Monday, July 15, 2013

Writing and Studying History

Eugene White, a one-time professor and scholar of rhetoric, wrote a book in 1972 entitled, Puritan Rhetoric. The subtitle, The Issue of Emotion in Religion, was a gesture toward his own circumstances in the early seventies. Two passages from his introductory chapter indicate his perspective upon history, and thus provide an sense of how he thinks one ought to construct and study history. Apart from being an enjoyable way of studying history, it shows how the study of history can be instructive for the present day, or "relevant," as is the popular word at present.

Until recently, the popular view has considered the founding Puritan to be a singularly unattractive ancestral relic, better forgotten than remembered. Especially in the last two or three decades, however, much careful research has gradually removed enough of the encrusted fictions and distortions to expose a more realistic—and somewhat more likeable—image of the Puritan. Instead of the utterly drab, stony, and inhibited figure of myth, the "restored" Puritan upon occasion could laugh, wear "bright" clothes, resort to alcoholic as well as divine spirits, and enjoy marital sex. Instead of being stolid and unimaginative, the "restored'' Puritan was nervously sensitive and at least as cerebral in his approach to life as today's American. Although inevitably bound by his inherited conceptions of the authority of God and the nature of man and of the social order, the "restored" Puritan was far from being anti-intellectual. He was sensitively aware of the problems of his emerging society and he struggled with considerable inventiveness to solve them. 

Most importantly, recent research has demonstrated that our own self-interest will not permit the "restored" Puritan to be consigned to the esoteric limbo of the Colonial specialist. The value judgments, the decisions, and the successful—as well as the abortive—attempts of the Puritans to solve their personal and societal problems exerted an immense influence upon the flow of history. Our society today is different because of the Puritans. More than this, some of the basic problems with which we now grapple are refractions of the predicaments which confronted the Puritans and which, having been modified by the Puritan personality and character, were passed along unsolved to succeeding generations. (3)

One of the problems of our contemporary society is the conflict between the emotions and the intellect, between the intellectual—who seeks satisfaction as well as practical answers in the exercise of the mind, and the anti-intellectual—who sanctifies intuitive wisdom or emotive empathy, minimizes the usefulness of knowledge, and suspects as potentially dangerous the unrestricted operation of the rational intellect. If space permitted, the antagonism between mind and feeling could be traced backward—from recent episodes such as the campus protests of anti-intellectual students who consider social ends rather than advancement of learning to be the objective of a university and the rejection of reason by many youths who seek liberation of the non-rational aspects of their nature by means of drugs, mysticism, and aberrant dress and behavior—through the McCarthy era, Progressivism, Populism, the Darwinian controversy, Southern parochialism, transcendentalism, the Jacksonian period, the Jeffersonian triumph of 1800, and the Revolutionary War—to the Great Awakening. (4)

Although I am sure that Dr. White's conclusions will be too reductive for my opinion of the Puritans, he nonetheless attempts to see the influence of their culture "downstream," which is a much wiser approach than a crass or careless dismissal.

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