God and the American Writer
During the 1997 Harbourfront Literary Festival in Toronto, Alfred Kazin delivered a talk in a theater at a sumptuous lakeside shopping center on the role of religion in American letters. The lecture was drawn substantially from his introduction to the volume under review.
As Mr. Kazin was concluding his remarks on American writers and their uneasy relations with the numinous, a listener in the row behind me, whom I knew to be Canadian, remarked with bitter humor to his companion: “Why do they have this thing about themselves and God?”
At that point the Holy Spirit descended upon me and I was moved to reply. But it was Toronto and the festival-goer and I had not been introduced and I uttered not a word in spite of my holy excitement. My eye had fallen on him earlier though. The previous evening he had asked a question of a reader that had entailed his use of the phrase “American consumerist culture.”
I might, in the grip of Divine Inspiration, have pointed out to him that the throngs in the mall outside—the fall-fashionable ladies and gents, the handsome families and shoplifting teenagers, seemed to need no wicked example borne across the lake to encourage their apparent avidity for Ojibway-inspired pole lamps, frozen lattÌ©, or glass grayling mobiles—all of which they seemed to be snapping up with a wholesomely Canadian inclination toward worldly possessions.
Toronto is such a problem to those of us from God’s Country. It’s clean. Everything works. Crime is discouraged, the subway routes are comprehensible. It’s impossible not to wonder: Where did we go wrong? So I held my peace in the theater, instead of bearing witness as the power of Almighty God inclined, instead of demanding an explanation of the man’s question.
Could he not know, after all, that the Lord had led Americans, alone among the world’s peoples, out of bondage to proud, sinful, popishly anointed kings, from the vain mummery of prelates and the usurpation of posturing noblemen arrayed in office, drawling and strutting as though their pedigrees transcended the limits of their dark conception inter faeces et urinam? These fawners, parading with baubles, heathen honors, and jeweled crosses to adorn their little lives between the stink of the nappy and the stench of the shroud? That to humble them, we, uniquely, had been raised up, appointed a City on a Hill, a light unto the nations?
Probably not. He had come of age during the Vietnam War. All the rest would probably have been news to him. He might even, in invincible ignorance of the Word, have rejected it.
Alfred Kazin begins God and the American Writer by stating:
In the beginning at New England our writers were Calvinists, absolutely sure of God and all His purposes. He created man to glorify Him forever. But never sure of his obedience, distrustful of his innate disposition to sin, God kept man forever under His eye. Each claimed to know the other because there was a covenant between them, a contract. Each was eternally watchful of the other, each apparently needed the other. Nothing in the world around a Calvinist counted so much as his dependence on God, his knowledge of God, his standing with God. And God was as eternally occupied with man as man was with God. They were so bound to each other that to the Romantic poets and scientific rationalists who came in with the Age of Reason, God and man seemed born of each other. No wonder that the Puritans in the wilderness, lacking everything but God, were confident to the last that they knew God’s mind.
The people who were soon to distance themselves from primitive New England, to call themselves “Americans” and to expand until they were all over the continent, had to be restless optimists, boosters and boasters always on the go. The writers who stood slightly apart inherited Calvinism with their distrust of human nature.
What Kazin appears to be describing is the origin of an ongoing tension between, on the one part, a populace whose reaction to its Calvinist roots was to cultivate a certain lack of self-awareness and, on the other, its serious writers, whose role as authentic inheritors of the Calvinist tradition of moral introspection was to refuse them that luxury.
Thus “the individual’s high sense of himself so famous in the American character” developed out of a psychological need permanently at odds with a literary culture that would always be pessimistic, conscientiously self-critical, and on the lookout for the depravity inherent in human nature.
Kazin finds a passage incorporating both attitudes, written in the years before the two tendencies separated themselves, in Increase Mather’s “The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation.”
Consider…that some of us are under special advantage to understand these mysterious truths of God; that is to say, such of us as are in an exiled condition in this wilderness…. God hath led us into a wilderness, and surely it was not because the Lord hated us but because he loved us that he brought us into this Jeshimon….
Since then we have not quite been so sure. But the tension around the question has provided the best and most honest of American writing with a level of elemental moral concern that can seem naive to readers far removed from it, including many contemporary Americans. In his brief survey of early poets like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, Kazin detects a self-annihilating mysticism that already seems to be breaking away from nascent Yankee positivism.
Who spake all things from nothing;
And with ease,
Can speak all things to nothing, if he please.
This “‘naive’ devotion on the part of God-enraptured solitaries,” Kazin says, “in a society still colonial could not absorb what Alfred North Whitehead called ‘the century of genius’—the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century taking place in their old homeland.” The general rate of literacy of the American settlers was among the highest in the world, rivaled only by that of certain bibliolatrous parts of Britain like the Scottish Lowlands. But the necessities of physical survival led to a society whose proficiency at technical improvisation and practical craft soon outstripped its thoughtful and subversive literature in importance.
One of the most profound works of self-examination in American letters is a work not cited by Kazin, though the historian Richard Slotkin celebrates it at length as an “archetype” in his classic Regeneration Through Violence. It is the first, or at least one of the earliest, examples of a dark mythic element in American writing, the captivity narrative. Its author was a woman named Mary Rowlandson; her work was entitled The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed.
The book was first published in 1682 and underwent many printings over the years, both in the colonies and in London. In his examination of Rowlandson’s book, Slotkin draws parallels between it and other Puritan classics like Michael Wigglesworth’s fearsome theological poem Day of Doom and Jonathan Edwards’s similarly terrifying Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The Soveraignty and Goodness of God may be fairly held to stand as the progenitor and prototype of a long line of American poetry and prose. It was America’s first international best seller. Though it is not fiction, it is a work whose structure and symbolism connect it to the moral imagination and the psychological core of the nation that produced it.
Mrs. Rowlandson, the wife of the minister at Lancaster, Massachusetts, was captured by the Narraganset Indians during King Philip’s War in 1676, along with her two children. During eleven weeks of winter captivity, her youngest, a baby, died and she became separated from her elder child. Ransomed and returned to Lancaster, Goodwife Rowlandson commenced to deal with the experience in a way which may now seem to us essentially American.
For one thing, in an age where women, if literate, were generally expected to endure in silence, she wrote about it. In passionate, plain, but stately English that rivaled her era’s most inspired preaching, she laid her agonized questions before the reader, demanding, Job-like, an explanation from her own religious understanding for the experience of her own degradation and the loss of her baby. How American it seems in retrospect, this confessional impulse, the assertion of self, the insistence on justification.
She had been guilty of pride, Mary Rowlandson concludes in her book, prideful in her confidence of rectitude. Thus God, in his appalling mercy, caused her faith to be tried, her baby to die, her Englishness, frock, bonnet, and all, to be stripped away until she was a starveling in a blanket, the lowest of creatures.
She had always despised the Indians, pagans, children of hell, who lived for their appetites. So unlike, she had always believed, herself, an Englishwoman, and better than mere English, reformed-English Puritan, raised to the word of God.
But God, by striking her down, had made her understand that nothing about her was superior to the Indians she despised. Only God’s ineffable, incomprehensible grace made any difference.
Then I went to another Wigwam where there were two of the English Children…. [An Indian woman] cut me off a piece [of meat] and gave one of the English Children a piece also. Being very hungry I had quickly eaten up mine, but the child could not bite it, it was so tough and sinewy, but lay sucking, gnawing, chewing and slabbering of it in the mouth and hand, then I took it of the Child and eat it myself, and it was savoury to my taste. Then I may say as Job, chapter vi., 7. The things that my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat.
It was a dreadful moment, taking food from the mouths of other women’s children. She had always secretly wanted to have God test her faith. Being tested, she finds herself a beast, in absolute dependence. “I have seen,” she wrote, “the extreme vanity of the world.”
The informing spirit of Mary Rowlandson’s journal, its antiheroic, self-questioning and self-despising embrace of the mystery of survival, its affirmation of a dark brotherhood of suffering and dependence on a perversely, cruelly merciful Providence, would be the prototype for innumerable works of American literature. Nearly three hundred years later Flannery O’Connor would reprise it to electrifying effect in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Even on the screen, in John Ford’s The Searchers—in which John Wayne thinks his niece must have been defiled by the Comanches who kidnapped her—the captivity narrative, still trailing the last strands of its Calvinist mystery and contradictions, would endure, an ongoing American epic.
Though he leaves out Rowlandson, Kazin discusses other colonial roots of American letters, and he locates them, quite properly, in the soil of New England. In this brooding, speculative “New England,” the faith was transformed by its marginal, pilgrim believers, somewhat in the way that Persianized Shia became the repository of innovative, mystical, and sometimes heterodox elements in Islam. American colonial Puritans, literate and forever in search of “justification,” were, like Goodwife Rowlandson, great practitioners of the personal narrative, and a case can be made for this tendency as one source, a uniquely native one, of the American novel.