Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Rites of Assent

Title: The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America (New York: Routledge, 1993)

Author: Sacvan Bercovitch, who admits in the preface that he was actually named after Sacco and Vanzetti! So awesome! Although the executed anarchists get no further mention in the book, the theme of dissent, coupled with the general awesomeness of the name, mean that they get pride of place in this entry. Bercovitch retired from teaching at Harvard U. in 2001, after a career including stints at Brandeis, UCSD, Princeton, and Columbia. Before and after retiring, he's won any number of Lifetime Achievement Awards, including the Bode-Pearson Prize for Lifetime Achievement in American Studies. Books mostly revolve around Puritanism and its place in the cultural imaginary: The Puritan Origins of the American Self, 1975; The American Jeremiad, 1978; The Office of The Scarlet Letter, 1991.

My review: This book is actually a collection of essays, published 1972-1991. The overarching story here is the way in which American official ideology establishes consensus, and has done so ever since the days of the Puritans.

The series of essays moves in chronological order. Bercovitch believes that after the Puritans, any belief in America also had to incorporate a belief in expansion and mission. The major contributions of the Puritans to the official American mindset, he writes, are "the preposition 'into'" (aka, the idea of progress), conceptual vagueness as to the nature of the community covenant, and the justification of imperialism on the continent (related to the first). Jonathan Edwards took the concepts of the Puritans and expanded them to a broader audience, modernizing and commercializing the message.

Meanwhile, after the Revolution, any concept of "dissent" or "rebellion" from this official ideology was also official-ized, meaning that revolution was state policy. Therefore, any threat of more "deep" or threatening revolutions, such as those perpetrated in France, could be submerged in the official fiction of omnipresent "American revolution." Thus, the individual and the nation emerge aligned.

Bercovitch sees this absorption of dissent as an immensely effective alternative for nation-building. He uses Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) as an example of how this plays out, literarily speaking: Hester eventually capitulates to the voice of the community and replaces her letter after casting it away. She's unable to find happiness outside the community, even if that would have meant freedom, and eventually returns. Bercovitch finds the ambiguity of Letter to be, in and of itself, somewhat smothering - if you can choose any meaning you want from the book, "its ambiguity is a function of prescriptiveness" (211) - the reader never ends up choosing, and therefore never ends up rebelling. Thus, American freedom of choice smothers all who would oppose. (Reminds me a bit of the Thomas Frank, Conquest of Cool, thesis - or perhaps it's vice versa.)

Reviews of others: In American Literature, Kenneth Price wished that Bercovitch had engaged with his critics while putting together this book, and pointed out that Bercovitch's idea of American ideological hegemony aligns itself too much with concepts of American exceptionalism. Price also writes that perhaps Bercovitch doesn't find an oppositional tradition within American thought because he's only looking at New Englanders - what about Rudolfo Anaya, or Harriet Jacobs, even Edith Wharton? Interesting. In the Journal of American History, James Hoopes wrote that Bercovitch's argument is a "greased pig" - if there's no such thing as radical dissent or even analysis that can step outside of the American tradition, then how could Bercovitch himself be analyzing? Hoopes doesn't buy the argument that SB's Canadian, Jewish, radical roots could give him enough of an oppositional positionality to make the switch happen.

Words: "chiliastic" ("of, pertaining to, or holding the doctrine of the millennium"); "apodictic" ("of clear demonstration; established on incontrovertible evidence").

Books to follow up on: Primary: Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826); J. Fenimore Cooper, The Crater; Or, Vulcan's Peak (A Tale of the Pacific) (1847).

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