Peripheries

Charles Rzepka

  • The Puritan-Provincial Vision: Scottish and American Literature in the 19th Century by Susan Manning
    Cambridge, 270 pp, £32.50, May 1990, ISBN 0 521 37237 2

When I was 14, I had a nightmare. I am standing next to a wall, on the outside of a square enclosure. A man is disappearing around the corner. I pursue him, but before I reach the end of the wall, he has already vanished around the next corner. He continues to outdistance me as we walk round the square. As I am about to return to my starting-point, I realise that the man I am pursuing is now walking right behind me. Fearfully, I turn around. What I behold is my own terrified countenance, as in a mirror. Then I wake up.

The Puritan-Provincial Vision is not a book of dream interpretation, but it does purport to detect the workings of a puritan-provincial ‘state of mind’ in tales that closely resemble my dream narrative. Susan Manning argues that themes of the pursuer becoming the pursued, of self-mirroring and doubling, of pilgrimages and impenetrable ‘centres’, are, in a special sense, Calvinistic, and reflect religious influences peculiarly strong in Scottish and American literature. Manning’s derivation of such themes from puritan convictions about predestination, election and reprobation is ingenious and suggestive. It is also troubling. For the major features of the literature she identifies as ‘puritan-provincial’ are to be found in other national literatures as well, including those of Catholic France, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. There are also non-puritan tributaries feeding into streams of American and Scottish literature that can account for some of these features. Indeed, they seem almost archetypically transcultural. If the nightmares of a good Catholic boy like me can exhibit Calvinistic tendencies, then perhaps Calvinism itself is less important to our understanding of those tendencies than she thinks.

It is from Calvin’s institutes of the Christian Religion that Manning derives what she calls the ‘puritan-provincial vision’, a world-view characterised by its embrace of contradictory absolutes: the innocence of faith and the torments of self-examination, acceptance of arbitrary predestination and zeal for revolutionary change, the inscrutability of divine and human intentions and a feverish intellectual curiosity. These paradoxical values arise from Puritanism’s essential antipathy toward ‘the centres of experience in the world’: that is, toward the interpretative systems of the dominant religious and political institutions by which we ordinarily mediate our lived relationships to such ideas as God and Satan, good and evil, faith and reason, freedom and fate. By means of such systems, contradictory absolutes can be fitted to the otherwise intractable realities of everyday life. Accordingly, distance from the ‘centre’ means estrangement from what is conventionally understood as knowable about self, others and the world.

The phrase ‘puritan-provincial’ refers to an evolutionary rather than a hybrid concept. The provincial literary heir of the puritan outlook in Scotland and America, situated at the periphery of the dominant culture but denied the puritan’s faith in an other-worldly absolute by which to orient his moral and epistemological compasses, finds life at the centre enigmatic, often dream-like. Other consequences, Manning argues, follow from the provincial secularisation of the puritan vision. For instance, because the soul and its fate are knowable only to God, and because God himself is unknowable, the saint’s state of grace or ‘election’ cannot be affirmed except through his or her (obviously predestined) persecution by the ‘reprobate’ centre. Once central animosity to puritan culture gives way to indifference, however, provincials writing in the afterglow of Calvinism will lack the metaphysical wherewithal to overcome doubts about their own identities and professions. These self-doubts, in turn, will give rise to an obsession with three closely related themes: pursuit and doubling, spectatorship and spying, and the nugatory quest for absolute truth. To each of these themes the author devotes a chapter.

Before turning to literary examples, Manning traces the provincialising of Calvinist attitudes in the writings of David Hume, Jonathan Edwards, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. Far from a mechanical application of rigid doctrinal categories, Manning’s thoughtful critique shows how contradictory attitudes can arise out of, and in reaction to, a common adherence to absolutes. Her Scottish/American pairings – Hume and Edwards, Smith and Jefferson, and so on – are strategically brilliant.

Manning begins her analysis of the literature growing out of the puritan-provincial tradition by suggesting that an obsession with doubling and pursuit, like that which predominates in works like Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Poe’s ‘William Wilson’, expresses the puritan’s sense of estrangement from the state of his own soul. This estrangement heightens the impulse to self-examination at the risk of innocence. The resulting division of the self into object and observer is projected outward: the puritan-provincial character or narrator feels compelled to ‘sympathise’ with another to the point of making him an uncanny double, ‘colonising’ him with an identity that both evades inward scrutiny and, as objectified in the other, defies interpretation.

The theme of spectatorship represents the obverse of this claustrophobic ‘sympathy’. Once distance from the ‘experiential centre’ of the culture is no longer compensated by faith in an ultimate arbiter of meaning – once the elect, as it were, are forced to join the reprobate – the puritan-provincial mind confronts a world whose ‘surfaces become entirely devoid of “content” ’, ‘an enigmatic spectacle’. The provincial literature dominated by such themes, where passive observation of life takes the place of participation, includes Cooper’s The Spy and Melville’s The Confidence Man.

As might be expected, Scott and Hawthorne figure prominently in Manning’s argument. In her final chapter, on the quest for a central truth, they emerge as the two writers who most successfully manage to accommodate the puritan ethos to their provincial situation and, in so doing, find a new ‘centre’ within that situation. In Heart of Midlothian, Scott redeploys the Calvinist absolutes of faith and predestination in the matter-of-fact landscape of historical narrative and individual action. Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, achieves his transvaluation of the puritan state of mind at the imagined site of its provincial inauguration, and in lyrical rather than realistic terms. Together, the narratives of Scott and Hawthorne show us that ‘the centre is finally... not a place to go to, but a mode of being,’ ‘a commitment to the full range of experience through time’.

Though Manning ignores Scottish and American female authors and sometimes overlooks a major work that would seem tailor-made for her thesis, such as Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, her command of Scottish and American fiction is sure and precise, and the parallels she draws between Calvinistic and provincial thinking are, with few exceptions, just. But are these resemblances aetiologically significant? Do they show puritanism to be decisive in the emergence of a ‘provincial’ state of mind in Scotland and America? Do they even show that puritanism offers the most appropriate paradigm for that state of mind?

As I stated earlier, the major features of Manning’s puritan-provincial outlook appear throughout 19th-century Western literature. We have come to call this outlook, as a diffuse historical phenomenon, Romantic. It is to be found, bud and blossom, in the English Gothic novel, a form inaugurated by the son of an English prime minister. Manning assumes that the Gothic features that she categorises as ‘puritan-provincial’ were somehow more germane to Scottish and American literature than to other traditions. Be that as it may, she never mentions Romanticism, nor the Gothic as a Romantic genre. Nor, except in cases too blatant to ignore, does she undertake comparisons with literatures other than Scottish and American, or even with genres other than fiction, to justify such an assumption.

A glance at the literature of the English ‘centre’, which Manning takes to be the target of puritan-provincial antipathy, casts doubt on the primary role she would accord Calvinism in her analysis of provincial sensibilities. Self-consciousness and self-doubling; a spectatorial detachment from ordinary life, often verging on solipsism; the representation of Nature as enigmatic sign and apocalyptic revelation; profound ambivalence toward the geographical and historical ‘centres’ of English literary tradition: these are the most important and structurally coherent themes in Wordsworth’s poetry. Keats dwells on the spectacle of life in his romances, and delights in the ‘colonisation’ of other minds by the ‘chameleon poet’. Shelley’s poetry, saturated with Gothic motifs, is fixated on the quest for an ultimate reality. Starkly ‘puritan-provincial’ themes dominate Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and surface throughout Byron’s poetry. Further afield, a work like Heart of Darkness, whose expatriate Polish author was raised a devout Roman Catholic, could easily fill an exhaustive inventory of the features that Manning believes to be distinctive of the ‘puritan-provincial’ literatures of Scotland and America.

To be fair, a good case could be made that Byron and De Quincey are exceptions that prove the rule. Byron was imbued by his Scottish mother with the terrors of predestined damnation, and De Quincey’s mother was a stout Evangelical adherent of Hannah More. But that leaves many other exceptions, like Conrad, unaccounted for. Manning, to her credit, acknowledges as much. ‘The ways of thinking and the corresponding use of language which I define as puritan-provincial predate Calvin and the Reformation,’ she admits, ‘and they persist in much of the literature we know as “modern”.’ They also characterise ‘some works of English literature’, such as Godwin’s Caleb Williams and The Tempest, ‘which spring up periodically through the mainstream’ of English literary history. These are politic concessions, but they beg the main question: why should the general pattern of thought which such works exhibit go by the name ‘puritan-provincial’ at all?

Manning says that she is interested less in ‘a body of doctrine’ than in ‘a state of mind’, ‘a predisposition to view the world in certain ways’. This predisposition, she contends, is ‘pre-eminently visible’ in the national literatures most indebted to the religious tradition of Calvinism, and ‘therefore best revealed by this context’. To put it another way, ‘the writing of Calvinism provides a focus – though not necessarily a source – for the distinctive features of Scottish and American literature.’ But if these features are distinctive, in what sense can they be said to reflect a ‘state of mind’ that spans centuries and crosses national and religious boundaries? If they are not distinctive, and Calvinism is not necessarily their source, then by what rationale should Calvinism be privileged as a ‘context’ or hermeneutic ‘focus’ for interpreting such features?

The concept of periphery and centre, on which Manning draws repeatedly, offers a more comprehensive paradigm of the provincial temperament than Calvinism alone. What Conrad shared with Hogg and Melville, as with Wordsworth, Keats, Mary Shelley, William Godwin or, for that matter, John Calvin, was not a puritan ‘state of mind’, but the sense of living and writing at the periphery of a dominant culture that had, nonetheless, become central to his or her life’s work. That sense of marginality arose in response to historical dislocations – economic, political, scientific and religious – that, during and after the Renaissance, affected many different groups, including the Calvinists. Roughly speaking, these same dislocations gave rise to Romanticism. As for the author of The Tempest, might not a boyhood passed in the rural obscurity of Stratford-on-Avon contribute to a feeling of marginality with respect to the ‘great stage’ of London, the ‘experiential centre’ of English culture? Even my teenage nightmare makes sense in these terms if we recognise the adolescent’s puritanical tendencies toward self-scrutiny and sympathetic ‘colonisation’ as characteristic of a stage of life peripheral to the dominant adult culture.

Susan Manning’s use of Calvinism as an exegetical tool is most convincing when she is discussing works by Romantic authors clearly indebted to, and struggling with, their Calvinistic heritage – authors like Hogg and Scott, Hawthorne and Melville. (No doubt it would prove useful in discussing Byron and De Quincey for the same reason.) The resort to Calvinist precepts appears most questionable when the discussion turns to figures like Hume, Jefferson or Poe, writers for whom this heritage was not a major concern.

Despite problems of geographical and historical delimitation, The Puritan-Provincial Vision makes an impressive contribution to our understanding of the relevance of Calvinism to Scottish and American literature. It is one of the most carefully wrought and closely reasoned investigations of puritan literary influence since the death of Perry Miller, and should be read not only by scholars of American and Scottish fiction, but by anyone interested in the national development of Gothic and Romantic sensibility.