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

3. Utopian

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
- Glossary
- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
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•  Activities

Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
Borrowing a phrase from the New England Calvinist minister Samuel Danforth, the historian Perry Miller described the Puritans who came to America to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony as having embarked upon an "errand into the wilderness." Here, the metaphor of the "errand" captures the immigrants' belief that they were on a sacred mission, ordained by God, to create a model community and thereby fulfill a divine covenant. While Miller was interested in the specific errand the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans envisioned for themselves, we might use his notion of the "errand" to consider the motivations behind the journeys of other groups who came to North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What kind of errand did the Quakers in Pennsylvania believe they had embarked upon? The Pilgrims at Plymouth? The Anglicans, Catholics, and Sephardic Jews who also settled on the East Coast in the seventeenth century? Whatever they believed their errands to be, New World settlers were confronted with a variety of challenges the physical difficulty of living in an unfamiliar land, friction with other immigrant groups, dissent within their own communities, conflicts with Native Americans that complicated their attempts to create ideal communities. Unit 3, "The Promised Land," examines the Utopian visions and dystopic fears represented in the works of William Bradford, Thomas Morton, John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Edward Taylor, William Penn, Sarah Kemble Knight, John Woolman, and Samson Occom. This unit provides contextual background and classroom materials that explore how these early texts contributed to American literary traditions and helped create enduring myths about America.

The video for Unit 3 focuses on three texts that together represent the diverse early American visions of "the promised land." John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," Mary Rowlandson's narrative of her captivity among the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians, and William Penn's "Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians" all participate in a tradition of understanding personal and communal experience as the working of God's will. Thematically, stylistically, and generically, however, the texts are very distinct from one another, revealing important differences in the authors' religious convictions and positions within their communities.

Winthrop, a wealthy man and a leader within his Puritan congregation, delivered his lay sermon on board the ship Arbella before disembarking in Massachusetts. The sermon serves as an optimistic blueprint for the ideal Christian community, or "City upon a Hill," extolling the virtues of a clear social and spiritual hierarchy, interpreting the Puritan mission as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and exhorting fellow congregants to maintain their purity. A generation later, Rowlandson wrote from a different Puritan perspective, as a woman held captive by Native Americans whom she viewed as agents of the devil. Her narrative of her wanderings and sufferings is an example of a Jeremiad, recounting the "trials and afflictions" that destroyed her earlier spiritual complacency and testifying to the sweetness of her repentance and eventual salvation. Penn, a Quaker and the wealthy proprietor of the Pennsylvania land charter, took an entirely different view of Native Americans in his letter to the Delaware Indians, written before he left England for the New World. His text is imbued with the tolerance and pacifism of Quaker belief, envisioning a utopian community in which Europeans and Native Americans would "live soberly & kindly together."

The video's coverage of Winthrop, Rowlandson, and Penn introduces students to these writers' influential utopian and dystopian visions of the promise of America. How do these texts serve to form enduring myths about America's status as a chosen nation? About its role as an example to the rest of the world? About its inclusiveness? How do these early visions of America's status overlap, undermine, or compete with one another? Unit 3 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video's introduction to early articulations of "the promised land" by exploring writers who represent other, diverse traditions, such as Samson Occom (a Native American Calvinist minister), William Bradford (a Separatist Puritan), Thomas Morton (an Anglican protestor of Puritan doctrine), and many others.

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials contextualize the writers of this era by examining several key stylistic characteristics and religious doctrines that shape their texts: (1) the role of typology--the Puritans' understanding of their lives as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy on both a communal and an individual level; (2) the importance of plain style--a mode of expression characterized by simplicity, accessibility, and the absence of ornament--in Puritan and Quaker speech, writing, clothing, architecture, furniture, and visual arts; (3) the diversity of Puritan and Quaker attitudes toward and ways of interacting with Native Americans; (4) the centrality of the Apocalypse, or the end of the world as it is prophesied in the Book of Revelation, to Puritan thought; and (5) the relevance of weaned affections--the idea that individuals must learn to wean themselves from earthly loves and focus only on spiritual matters--as a theological doctrine.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how students might connect the readings in this unit to those in other units in the series. Students might ask, for example, Why are the Puritans considered such an important starting point for American culture and literature? Why do later writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louise Erdrich invoke the Puritans in their own work? How do Rowlandson's and Penn's perceptions of Native Americans compare to Christopher Columbus's, Thomas Harriot's, and John Smith's perceptions? How do the Native American perspectives offered in Unit 1 complicate Puritan and Quaker understandings of Indian culture? Why does Winthrop's metaphor of the "City on a Hill" resonate so deeply in American culture? How are the Utopian visions of the writers in Unit 3 adopted, reformulated, or undermined in the work of writers presented in later units?

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