Another persistent myth
0 comment Monday, September 8, 2014 |
Several posts ago, I mentioned that I had been reading a book called Saints and Strangers, by George F. Willison. As I said, it's about the Pilgrim fathers, those who were the original Massachusetts colonists.
Before I go on, let me reiterate that I am not a descendant of that group of people, but I'm descended on the maternal side from the later Puritan colonists who arrived with Winthrop's fleet around 1630. So though the Pilgrim fathers were not my ancestors, I feel a connection with them.
The pop-culture view of history which is accepted by most people, unfortunately, envisions these Puritans as being grim-faced, overly pious, joyless, ''repressed'' (to use Freudian jargon) people, who were nothing but a blight on the development of our American society.
Willison addresses this biased image of Puritans in the first chapter of his book.
"The Pilgrims were not nineteenth-century pietists, or quietists. They were not pale plaster saints, hollow and bloodless. They were men -- and women, too -- of courage and conviction, strong and positive in their attitudes, prepared to sacrifice much for their principles, even their very lives. Far from being Victorians, they were children of another and a greater age, the Elizabethan, and in their lives reflected many of the qualities of that amazing age -- its restlessness and impatience with old ways, its passionate enthusiasms, its eager curiosity and daring speculation in all fields, its boldness in action, its abounding and apparently inexhaustible energies.
Never did the pilgrims quietly resign themselves to defeat, no matter what the odds against them. They launched themselves upon the most hazardous ventures not once but many times, and no obstacle or untoward circumstance could stay them or divert them from their course. Far from being humble and soft-spoken, they were quick in their own defense, fond of controversy, and sharp of tongue, engaging in many a high-pitched quarrel with their friends and foes alike, even among themselves. Given to speaking their minds plainly, they expressed themselves in the language of Marlowe and Shakespeare, in the torrential and often rafter-shaking rhetoric of Elizabethan England, with no slightest regard for the proprieties and politic circumlocutions of a later day.
The Pilgrims were Elizabethan, too, in their acceptance of the simpler joys of life. They practised no macerations of the flesh, no tortures of self-denial. They appreciated the pleasures of the table and the bottle, liking both ''strong waters'' and beer, especially the latter, never complaining more loudly of their hardships than when necessity reduced them to drinking water, which they always regarded with suspicion as a prolific source of human ills. They were not monks or nuns in their intimate relations as their usually numerous families and more than occasional irregularities attest. Fond of the comforts of connubial bed and board, they married early and often and late, sometimes within a few weeks of losing a mate. Only on the Sabbath did they go about in funereal blacks and grays. Ordinarily they wore the russet browns and Lincoln green common among the English lower classes from which they sprang."
A few years ago, I think I wrote about this false image of Puritans and Pilgrims in a blog entry. However, it doesn't matter that occasionally, rarely, very rarely, somebody offers a defense of the much-defamed Puritans, people will still go on believing their cartoon image of the Puritans as the ultimate killjoys, and the source of everything that is wrong with America today.
This, to me, is bizarre in the extreme, given that we live in one of the most libertine ages in Western history.
That eternally bitter cynic and misanthrope, H.L. Mencken (who occasionally said something true, by accident) conducted a one-man war against the Puritan fathers, and has since been quoted endlessly, usually by the secular cynics, hedonists, and Anglophobics.
In his 1917 book of Essays, he wrote of the Puritan influence:
But perhaps the most important, and certainly the most outspoken essay was entitled "Puritanism as a Literary Force," during which he alleged that William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Mark Twain were victims of the Puritan spirit.
'The Puritan's utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution-- these things have put an almost unbearable burden up on the exchange of ideas in the United States.'
Mencken had criticized Puritanism for many years, famously characterizing it as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy," but through World War I his criticism became increasingly outspoken, in part due to the rising tide of Prohibition.''
There you go: he was unhappy that his favorite substance was illegal. In the Prohibition days, when Mencken wrote the above, America was hardly a puritanical country: think the flappers, ''flaming youth'', short skirts, cocaine usage, bathtub gin.
To turn Mencken's cynical phrase on its head, Mencken and those who follow him are afraid that somebody, somewhere, may not share their views on life. To them, even a small voice here and there disagreeing with them is intolerable. Mencken and his ilk were intolerant as well, but intolerant of different things, that's all.
Mencken was Anglophobic also, not just a hater of Puritans, and that too is hardly a recommendation, in my book. He considered Anglo-Saxons 'cowardly.' In the Baltimore Evening Sun he wrote:
This reluctance for desperate chances and hard odds, so obvious in the military record of the English-speaking nations, is also conspicuous in times of peace. What a man of another and superior stock almost always notices, living among so-called Anglo-Saxons, is (a) their incapacity for prevailing in fair rivalry, either in trade, in the fine arts or in what is called learning--in brief, their general incompetence, and (b) their invariable effort to make up for this incapacity by putting some inequitable burden upon their rivals, usually by force.
Mencken seems to have quite a following on the left and among paleoconservatives, so he seems to be an influence even today.
In connection with the popular slander of Puritans, though, I think of this passage from C.S. Lewis:
"The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere "understanding." Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism..." - C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Really, in this libertine age, in which something called Lady Gaga is a household word, it's absurd to worry about ''puritans'' keeping people from indulging whatever urges they feel. Today's proponents of modesty and chastity are utterly marginalized and powerless, hardly a threat to any dedicated libertine.
We do have in our day 'puritans' on the left, who are busybodies not about sexual matters, because they believe sex in whatever form is an unqualified good, but about what we eat. Today's 'puritan' busybodies are the nannystate types who outlaw trans-fats and insist that we all conform to government guidelines for food consumption.
In any case, it's a shame that the name 'Puritan', which describes many of our forefeathers, is now a slur, and it's an even greater shame that the politically correct view of history, false as it is, is so uncritically accepted on both left and ''right.''

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