Write a critical note on the ideology of Puritanism reflected in American Literature.(500 words)

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The term Puritanism has implications involving both religion and politics and is applicable to literature in both a positive and negative way, sometimes within the body of work of the same writer.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction is a kind of re-imagining of the early colonial period two hundred years before his own time. The extreme religious domination of early New England is viewed by Hawthorne as a hugely negative force that stifles people's individuality and freedom but paradoxically spurs them on in a violent struggle against that force, without which they would not have been able to demonstrate their character and invincibility. I see both Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter as illustrations of this, as victims who simultaneously transcend their victimhood and become heroes. The political aspect of Puritanism, elsewhere in Hawthorne, is seen positively as an archetype of the American spirit of individualism. In the short story "Endicott and the Red Cross," Endicott's gesture of tearing in half the flag with the cross that represents the English monarchy symbolizes a kind of pre-existent form of the independence movement that would take place 130 years later. But the moderating presence of Roger Williams in the tale is a warning against fanaticism. It is also ironic that the religiously extreme Puritans would destroy a cross in any form, regardless of its connection to the hated Stuart house.

Thoreau's writings, both "On Civil Disobedience" and Walden, and their focus on man's individualism and defiance of authority, are further examples of the Puritan legacy, in spite of Thoreau's secular orientation, like Hawthorne's—so is Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance." In nineteenth-century America, religion was used both as a justification of slavery as well as a basis for abolition. The prime exponent in literature of the latter is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe came from a strongly Calvinist family. Calvinism, of course, is the branch of Protestantism to which the Puritans adhered.

Even Edgar Allan Poe, though there is little if any direct expression of religious thought in his work, can be seen as connected to the Puritan legacy in his exploration of the darker side of human nature. Poe sees humanity as crushed by its own sinfulness. Herman Melville's writings similarly are examinations of obsession and fanaticism. Although, like Poe and Hawthorne, Melville was not religious in the traditional sense, one would not think works like Moby Dick or Bartleby would have been possible without the background of Puritanism, which affected so much of America, at least indirectly.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Certainly, a critical and short note on such a topic can encompass a book or two.  It should be noted that what is generated here is meant to serve as a potential starting point of further research and thought.  The Puritanical search for purity and its intolerance for anything short of it helps to leave a significant mark on American Literature.  The notion of being born into original sin, and yet striving for spiritual perfection and complete affirmation and absolution from the creator when it is known that this is impossible helped to bring the gap between what is and what will never be into American thought and literature.  The idea of being able to set oneself up for a fruitless spiritual quest was an element that was brought out in Puritan times and one manipulated into other works of American Literature.  Miller, himself, played with this theme in his plays, "The Crucible," where spiritual perfection ended up serving as a pretense for political and moral manipulation, and "Death of a Salesman," where the pursuit of an illusory American Dream predicated on wealth ends in a failure.  There are other examples of this Puritanical streak of setting oneself up for failure in being measured against an impossible standard.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team