YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 5, 2013

Evil (crypto-Jewish) “Puritans”

PuritansHarvard sociologist Talcott Parsons once described American analogs to evil Nazis: they were the “romantic Puritans” of New England. In the Wall Street Journal of August 5, Kirk Davis Swineheart reviews For Adam’s Sake: A Colonial Saga in Colonial New England by Allegra di Bonaventura. The reviewer praises “the great Puritan divine John Winthrop” in the first sentence, then goes on to make the startling observation that New Englanders held slaves. At least he did not echo black supremacist claims that Jews dominated the slave trade, but his rendering of the sins of colonial New England find resonance in American Studies, in progressive studies of colonial history and of history in general, and in the fiction of Thomas Dixon, author of the screenplay for the notorious The Birth of a Nation—a movie that set off the second wave of KKK activity in the nineteen teens and twenties.

When I entered graduate school in the early 1980s to get my degree in US history, I quickly discovered that New England was one of the most studied in the social history (bottoms-up) sub-field. The Salem witchcraft trials were one sensational attraction, but so was the Antinomian Controversy of 1636-1638, considered to be a prelude for the worst excesses of the English Civil War. John Winthrop (whose organicist ideology harkened back to medieval economic practices) was pitted against the troublemaking avatar of market society Anne Hutchinson. I wrote about this controversy at length here: https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/. [This series is highly recommended. Nothing like it anywhere.]

The favored explanation for the Salem witch hunts turned out to be “inequality” between settlers in Salem, and one book that explained the witch hunt was especially favored (by Boyer and Nissenbaum, both part of the academic left). Imagine my surprise when in my dissertation research I discovered that one famous American, a member of the Adams family, viewed the Puritans as Hebraic, and indeed as a “persecuting race.” What follows is an excerpt from Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. It brings together the notions of Puritans as proto-Nazis, the puritan as romantic, and the antisemitic slant adopted by Talcott Parsons and his predecessors or intellectual descendants in American history/cultural studies. Even Lord Byron enters the picture of villainy, racism, and tainted Jewish blood (as victim, not perp).

[Book excerpt:] In an effort to achieve upper-class unity after the Civil War against an expanding industrial working class, the essentialist anti-puritan/anti-Jewish/misogynistic reading of “the American character” was adopted by ideological brethren on American soil.  The “left” Romantics, like New England Puritans, were consistently “typed” or “raced” as Hebraic or Jewish by organic conservatives. But the fanatics were also “gendered” as the moral mother, her prototype Anne Hutchinson.  Take the case of the nineteenth-century American historian Charles Francis Adams who analyzed the Antinomian controversy (1636-38) that he claimed had rent and permanently damaged the infant colony of Massachusetts Bay even as the provoking Anne Hutchinson and her corrupting middle-class will to power were banished:[1]

[Charles Frances Adams:] “It was a struggle for civil power and ecclesiastical supremacy in a small village community.  As such it naturally–it almost necessarily–resulted in a display of the worst qualities of those engaged in it.  It illustrated also with singular force the malign influence apt to be exercised by the priest and the woman as active elements in political life.  Stirred by an access of ill-considered popular enthusiasm, the body of the freemen had, at the election of 1636, put a slight upon the time-honored magistrates of the colony, by placing the boyish Vane over their heads, in the office of governor.  An ambitious woman, with her head full of Deborahs and the like, and with a genius for making trouble, had then sought to drive from his pulpit, in the chief town, its long-settled pastor, in order to install her own favorite preacher in his place, with her kinsman as that preacher’s associate and successor.  In her day-dreams she herself probably occupied, in the new order of things she proposed to bring about, the position of a prophetess,–the real guiding spirit of the whole, –with her husband possibly in the judge’s seat.  Altogether it was an exhilarating vision,–such a vision as self-conscious and usually unappreciated natures have in every time and most places been wont to revel in….(569)…At the hands…of an historian whose intelligence is not mastered by his sympathies, she and her friends, including Governor Vane, are entitled to no consideration.  They went on a fool’s errand, and they brought great principles into lasting odium.

On the other hand, the way in which the adherents of [Henry] Vane and Mrs. Hutchinson were suppressed cannot be defended, without including in the defence the whole system of religious and political intolerance of that time.  But why should it be defended?  It is impossible to ignore the fact, and worse than useless to deny it, that the New England Puritans were essentially a persecuting race.  They could not be otherwise. They believed that they were God’s chosen people.  As such, they were right; all others were wrong.  If, therefore, they failed to bring up their children in the strait and narrow way, and to protect them and all the people from the wiles of the Evil One, God would not hold them guiltless.  The Israelites were their models in all things, and the precedents which guided their action were precedents drawn from the books of the Old Testament.  “So, by the example of Lot in Abraham’s family, and after Hagar and Ishmael, he saw they must be sent away.”  The Israelites were not an attractive or an amiable or a philosophical race; they were narrow, devout and clannish.  No one ever presumed to sophisticate away their cruelties or their persecutions.  Yet withal they were a strong and aggressive people, believing certain things implicitly; and accordingly they impressed themselves and their beliefs on the human mind.  Their very imperfections were essential elements of their strength.  They believed to fanaticism; and it was the strength of their fanaticism which caused their belief to dominate.  It was the same with the Puritans of New England. They persecuted as a part of their faith.”

Bad Anne Hutchinson

Bad Anne Hutchinson

[Book, cont.]    The impartial historian Adams’ misreading of ancient history is remarkably sturdy.  In his Hume-style portrait of the usurping Anne Hutchinson (a.k.a. Hawthorne’s “the Woman”) we have the ahistoric archetype of the totalitarian agitator, the clingy maternal superego that holds humanity, rulers and ruled alike, to universal and timeless ethical standards, that dispatches Ahab and Pierre on utopian crusades that are sure to fail. [2]  It is fascinating and alarming to contemplate the birthing of Adams’-style “pluralism,” scattering the dark shadows of ‘intolerant’ Hebraic Puritanism, cradle of both factions in the Antinomian controversy. Today Anne Hutchinson is a heroine to some feminists and libertarians, a proto-Nazi to one prominent New Americanist. Richard Brodhead, dean of Yale college and Professor of English, writing for an educated middle and upper-class audience, has depicted the lineage she spawned, worsened by “the emotional dependencies produced in the hyper-affectionate, inward-turning, hothouse family newly prominent in Melville’s time”:

“Captain Ahab is a figure of the psychically damaged man as visionary authority and charismatic leader.  Ahab knows and persuades others of the One Sole Truth, the truth of his demented obsession.  Pierre is another incarnation of a type that has run through American history, from the antinomian religious dissidents of the 1640s [sic] to the civil disobeyers and antislavery radicals of Melville’s generation to the sect and militia leaders of our own time.  In its harrowing rendition of the cult of private visionary calling, “Pierre” envisions this urge as leading not just to violent trashing of the conventional social world but to a meltdown or disorientation of the moral world.”[3]

[Book, cont.]    For gentleman scholars, English and American alike, Lord Byron was the epitome of adolescent negativity, Thomas Carlyle his antithesis.  Written in 1924, the English critic H.J.C. Grierson’s remarks could have been voiced by any of the lashed Melville scholars peering at Mother’s ruffled brow.  They register an appetite both for suffering and its relief, an oscillation between pious aversion and illicit admiration:

” To Byron’s acute, clear mind the mystical philosophy which is at the heart of romanticism was altogether foreign.  He never approached the inner shrine of romanticism where the mood of a mere rebellion begins to give way to dimmer or clearer intuitions of a new and positive vision, a faith to take the place of that which the spirit has rejected, the dawning of a new comprehension of the magic and beauty of nature, the mystery and beauty of human nature, full as it is of “misery, heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression.”

Byron has failed, or has he?  Pain is sublime, but so is the grandeur of social transformation.  Byron reminds us of the Jews:

“…He was held in the grasp of too many contradictions–antidemocrat and democrat, believer and blasphemer, man of the world and inspired satirist.  But, to speak more truly, the Romantics were all prophets, not unlike their Jewish precursors, intent at a period of world-disorder on the quest of justice and mercy and love and beauty, a recasting of life and reconstruction of faith…. He is the constant reminder…of what the world really is, of the greatness of the task of interpreting and reforming it.”[4]

Grierson, the devotée of Carlyle, but swept away, has conceded that the [Jewish] Byron is “really” in touch with things as they are. Lord Alfred Douglas, editor of Plain English, was less favorably disposed toward the Jews. His poem, “In Excelsis”(1924) contains images that evoke the Quarter-Deck scene in Moby-Dick as read by conservative critics sighting an uprooted materialist heretic in Ahab:

“The leprous spawn of scattered Israel/ Spreads its contagion in your English blood;/ Teeming corruption rises like a flood/ Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell./ Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell/ In markets redolent of Jewish mud,/ And while the ‘Learned Elders’ chew the cud/ Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell./ They weave the spell that binds the heart’s desire/ To gold and gluttony and sweating lust:/ In hidden holds they stew the mandrake mess/ That kills the soul and turns the blood to fire,/ They weave the spell that turns desire to dust/ And postulates the abyss of nothingness. “[5]

[Book, cont.]    There is no single left or liberal standard to evaluate the social content of art.  Today’s ethnopluralists continue to scan texts for positive or negative images of their partisans.  In the 1930s, Stalinist bureaucrats separated proletarian and bourgeois consciousness so drastically that essentialist categories permeated their critical theory no less than the racialists’.  Only “workers” or the colonized masses (a.k.a. themselves) were free of perceptual distortions.  Hegelian-Marxists have attempted to locate the text in history, analyzing form and content to discover the concrete function it might have served in “the world movement toward democracy.”  Artists who artificially reconciled glaring social contradictions (between capital and labor, between ideals and reality) either through class collaboration or resignation or through formal closure–the impossibly happy ending, all threads tidily tied up–were held to be right-wing and antimodern.  Progressive artists were those who ripped into appearances to leave secrets exposed and contradictions hanging.  This is a test that Ahab and his blood-tipped harpoon should have passed; why didn’t they?   (For a hostile Southern view of New England puritans see http://www.sonofthesouth.net/revolutionary-war/pilgrims/puritans.htm. For a blog on the Wandering Jew trope, see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.) For a more recent blog that stigmatizes all early Americans Protestant nativists/murderers, see https://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/.

NOTES:

[1] Charles Francis Adams, Three Episodes of Massachusetts History Vol. II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903, Revised Edition): 574-75. Henry Vane was a puritan aristocrat, briefly governor of Massachusetts Bay, later executed as a regicide.  Note that Hutchinsonian ambition is blamed, yet the Puritans were essentially persecutors. (Adams of course was the grandson of John Quincy Adams whose Puritanism was directed against the money power;  his father had married into wealth , as Daniel Walker Howe points out,  Political Culture of the American Whigs, p. 48.)  This inner contradiction pervades much of the historiography of the Antinomian Controversy. See my ms. “Anne Hutchinson’s Red Regiment.” It is also telling that Adams Jr. had turned against the unbending radicalism of his father’s friend Charles Sumner who may be the more immediate inspiration for his hostile portrait of the puritans.

      Cf. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, 1996, p.287: “…Melville intuitively sensed, perhaps in the deepest recesses of his own heart, an inner mother—not the haughty, controlling Victorian matriarch, but the great goddess whose nurturing presence antedated the angry God of the Hebrews and the Puritans.”  Again, the slur against the angry Jewish God: Referring to a late poem, “The Devotion of the Flowers to their Lady,” Robertson-Lorant  writes “Before the Old Testament patriarchs twisted it into a symbol of sin and death as part of their campaign to destroy  the worship of the Goddess, the snake was considered sacred because it was the creature who hugged the bosom of the Mother and heard her secrets.  The inviolate Rose, a trope for the female genitals, embraces the phallic Worm, or serpent, who is demonized in the Scriptures.  Thus the poem implies that violation and conquest are the direct legacy of a jealous God whose power is controlling and destructive, not generative and erotic. (611).”

Similarly she conflates Melville’s neo-Calvinist mother, the Hebrew God, and Ahab: “In a man-of-war world, the voice of the people is strangled by propaganda, which is violence transformed into a bloodless art. The Bellipotent resembles a twentieth-century totalitarian state where government officials invoke “national security” to cover politically expedient violations of civil rights [what civil rights?], and where military necessity dictates that perversions of language are acceptable political weapons, and justice as civilians know it does not exist.  In Moby-Dick, Ahab bends the crew to his insane will by incantatory language and brilliantly orchestrated ritual. With its intentional inaccuracies and syntactical twists and turns, Billy Budd anticipates George Orwell’s 1984. (594). As with many other scholars it is assumed that Ahab foresees or igores the inevitable doom of his ship and crew; the allegorical content of the quest as explicated in “The Quarter-Deck” is not engaged. Whether Melville views Ahab as geologic Promethean/ abolitionist or something less appealing to twentieth-century liberals, the comparison with Hitler or Stalin is ahistoric.

[2] See the Robert Altman-Donald Freed film Secret Honor, in which the Quaker Richard Nixon is dominated by his mother, the source of his over-reaching and tragic descent into madness.  First his mother’s little dog, he is set up to become the running dog of the fascistic nouveaux riches Southwestern capitalists after the war.  It is hinted that the Eastern establishment erred in not taking the talented young veteran and lawyer into their club; i.e., they lacked the necessary stabilizing pluralism that keeps the ship afloat.

 [3] Richard Brodhead, “The Book That Ruined Melville,” New York Times Book Review, 1/7/96, p.35. See also Brodhead’s essay “Melville, or Aggression,” Melville’s Evermoving Dawn, ed. John Bryant (Kent: Kent State U.P., 1997): 181-191. Relying on what he calls a recent revolution in feminist cultural history that has explicated the entry of sphere ideology and new roles for  the sexes, Ahab is now understood as the exemplar of individualist masculinity as constructed in mid-19th century America, the self-assertive entrepreneur resisting subjugation, his rage a cover for inner feelings of impotence.  Ishmael, not Ahab, represents Melville’s creative capacities, sublimating male aggression into “writing, irony, and verbal play “(182).

[4] H.J.C. Grierson, “Lord Byron,” The Nation and the Athenaeum, 4/19/24, 81-83.

[5] Quoted in Gisela C. Lebzelter, Political anti-Semitism in England 1918-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1978 ):26. The “Learned Elders” were the conspiratorial rabbis exposed in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forgery swallowed whole by respectable conservative journalists in 1920. John Freeman, the second Melville biographer, published in Douglas’ periodicals, including Academy.

Advertisements

4 Comments »

  1. […] are careful to distinguish between “puritans,” attaching them to historical contexts (see https://clarespark.com/2013/08/05/evil-puritans/) many a social critic associates the word with kill-joy Victorian battle-axes, controlling mothers, […]

    Pingback by Oscar meets a Puritan and the Golden Calf wins | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 21, 2015 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  2. […] historiography (https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/, or https://clarespark.com/2013/08/05/evil-puritans/), I quoted from an unpublished paper by UCLA professor Robert Brenner in part four on the subject […]

    Pingback by The Frontiersman/Settler as all-purpose scapegoat | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 9, 2014 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

  3. Clare,

    You are highly intelligent, but your writing is for the wrong century! Peoples attention span is so short, in the 21st century, compared to the of the Puritans, where people could listen to 3 & 4 hour sermons & be able to follow the argument. Because of TV and Magazines, most people want their chapters about 3 inches long.

    Comment by luckylarrysilverstein — December 13, 2013 @ 10:34 pm | Reply

  4. […] From the feedback I got on this series, there is nothing even slightly resembling it in print. Gary Nash gave me an  A+ for the paper. It is, however, a project to read it all. The second section takes you by the hand to understand how Anne H. got into trouble with the establishment, so skip if you are already familiar with the chronology. Has footnotes, and I am proud of it. If you get through it, you might understand better why I wrote the blog “Evil Puritans” linked here: https://clarespark.com/2013/08/05/evil-puritans/. […]

    Pingback by Blog Index to Anne Hutchinson series | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 25, 2013 @ 3:40 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: