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The Introduction explains what we are doing when we claim to write American puritan literary history. It shows the development of that field – particularly as it was rooted in American exceptionalism and guided the construction of American literature anthologies – then explains the turn away from exceptionalism and the current state of the field. In the process we define each of the key terms in the title of this book: “American,” “puritan,” “literary,” and “history,” offering a general overview and summary of puritanism. Finally, the introduction lays out the three broader goals of the volume: (1) to introduce teachers, scholars, and new students to the complicated and nuanced tradition of puritan literature in America, set within broad historical, methodological, and geographical contexts; (2) to bring together new methodologies for, approaches to, and analyses of this literature; and (3) to suggest new directions and next steps in the field, including what the contours of such a field ought to include.
This chapter seeks to reconnect American puritan literary histories with the Caribbean, to show that we cannot fully understand seventeenth-century American literature without taking into account the fact that the Caribbean was a place in which and through which American puritan literature was written. The chapter traces the entanglement of the Caribbean with New England through the circulation and exchange of goods, bodies, citizens, texts, and ideas. The chapter considers, in particular, two historical examples of New England puritan engagement with the Caribbean – the slave trade and Quaker dissent – and two examples of literary engagement – A Continuation of the State of New England (a pamphlet describing King Philip’s War in New England and a thwarted slave rebellion in Barbados) and records from the Salem witch trials. This chapter argues that the both the material reality and the idea of the Caribbean shaped the American puritan imaginary. On the one hand, the islands were key trading partners, and the continued existence of a puritan “New England Way” depended on this trade as a source of steady income. On the other, New Englanders sought to distance themselves from the islands and represent themselves as singularly “godly” English settlers.
For generations, scholars have imagined American puritans as religious enthusiasts, fleeing persecution, finding refuge in Massachusetts, and founding 'America'. The puritans have been read as a product of New England and the origin of American exceptionalism. This History challenges the usual understanding of American puritans, offering new ways of reading their history and their literary culture. Together, an international team of authors make clear that puritan America cannot be thought of apart from Native America, and that its literature is also grounded in Britain, Europe, North America, the Caribbean, and networks that spanned the globe. Each chapter focuses on a single place, method, idea, or context to read familiar texts anew and to introduce forgotten or neglected voices and writings. A History of American Puritan Literature is a collaborative effort to create not a singular literary history, but a series of interlocked new histories of American puritan literature.
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