How is the ideology of Puritanism reflected in American literature?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The best step to take in writing on the topic of the ideology of Puritanism in American literature, especially Colonial American literature, is to research Puritanism.  For instance, there is much of Calvinism's belief in predestination, the concept of the elect and the damned, etc.  One concept that prevails throughout the Colonial literature is the Puritan idea that one's life is directly connected to God, even the most trivial of activities.  Anne Bradstreet, for example, is best remembered for her simple poems that relate her experiences with experiences with God.  She wrote,

Among all my experiences of God's gracious dealing with me I have constantly observed this, that He hath never suffered me long to sit loose from Him,but by one affliction or other hath made me look home, and search what was amiss.

In addition to what has been noted, here are some other characteristics of Puritan writing:

  • The Bible provided a model for Puritan writing :  a conception of each individual life was that it was a journey to salvation.
  • Puritans used writing to explore their inner and outer lives for sign of the workings of God.
  • diaries and histories were the most common forms of expression in Puritan society because they directly expressed the workings of God.  (e.g."Of Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford
  • Puritans favored a plain style, similar to that of the Geneva Bible.  They stressed clarity of expression and avoided complicated figures of speech.

Later, in the 1800s, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, a descendant of the early Puritans, became fascinated with Puritan New England because of a sense of guilt about his ancestor, Judge Hathorne's role in the reprehensible Salem Witchcraft Trials.  Consequently, Hawthorne--who changed the spelling of his surname--wrote to expiate the sin's of his family with such short stories as "Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil," and the novel, "The Scarlet Letter," all set in Puritan New England.  In addition,these stories were written in an effort to expose the more damaging consequences of the Puritanical rigidity and unforgiving view of humankind.

engtchr5 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps one of the best pieces of American Literature to use for this purpose is "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller. While Miller wrote the play to be a reflection of the injustices of McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts, the play is rife with realistic portrayals of Puritan life in 1692. The ideal that perfection was expected and imperfection was not tolerated is made clear through this literary selection, as is the hypocrisy of some Puritan followers. Miller's Crucible will definitely give the reader a good start on approaching this critical note question, and will provide a good idea of what life in Puritan America was really like.