from the rigid dictates of religion. In The Scarlet Letter,the pillorying of Hester Prynne by the religious establishment is shown as hypocritical. It is ironic as well, given that Hester herself, by having a child out of wedlock, is expressing another form of the individualism that motivated the Puritans and drove them from England to the New World. Elsewhere in his fiction, Hawthorne seems to express a kind of admiration for the radicalism of the Puritans while subtly questioning it. In the story "Endicott and the Red Cross," the defiance of the English crown during the reign of the Stuarts is seen as the seed which, nearly 150 years later, grew into the War of Independence. But the depiction—as in The Scarlet Letter—of the punishment of an "adulteress" and a "wanton gospeller," as well as the moderating presence of Roger Williams, makes the situation ambiguous. It is characteristic of Hawthorne that he presents a two-sided issue and leaves it to the reader to interpret.
The authors discussed here, regardless of their own personal beliefs, were all influenced by the legacy of Puritanism in its different manifestations, as was New England society—and by extension American society as a whole—in the nineteenth century.