Puritanism and American Gothic

The New England Puritans were an intolerant people whose theology could not have failed to breed paranoia, if not madness, in the sensitive among them. Consider, for instance, the curious Covenant of Grace, which taught that only those men and women upon whom God sheds His grace are saved… those excluded from God’s grace…are not only not saved, but damned.

— Joyce Carol Oates, Introduction to American Gothic Tales

Photo: John Mount

Following on our notion from the last post that gothic horror is the literature of “our awful helplessness” in the face of universal realities, it should come as no surprise that early American Gothic literature shows the strong influence of the Puritan mindset.

The first selection in Oates’ anthology is an excerpt from the 1798 novel Wieland, or The Transformation, by Charles Brockden Brown. Theodore Wieland is a man of obsessional piety: “God is the object of my supreme passion,” he states. In the chapter that Ms. Oates excerpts, he is testifying on his own behalf, while on trial for a terrible crime.

My days have been spent in searching for the revelation of that will; but my days have been mournful, because my search failed…. I turned on every side where glimmerings of light could be discovered. I have not been wholly uninformed; but my knowledge has always stopped short of certainty. Dissatisfaction has insinuated itself into all my thoughts.

Dissatisfaction, because he has not achieved the epiphany, the ultimate knowledge of God that he has been working all his life to gain. All the same, he is apparently prone to fits of mystical ecstacy.

At first every vein beat with raptures known only to the man whose parental and conjugal love is without limits, and the cup of whose desires, immense as it is, overflows with gratification. I know not why emotions that were perpetual visitants should now have recurred with unusual energy….The author of my being was likewise the dispenser of every gift with which that being was embellished. The service to which a benefactor like this was entitled, could not be circumscribed.

Teresa de Jesús
Photo: Wikipedia

As it happens, I’ve also been reading St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. St. Teresa was a mystic. She seems to have suffered from auditory hallucinations, and in her writing she frequently mentions the terrible headaches, the faintness, and the other physical ill effects that befall her during intense periods of prayer and meditation. Yet she seems to have been able to separate these physical effects from the moments of great communion with God that she believed she had experienced. The Interior Castle is her attempt to explain the various levels of union with God to her fellow Carmelite Sisters. Much of the imagery that she uses, and the emotion that she expresses, sound rather like the words of Theodore Wieland. I would quote you some, but St. Teresa is in a storage box for the next week or so. But that’s another story.

St. Teresa also recognizes that some apparently mystical experience could also be “from the devil”, or at least self-delusion. The essence of her reasoning is that God gives the gift of these experiences to whomever He pleases. It has nothing to do with “earning” it, or “deserving” it. To believe that you could possibly earn it is pride, and will only work against you. And to not be granted this gift does not make you a sinner, or a bad person — it just means that God didn’t grant it to you. End of story. Reading The Interior Castle, you notice that St. Teresa actually approaches anecdotes of mystical experience with a surprisingly large dollop of skepticism.

Our good Mr. Wieland, not so much. In a fit of mystical vision — “I opened my eyes and found all about me luminous glowing. It was the element of heaven that flowed around.” — a voice tells him that God wants him to kill his wife, whom he apparently loves, as proof of his faith. And then his children.

And he does.

492px Nathaniel Hawthorne
Portait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Charles Osgood
Photo: Wikipedia

Nathaniel Hawthorne, descendant of Puritans, great-great-grandson of a Salem Witch Trial judge, has two entries in the anthology. The first is the well-known “Young Goodman Brown;” the second is the lesser-known “Man of Adamant.” The protagonist of “Man of Adamant” is the misanthropic, self-righteous Richard Digby.

His plan of salvation was so narrow, that like a plank in a tempestuous sea, it could avail no sinner but himself, who bestrode it triumphantly…

Convinced that no one beyond himself deserves God’s blessings, Digby ditches his village, “shaking the dust from his feet,” so as to be well far away before fire and brimstone rain down on his miserable, sinful neighbors.

Alone in the forest, he picks for his hermitage a grim little cave. The cave is full of stalactites and with the petrified fossils of leafs and twigs. From the roof of the cave, liquid drips, so mineral-laded that “it seemed to possess the power of converting what it bathed to stone.”

Oh, and Digby, before he left, was diagnosed with an incurable disease:

It was a deposition of calculous particles within his heart, caused by an obstructed circulation of the blood; and unless a miracle should be wrought for him, there was danger that the malady might act on the entire substance of the organ, and change his fleshy heart to stone.

You can see where this is going. But before it arrives, Hawthorne throws in one more element, turning what started as a straightforward fable into something more like a fairy tale. Still predictable, but charming.

4 thoughts on “Puritanism and American Gothic

  1. Are you familiar with Predestination, the belief that God has chosen all who are to be saved before they are born, and so no one can change their fate, by good deeds or bad? This doctrine was very popular with certain sects of Presbyterians in Scotland – there was a novel written that explores the obvious downsides of the notion: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg.

    It’s one of my favourite books – in it, the main character becomes convinced by a person who may or may not exist (who he believes to be Peter the Great and later, the devil) that he can kill anyone he likes since God has already declared him one of the Elect who will go to heaven. There are a lot of really memorable scenes in that book..I won’t spoil any of them though, if you haven’t read it.

    1. I am familiar with the idea of Predestination. John Calvin, right? I’ve always thought of the Calvinists as the precursors of the Puritans, but I might just be showing my ignorance of history here.

      I’ve never read the James Hogg novel; it sounds rather fun, if you excuse me for putting it that way. I’ve added Wieland to the list of things I ought to read, but I think Private Memoirs might have to cut in front of it.

      And really, it seems to me if I thought that God had predestined me for Heaven no matter what, I’d be more apt to turn into a libertine, rather than a puritan…

      1. It’s very possible they evolved from the same root idea and went slightly different ways with it. PMACOJS is actually quite slyly funny in places – and yes, I would agree with your last point – at the least, I’d be more joyful than puritans!

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