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Puritanism in American literature
 

The Puritans had a profound effect upon American culture.  As a political, social, and cultural force, Puritanism lasted until around 1728.  At this point the center of the country began a shift to the south.  The “Age of Reason” was also ushered in by way of European social philosophy.  Many other historical forces impacted the movement of America away from a religious haven towards an economic and political powerhouse. 

The puritanical strands of religious thought and moral judgment continue to influence, in varying degrees, the social and political thinking in America. 

 Background of Puritanism

 1620 - William Bradford came with a group of individuals from Europe and formed Plymouth Plantation.  In the Fall of 1620 there were 101 men, women, and children present.  By the Spring of 1621 there were only 50 survivors. 

 1628 - John Winthrop and followers came over from Europe in order to establish a “pure” religious movement. 

 The Puritans believed in the innate depravity of man.  They also believed that some people were “predestined” to experience an afterlife with God.  Only the “elect” or “chosen” were in a good relationship with God.

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The Puritans believed that God was working in their daily lives. 

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The Puritans would “search” their daily lives in order to find any symbols from God.

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The Puritans were educated and taught their followers to be rational thinkers.

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The Puritans believed in effective business practices but they also preached a separation from worldly pleasures. 

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The Puritans feared that humanistic learning would draw people away from the church.  They were right about this!

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This fundamental Puritan belief became complicated because it had to be determined who belonged to the group of “chosen” people.

 How did Puritanism relate to literature? 

There are many opinions about this question.  Some would argue that American literature simply grew out of changing historical factors that had little or nothing to do with the religious questioning done by the Puritans.  Others argue that the Puritans’ practice of examining their lives for acts of good and evil naturally shifted into creative writing and imaginative expressions.  Still, the question becomes whether Puritan writing should be seen as simply historic documentation, or does their writing have literary merit???

Puritans wrote diaries in which they would often find spiritual meaning in what might be considered simple coincidences. 

Examples:

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The poor health of a human's  body may be compared to bits of broken glass.

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A snake found under a person’s porch may be seen as the presence of evil.  This could be a warning from God or a visit from the devil.

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A woman accidentally burning a shirt may represent the fact that God was preparing her for the future death of her husband.

The Puritans begin to see the Indians as “devils.”  The Puritans’ success at defeating Indians on certain occasions was seen as a justification from God for killing Indians. 

The Salem Witch Trials would become another episode of reading into the “religious meaning” of a situation. 

 The way Puritans express themselves changes as the strict codes of  Puritan behavior changes.  ARE THE PURITAN WRITERS AWARE OF WHAT THEIR WRITING IS BECOMING? 

Examples:

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Anne Bradstreet’s poetry

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Michael Wigglesworth's poetry

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Edward Taylor's writing

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Cotton Mather’s later writings

The above writers moved away from the strict questioning of what spiritual symbols are taking place in their lives .  They began to use European poetic styles in their writing. 

Questions to Consider

Is their movement towards more imaginative uses of language a break with the past?  Are these writers simply reflecting the changing world around them? 

 By 1660 only 20% of the population of Massachusetts was a member of the church.  The struggle between the secular (non-religious) aspects of daily life and the religious life was growing. 

 1662 - The “Half Way Covenant” was proposed in order to allow new members into the church.  The former strict Puritan behavior and examination of daily life was ending. 

 
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