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77: THINKING IN THE COLONIES

#77: THINKING IN THE COLONIES. New Englanders are known for having long memories, and can tend to think of the colonial period maybe not as yesterday but as the day before yesterday, or maybe just last week sometime. It’s a little startling to read Samuel Eliot Morison’s Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (Cornell, 1956) and realize that the period described is only some thirty years later than Galileo’s forced recantation, and that we are separated from the founding of Harvard by roughly the same amount of time that event is separated from the late medieval period of the European students in Helen Waddell’s Wandering Scholars. Of course in its urbanity, conversational style and graceful distillation of vast knowledge the book itself seems to belong to another, more civilized time. Morison wrote it in part to temper the image of Puritan New England as a dead zone for culture, literature, scientific thought, emotional warmth or humor of any kind; he does so without overproving his case. And he springs a number of surprises on us, as when he shows how the Puritan ideals actually served as an impetus towards education and the intellectual life and how they co-existed with paradoxical ease side by side with the appreciation and preservation of classical studies. (Of Anne Hutchinson and her “radical fringe,” with its hostility to the university environment, Morison writes, “There was a peculiar danger of this attitude prevailing in a new country, where social and economic conditions fostered crude materialism, pietistic conceit, and complacent ignorance.” Hm.) It’s a well-written, absorbing book, and may alter your sense of the period.

Of the poets of the period, the standouts are Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet. Taylor was a divine whose poems lay undiscovered in manuscript until the 1930s; they are fluent pieces, the obvious tail end of the English metaphysical school, but good as he is, he labors somewhat under the vanquishing shadow of Herbert and Donne. Bradstreet’s verse is simpler, more halting, but she is in some ways the more interesting personality of the two; there is the raw echo of new experience in them. Donald Stanford’s selection of Taylor’s verse is still in print (Yale), which will probably hold you unless you have the irresistible urge to read his 21,000 line “Metrical History of Christianity”; an excellent introduction to his work is Robert Hass’s essay “Edward Taylor: How American Poetry Got Started,” in Hass’s collection What the Light Can Do (Ecco, 2012). There are several editions of Bradstreet, and Charlotte Gordon’s Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet (Little, Brown, 2005) is a good and readable biography. The poetical bestseller of the day was of course Michael Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom,” a chop-licking and hallucinatory description of the torments of the damned—a sort of “Struwwelpeter” for the elect. This diseased document—running in its dog-trot meter from the repugnant to the ludicrous, as when the infant damned are allowed “the easiest room in hell”—should probably be read by all New Englanders, not as literature but as a mortifying and cautionary reminder of our ancestors’ mindset. As the old quote goes: “Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank him not less fervently for being one step further away from them in the march of ages.”

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