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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Utopian

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William
- Anne
- Sarah Kemble
- Thomas Morton
- Samson Occom
- William Penn
- Mary
- Edward Taylor
- John Winthrop
- John Woolman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Suggested Author Pairings

William Bradford and Thomas Morton
Both Bradford and Morton chronicle the challenges of life in and around the Plymouth colony, in a few cases treating the same events. To the extent that these accounts are fundamentally at odds with one another, they bring into relief the cultural values that their authors wished their respective communities to embody and foster. In Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford sought not only to describe life and events in the Plymouth colony but also to locate within the colony's history a divine design that accorded with his Puritan beliefs. In contrast, Morton, a non-Puritan, devotes much of his New English Canaan to satirizing the Puritans in Plymouth and to promoting New England colonization more for its potential financial profits than for its spiritual possibilities. Even the differences in their rhetorical styles reveal their conflicting values and beliefs. When compared to Bradford's plain style, Morton's elevated language and classical allusions indicate a writer preoccupied with the kinds of worldly concerns and social hierarchies that the Plymouth colonists sought to eschew. The two writers also offer very different perspectives on Anglo relationships with Native Americans.

John Winthrop and William Penn
Both Winthrop and Penn were leaders when their respective colonies were founded, helping to shape systems of government and setting the tone for future American political formations and values. Of course, their views were very different from one another and thus form an illuminating contrast. Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" presents his vision of the ideal Christian community, encouraging Puritans to maintain an exemplary piety and interpreting the Puritan mission as that of a "chosen people" fulfilling biblical prophecy. Penn's "Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians" (written, like Winthrop's "Model," prior to its author's actually arriving in America) reveals a different worldview, endorsing tolerance and religious and cultural pluralism in its respect for Native American culture and civil rights. The two documents, then, make plain the very different assumptions and values that underwrote Puritan and Quaker culture: a sense of exclusivity, shared orthodoxy, and "chosen-ness" on one hand, and tolerance and pluralism on the other. Both had an enduring effect on the development of American culture and American mythology.

Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor
Bradstreet and Taylor, both poets and Puritans, are a natural pairing. Both deal eloquently with difficult Puritan theological issues, such as anxiety about election and the struggle to "wean" affections from worldly interests. In this vein, they are frequently celebrated for their poignant evocations of family life and domestic culture, manifested by their use of simple, homely metaphors. Although Bradstreet's work was published in her lifetime and Taylor's was not, they share concerns about the problem of literary authority and the writer's relationship to her or his audience: Taylor's "Prologue" and Bradstreet's "Prologue" and "The Author to Her Book" struggle with questions about the writer's agency and the compatibility of poetry and Puritan piety. While both were apparently uninterested in or unwilling to see their own work published (Bradstreet's poetry was published without her knowledge or consent), they both left carefully copied and preserved manuscripts at their deaths, suggesting that they took their vocations as poets very seriously. Bradstreet's work is obviously complicated by her position as a woman in a patriarchal society, creating tensions not present in Taylor's poems. Although both poets worked in the "plain style" on occasion, they both experimented with other poetic traditions. Bradstreet's poems tend more toward the classical, while Taylor's depend on biblical imagery and elaborate, extended poetic conceits.

Mary Rowlandson and Sarah Kemble Knight
Rowlandson's and Knight's narrative accounts of their respective journeys provide important insight into the role of women in early New England. Both texts chronicle journeys that were unusual undertakings for women though obviously to totally different ends. Rowlandson's journey was an unwilling one, and she struggles to maintain the Puritan ideal of passive femininity even while actively working for her own survival. Knight, on the other hand, embarked on her travels voluntarily and clearly embraces her role as a businessperson, active in a traditionally masculine realm. While Rowlandson filters her every experience through scripture and searches constantly for signs of God's will, Knight barely mentions spiritual issues and concerns herself instead with witty social commentary. Perhaps their only point of overlap is their racism and intolerance of cultural practices different from their own. Written only twenty years apart, these two narratives reveal the diversity of the New England experience and the increasing secularization of Puritan culture.

John Woolman and Samson Occom
Both Woolman's Journal and Occom's Short Narrative function as spiritual autobiographies, narrating their authors' conversion to and acceptance of Christianity. While Woolman's Quakerism was quite different from Occom's evangelical Christianity, both men experienced a profound conversion in early youth, and both found their calling as missionaries. Both wrote their pieces to persuade Woolman's to serve as a guide for those seeking "inner light," and Occom's to plead for Indian rights and to salvage his reputation after his sincerity and commitment were attacked. Most importantly, Occom and Woolman share a concern with social justice and a desire to abolish racism, intolerance, and poverty. Though Occom's commitment to exposing and eradicating these social problems was the result of personal, first-hand experience while Woolman's was more a sympathetic response, both wrote movingly on these subjects. Many of the problems Woolman and Occom identified and worked to end continue to haunt American culture, giving their work enduring relevance.

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