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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
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
John Winthrop, Mary Rowlandson, William Penn

Who's Interviewed:
Gary Nash, award-winning author and professor of American history (UCLA); Michael J. Colacurcio, professor of American literary and intellectual history (UCLA); Priscilla Wald, professor of American literature (Duke); Emory Elliott, professor of English (UC, Riverside)

Points Covered:
• Description of the diverse early settlers in America and their diverse utopian visions and expectations for the New World.

• Introduction to the Puritans and their belief in their own status as God's "chosen people." John Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" explicates the nature of their "sacred errand" and outlines a blueprint for the model Puritan community.

• Mary Rowlandson's narrative of her captivity among the Narragansett Indians offers a later, more dystopian vision of New England. Her text functions as a jeremiad, denouncing the sinfulness of her society, urging repentance, and providing a model for salvation. Louise Erdrich's 1984 poem "Captivity" offers a contemporary reinterpretation of Rowlandson's experience.

• Introduction to the Quakers and their commitment to nonviolence, tolerance, and inclusiveness. Penn's "Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians" shows a respect for Native Americans' culture and rights that is quite different from Puritan attitudes toward Native Americans. Theological differences between the Quakers and the Puritans led to hostility and persecution.

• Internal doubts and external enemies plagued the Puritans, as evidenced by the witchcraft trials of the 1690s. Neither Quakers nor Puritans succeed in creating perfect communities, but they are the sources of lasting myths and guiding principles that have shaped America over the centuries.

• Preview the video: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Puritans, Quakers, and other European immigrant groups arrived in the "New World" with optimistic plans to create utopian societies that would fulfill God's will on earth. John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," Mary Rowlandson's narrative of her captivity among the Narragansett 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 divine will. From Winthrop's vision of the Puritan congregation as "a City on a Hill" to Rowlandson's nightmarish account of personal and communal sin and redemption to Penn's idealistic commitment to peace and tolerance in his dealings with Native Americans, these texts demonstrate a shared belief in America's promise, even as they offer very different perspectives on how that promise should be realized. While groups like the Puritans and the Quakers failed to turn their utopian dreams into realities, their visions, ideals, and even ideologies have left an indelible mark on American conceptions of national identity and continue to shape American literary traditions.

• What to think about while watching: How did the Puritans and Quakers respond to the social and political pressures caused by their immigration to a "New World"? How did they react when they came into contact with other immigrant groups and with Native Americans? How do the writers and texts explored in the video formulate enduring myths about America? How have their values and beliefs shaped American culture and literature?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 3 builds on the concepts outlined in the video to further explore the diversity of the utopian visions and dystopic fears that shaped the early American experience. The curriculum materials offer background on Puritan and Quaker writers and texts not featured in the video, as well as information about some of the other religious and cultural traditions that developed in America. The unit offers contextual background to flesh out the video's introduction to the historical events, theological beliefs, and stylistic characteristics that shaped Puritan and Quaker literature.

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