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The Study of American Literature

A study of American literature will begin with the theism of the Puritans.  I introduce godly men and women.  A secular Puritan focus would take advantage of the Salem witch trials to discredit those marvelous people and reinforce the connotation of the word, Puritan, as the negative adjective it is today.  Students in a public setting will typically read Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, a novel that paints the Puritans as narrow, religious hypocrites. My students will read primary source selections from the Puritan authors themselves, not works about the Puritans.  They will be introduced to the five points of Calvinism and a brief introduction to Weslyan theology.  They will be introduced to the great minds of the time with selections from William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Plantation; John Smith, the romantic hyperbolic historian; and Michael Wigglesworth, the brilliant scholar and author of The Day of Doom, a poetical account of the Great Last Judgement, a work scorned by secular critics for its ‘gloominess’ and hailed as ‘gripping’ by surviving theists.  They will read the very religious poetry of Anne Bradstreet and the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, usually heavily abridged to remove Christian content.  They will read a sermon from Jonathan Edwards, part of his Personal Narrative, and a selection from Cotton Mather.  With the addition of a few articles from Reformation Today, the students will have enough information to decide for themselves what they think about the Puritans.

Moving on in time to the colonists the students are introduced to the next generations of Americans, the men who shaped our foundational documents with a worldview different from their grandparents.  These men, in rebellion and in arrogance, rejected the established theism of the previous 1700 years for an impersonal deistic belief.  They rejected the pleas of Jonathan Edwards for the drifters to return to God as a personal father and embraced the clockwork universe model, deism.  But the American experiment had been a success.  The intellectual Puritans (almost all had graduated from Oxford or Cambridge), had survived against all odds.  Their combined spiritual genius lay in the fact that they were men of prayer.  Theology was not an academic exercise for them, it was the practical application of biblical truth.  Their success bred confidence in their children and the pioneer spirit was continued. 


Men discontinued teaching Greek and Hebrew to their children, as many of the Puritans had, and began looking to Europe for ideas and education.  The government that would emerge would be a democracy not a theocracy.  Fueled by writings like Rutherford’s Lex Rex, the British colonists weakened in their loyalty and challenged the divine right of kings.  Growing discontent over failed promises, taxation without representation, and broken charters, led thinkers like Thomas Paine to suggest Common Sense measures, and the War for Independence was looming in the near future. 


Students in my classes range from logic to rhetoric stages in their education.  Both stages are able to comprehend the importance of the slide from theism to deism.  With an emphasis on worldview, the students are encouraged to read selections from their forefathers in the light of biblical truth.  While a public institution will emphasize ‘revolution,’ my class will emphasize ‘independence.’  Contrary to the secular practice of comparing the French and American revolutions, my class will contrast them.  The worldview of the instructor makes all the difference.  The students will read the Declaration and the Constitution with some Christian commentary and vocabulary help.  Enlightenment thinkers like Benjamin Franklin decided to choose their own morality.  In his Autobiography, Franklin names his chosen virtues, selected to assist him in his quest for “moral perfection.”  Virtue number 13 is “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” Thus, the Puritan gave way to the Yankee and the age of Common Sense.


What a light has burst over Europe within the last few years!  It first illuminated all the princes of the north; it has even come into the universities.  It is the light of common sense!

                                                                                                                Voltaire, Pensees of M. Pascal


The seeds of romanticism, which would destroy much of the Judeo-Christian culture of America over the next 200 years, were sown.


The Hebrew concept of individual worth and responsibility, the worldview of great thinkers like John Calvin and Martin Luther, the worldview of the Puritans, would give way completely under the influence of the English romantics, the followers of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  In my ministry to the next generation of thinkers I place import on the changes taking place in the minds of the authors we study and the way they represent their culture. 


The next step in the American Literature course is to represent romanticism clearly.  Our culture is so steeped in it that it has become a large part of our culture, the norm.  Most teens do not understand it, let alone recognize it.  Most of the parents of my students do not recognize it.  They may realize some aspects of our culture offend their Christian sensibilities, but they cannot verbally express the reason, why?  My worldview compels me to open their eyes to the dangers of romantic thinking.  These are my most popular lectures and I invite the parents to attend. 


Logic and common sense had been the impetus for revolution in France and independence in America.  Theistic concepts and traditions had faded with each successive generation.  Neo-classicism had lost its appeal.  The Enlightenment, glorifying in human reason, was fading.  Now, with the industrial revolution, a new sympathy for the poor was aroused.  The English notions of romanticism made their way across the sea into the open, seeking minds of the Americans.  The War for Independence had bred assuredness and fed the pioneer spirit.  Individualism is of supreme import:


I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator.  I desire to set before my fellow-men the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man is myself.  Myself alone!  I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men.  I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.                                                               Confessions, by Rouseau


The revolution of the hierarchy conception now takes place.


Critical to my presentation of the romantic revolution of 1798-1832[1] is William Wordsworth, the famous English romantic poet.  Wordsworth declared poetry to be a “mirror held up to Nature,” a big step away from the conception of God as Creator and Earth as the Creation.  The accepted concept of all art, music, and literature reflecting some part of God’s character, to honor Him and glorify Him, is casually tossed aside.  God’s character is logical and regular, wise, patient, loving, and consistent.  The romantics reject all of this and embrace irregular forms of literary expression, dissonant musical themes, and erratic artistic expression.  Science had gained the trust of Man during the advancement of the Enlightenment.  That trust is now placed in sociology, the study of human society apart from God; in Anthropology, a way to explain Man’s existence apart from God; and in Psychology, the study of the human mind.  Representative works from American authors are critical to the student’s overall understanding of the individual concepts.


The Concepts of Romanticism, as I teach them, are as follows:


The Green Concept, Mother Nature fills the place of God.  In Genesis, Adam is given dominion over the earth, to rule over it and to subdue it (Gen.1:28).  In romanticism, men are worshipping the Creation, communing with it, instead of the Creator (Rom.1:25).   Pantheism.  Needs of the earth have dominion over the needs of the humans.  Save the whales, dolphins, and spotted owls – kill the unborn children.  “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her” “thou doleful Mother of Mankind”[2](Wm. Wordsworth).  Representative authors include Emerson, Thoreau, and Bryant. 


The Noble Savage, the antihero who breaks all the rules.  A dionysian rebel replaces the calm, apollonian-type hero.  Sherlock Holmes is replaced by Indiana Jones.  Perry Mason is replaced by McIver, a hero who breaks all the rules and still wins.  Representative authors include James Fennimore Cooper, Longfellow, and Herman Melville.


Innocence replaces wisdom.  Youth is all you can trust.  Never trust anyone over 30!  Blame the older generation for life’s problems (2 Chron. 10:8, Prov. 15:22). We see this today in all forms of media.  The typical Disney hero is a young teen surrounded by inept, stupid adults. 


Sensibility, follow your heart, it will never lie.  The romantics placed special emphasis on the emotions and the heart, on intuition and instinct (Jer. 17:9, Mark 7:21). “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts,” wrote John Keats.  William Blake admonished us to, “bathe in the waters of life.”  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats).  Unbridled emotion was celebrated regardless of the consequences. 


The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness!

The boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness,

The vaporous exultation not to be confined!

Ha! Ha! The animation of delight

Which wraps me, like an atmosphere of light,

And bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind.

                Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, IV: 319-324


Subjectivity replaces objectivity.  Morality becomes relative, values clarification is practiced on school children, stress is placed on diversity and tolerance as individuals find their own relative or subjective truth.  Absolutes are denied credibility.


Revolution of all propriety.  A rejection of all religious beliefs leads to the acceptance of the absurd.  Without absolutes or universal law for guidance, men turn to themselves for direction. 


Occult fantasies replace the clockwork universe.  Plots, themes, and characters are developed that are outside of the scope of normal possibilities.  Frankenstien, Dracula, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.  Representative authors include Poe, Hawthorne, Irving, and Henry James.


Imagination replaces reality.  Fantasy, Captain Hook, Peter Pan, and Wendy, imagination becomes reality.  ‘Was it a dream or was it real?’ movies and novels.  Princess Bride.


From the romantic revolution until present day, is a depressing downhill slide in most of literature.  The Civil War, and World War I, each left the nation reeling in a downward spiral.  The nation’s literature reflects this trend with calm alacrity.  The romantic concepts progress in intensity until we reach our present postmodern culture. 


A free press and the addition of inexpensive magazines to our nation’s printed resources spread ideas easily and quickly to the masses.  Philosophers and theologians were no longer the only men engaging in the deeper questions of life: poets and writers of novels were changing the way people thought.  Truth and beauty were seen to emanate from the human heart.  As Shelley wrote in 1821, poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  It was now a fully human world that had turned its back on its Creator.


Romanticism is not able to fulfill, and the wars turn optimism into a growing cynicism in literary America.  The focus is now entirely void of any theistic remnants due to the stark reality of the post-war conditions.  In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half of the population was concentrated in 12 major cities across the continent.  Our little debtor nation had become a strong economic force, by 1914 the world’s wealthiest and a major world power.  Realism, a strong force in literature, grows to dominance with Samuel Clemens, Henry James, and John Steinbeck.  Realism paints the stark reality of bare life without God, without hope of any redemption. Some realist authors, like Mark Twain, painted pictures of real situations, but with survivors.  Strong characters who survived against all odds. 


When taught from a secular point of view, or with a few Bible verses thrown in, authors and their works stand as individual subjects.  When viewed through a biblical worldview they represent part of the big picture of mankind and his relationship with his Creator.  My object is to continually draw the big picture for my students.  The realists represent the unregenerate man and woman.  Life is short: then you die.  To really understand Huckleberry Finn, you must read an essay by Twain on God.  To teach literature in little bits and pieces is to miss the entire point.  To glorify God, the literature has to be studied in a way that reveals man in all his glory or shame honestly.  The student should be able to walk away with skills of discernment, the skill to see things for what they really are.  He or she should be able to place their own template of worldview onto a newspaper or magazine article and analyze it accordingly. 


From Realism it was a natural progression to Naturalism.  The social Darwinism of the Civil War era had a profound impact on theology and science.  The influence of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche cannot be overestimated.   Students should be introduced to the film, Inherit the Wind, and read commentary such as Christian History’s issue # 55, The Monkey Trial.  With innate human depravity denied, with a focus on experience, authors like Stephen Crane, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway wrote with a frank amoral attitude towards life.  Their philosophy of pessimism and determinism, utilizing strong characters with animalistic or neurotic natures, took their worldview to every 10 year-old boy who ever read a copy of, The Call of the Wild, or The Red Badge of Courage.  Balancing literary studies with selections from non-naturalistic authors, such as Stowe, O Henry, and Pearl S. Buck makes the reading more palatable to the young mind.  My class never balks at difficult assignments but they do cringe at some of the stories and novels they must read. 


Modernism includes the realist and naturalist writers, becoming a hodge-podge of fragmented works, “these fragments I have shorn against my ruin.”[3]  Cubism is the same concept in a visual form.  Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “the Lost Generation” to describe these authors.  For the modernist, there was no one absolute reality.  Reality and truth were personal, morality was relative, and it was individual and therefore subjective.  As a general rule, modernism was less concerned with reality than with how the artists or writer could transform reality.  In this way, the artist made his own reality.  Whereas the average man of the 19th century valued reason, hard work, thrift, organization, faith, norms and values; the bizarre, the mysterious, the primitive and the formless fascinated the modernist.  The modernist fashioned a world shaped by the Irrational.  In this way, the modernist artist and writer reflected the positions of Nietzsche and Freud: the underlying theme of modernism being anti-tradition. 


Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,

Buy nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?                  The Rock, by T.S. Eliot


In the ancient and medieval conceptions divine intervention in everyday events and miracles were accepted without question.  In the modern world there is a cynical derision and predisposition to unbelief that dismisses even the very real evidences of divine presence or purpose.   Modern man, liberated from his Creator, has become self-focused, self-indulgent and self-sufficient. 


What is literature but an insider's newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called 'thought'.    

from Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut


Representative authors include Ezra Pound, Poe, Shelley. e.e.cummings, Wm. Carlos Williams, and J. D. Salinger.  Poets like Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg balance the study.


The symptoms of postmodernism in literature are an excessive political correctness, permissiveness, extremes in tolerance, overemphasis on ethnicity, fabricated history, and a denigration of reason.  Romanticism is Christian principles inside out.  Postmodernism is romanticism which has destroyed itself, standing firmly on existentialism.[4] Works are even more fragmented, presenting a social picture of our times.  Beat Generation authors Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac paint the picture well in Kerouac’s On the Road. 


Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective ... The origins of the word 'beat' are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. . . How to live becomes more crucial than why. . . unlike the Lost Generation, which was occupied with the loss of faith, the Beat Generation is becoming more and more occupied with the need for it. As such, it is a disturbing illustration of Voltaire's reliable old joke: 'If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.' . . . For invented gods invariably disappoint those who worship them. Only the need for them goes on, and it is this need, exhausting one object after another, which projects the Beat Generation forward into the future and will one day deprive it of its beatness. . . its ever-increasing conviction that the problem of modern life is essentially a spiritual problem.

                               This is the Beat Generation, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 16, 1952


  J.D.Salinger and Joseph Heller capture the irony and hypocrisy of our world in Catcher in the Rye, and Catch 22.  My students will read selections from these works and a few short stories, plus some poetry from Kurt Vonnegut Jr, and lyrics to several angst songs by Offspring:


And even if we try and not become so overwhelmed
And if we make some contribution to the plight we see
Still our descendents will inherit our mistakes of today
They'll suffer just the same as we and never wonder why            lyrics from, Not the One


  In a secular setting students will explore works from many world cultures to fight against ‘Eurocentric enculturation.’  In efforts to be politically correct, the focus is on the reader, not the author.  And anything feminist is politically correct.  The traditional grammatical-historian method of literary criticism has given way to deconstruction, freed from ‘logocentrism.’  “Logocentrists are the ideologues, the cultureal imperialists who attempt to subjugate others to their version of the truth.”[5]  Teaching from a Christian worldview I am free to capitalize from the opposing viewpoint.


Over the course of the last 200 years, romanticism has become pervasive throughout our culture.  It has become more and more extreme, until it has reached the point of absurdity in our postmodern world.  G.K. Chesterton calls it ‘Christian principles gone mad.’ The hierarchy was turned onto its head, where it remains today.  The earth now has dominion over mankind. Plants and wildlife take precedence over the needs of humans.  All of morality and absolute truth have become subjective.  Each of these themes, when taken to their extremes, constitute absurdism, as demonstrated in The Stranger, by Albert Camus, or Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett.  Although these authors are not American, I have chosen them because they represent the theater of the absurd so succinctly.  My students will listen to a brief oral synopsis of these works, with sample selections in their syllabus.  As the term implies, the absurd work seeks to portray the feelings of loss, bewilderment, and purposelessness of the current generation.  The piece is successful if it leaves the reader or audience with a general impression of disjointed, meaningless dialogue, the very absurdity of human nature, or, the human condition.  The students must be led to view this generation just so – lost and without purpose.  What better inducement for eliciting an evangelical response than this?  Who is better equipped to provide answers and truth?  My object is for my students to experience vicariously the culture around them in its bleakest form so they will be moved to make a difference. 

[1] In 1798 Wordsworth published The Prelude, a landmark romantic work.

[2] Invocation to the Earth, Wm. Wordsworth

[3] From The Wasteland, T.S.Eliot’s long poem symbolizing Western civilization as a bleak desert in need of rain.

[4] Dr. Jan Haluska, professor of literature at Southern Adventist University, electronic correspondence.

[5] From The Death of Truth by Dennis McCallum

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