Saturday, February 9, 2008

Errand into the Wilderness

Title: Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956)

Author: Perry Miller (1905-1963), longtime professor of history at Harvard and one of the American Studies founding fathers. Taught Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn, as well as Walter J. Ong (the Wikipedia entry features a suspiciously large amount of information on the Ong connection...I think some of the Ong people must have gotten in there and fixed it up). Miller wrote mostly on the Puritan mind early in his career (Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650, 1933; The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 1939; Jonathan Edwards, 1949; The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 1953), and Errand comes at the end of this Puritan phase. After this, Miller moves to writing about the Transcendentalists, which he sort of starts doing at the end of Errand with his musings on the possible relationship between Jonathan Edwards and Emerson. His final books were on the "life of the mind" (so Cartesian) and "the legal mind" in America, before the Civil War.

My review: This collection of Miller essays has a much more sparkling, attractive writing style than you would think when reading the words "analysis of Puritan thought." Miller describes, at the beginning, how he came to decide that analysis of Puritan thought would be his life's work. He was at the mouth of the Congo River as a young man, watching ships loading case oil (what's that? oh, it's just oil shipped a particular, now-outmoded way) onto other ships destined for the interior. Realizing the craziness of the fact that this oil was coming from the "inexhaustible wilderness of America" and being inserted into another such wilderness, he epiphanized that the impetus behind America was worth study. (He kind of compares himself to Edward Gibbon, who had the epiphany that resulted in writing Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while sitting in ruins, but calls himself "minute" in comparison.)

What major ideas does this collection cover? Puritans were driven by a vision of becoming a "city on a hill," and this drive led them to conceptualize the wilderness as their theater on which to show the rest of the world the efficacy of right Puritan gov't. When the events in England in 1649 (Charles I beheaded; governance passes to Parliament and religious crackdowns become less prevalent) meant that eyes turned away from America to the events in the home country, Miller believes that the Puritans were thrown into a state of confusion about their mission. The synod of 1679 examined the questions that this era of Puritans perceived that they faced, including rampant adulterous sex, heresy, drinking, pride in wealth, and the decline of morality in business dealings (welcome to America!) Miller also explores the significance of the covenant in "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity" (covenant being a way to combine Puritan religious thought with a sort of social contract ensuring good behavior); looks at Thomas Hooker and combats ideas that the founder of Connecticut was a democratic ruler; describes the early society of Virginia as possessing far more religious feeling, at least initially, than is typically thought; describes Jonathan Edwards as a thinker who defied the commercial turn of his merchant-oriented society in order to bring more people into the church; and connects Edwards and Emerson in a speculative essay linked by the concept of closer personal access to some sort of "divinity."

The reviews of others: The book was widely reviewed in a number of disparate places when it came out. I know that later on, Miller's work was discredited within American Studies for being too intellectually oriented, focused on too narrow a sample of people, etc. In the New England Quarterly, H. Shelton Smith pointed out that although many people before PM thought that "the New England mind" had been explored to the point of exhaustion, PM brought a fresh newness to the topic. Smith pays homage to Miller and then proceeds to completely disagree with Miller's idea, expressed in the titular essay, that the Puritans expected to one day return to England and govern there (after proving themselves with the City on a Hill). Smith writes that colonial historians took Miller's 1935 essay"The Marrow of Puritan Divinity" too far, to the point of positing that the Puritans weren't actually Calvinists, because of their belief in the covenant. Smith writes that although some of the conclusions others drew from the essay could actually be found in the text, he welcomes any writing which shows how complex seventeenth-c Calvinism was. Smith also admires Miller's prose, calling it "enviably lucid" (it was). Just for fun, I looked at another review that was in Modern Language Notes, penned by Herbert W. Schneider. Schneider liked most of what he saw in the collection, but thought that Miller characterized Emerson as overly connected to the American scene - Schneider thought Emerson's mind ranged far further afield than that.

Words: tergiversate (to change one's mind repeatedly, to equivocate)

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