Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 7, 2011: Sacvan Bercovitch's lengthy preface to the 2011 edition of THE PURITAN ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN SELF (Yale University Press) is a gem. It's worth the price of the book. In it Bercovitch recounts his life as a secular Jew and Canadian immigrant to the United States and his life as a distinguished scholar in American studies.
According to Bercovitch, the New England Puritans were the first colonists to refer to themselves as Americans. At the time, all other colonists used the term to refer only to Native Americans, not to themselves.
Among other things, Bercovitch shows that Barack Obama was a copy-cat. He copied the expression "change we can believe in" from a July Fourth orator in 1850 (see pages xxvii and xxxix). Obama's stated desire to "restore our image as the last, best hope on earth" was copied from President Lincoln (see pages xxviii and xxxix). In short, in his presidential campaign, Obama was calling on us Americans to renew our American identity, the identity of the American Self that Bercovitch ably explains in the preface to the 2011 edition of his book.
After reading Bercovitch's preface, I have come to the conclusion that certain New England Puritan writers were extremely imaginative. The imaginative spirit of the Homeric epics lived on in those writers. The imaginative spirit of the biblical author known as the Yahwist (author of J) lived on in them. The imaginative spirit of St. Paul and the anonymous authors of the four canonical gospels lived on in those authors. Of course the imaginative epic spirit also lived on in the Puritan poet John Milton, most notably in PARADISE LOST and PARADISE REGAINED.
As is well know, Caesar Augustus (Octavian), who is rightly considered to be the founder of the Roman empire, commissioned Virgil to write the epic that is known as the AENEID. Evidently, Virgil was not satisfied with his completed draft and planned to revise it further. However, before he could undertake to revise it, he died. He had stipulated that his draft should be destroyed. But Caesar Augustus over-ruled him and published his work. He seemed to understand that people do not live on bread alone.
Certain New England Puritan writers also understood this as they composed their imaginative epic. Collectively, they are the founders of the American Self, as Bercovitch puts it. For better or worse, those writers are the founders of the manic-depressive American culture that Americans have lived in both before 1776 and after 1776. Bercovitch himself does not emphasize the term manic-depressive as I plan to do here, even though he uses the term in passing (page xxxiii). I am the one using this term to emphasize what Bercovitch ably describes.
However, in emphasizing this characterization, I do not claim to be making an original observation that nobody else has made. See, for example, John D. Gartner's book THE HYPOMANIC EDGE: THE LINK BETWEEN (A LITTLE) CRAZINESS AND (A LOT OF) SUCCESS IN AMERICA (2005) and Peter C. Whybrow's book AMERICAN MANIA: WHEN MORE IS NOT ENOUGH (2005).
In his book BUSH ON THE COUCH: INSIDE THE MIND OF THE PRESIDENT (2004; rev. ed. 2007), Justin A. Frank, M.D., psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, contends that George W. Bush manifested the symptoms of megalomania, which Dr. Frank differentiates from simple mania. Is strikes me that Gartner and Whybrow are discussing simple mania in their books, not megalomania.
In any event, according to Bercovitch, the strategy of the New England Puritan jeremiad, as he styles the genre that emerged as an integral part of their emerging imaginative epic, became the strategy of the typical jeremiads in American civil religion. The strategy was to sound the alarm at the possible prospect of the terrible failure of the meaning of America -- that is, the meaning of America in their imaginative epic. A failure would deny hope itself of the meaning of America. For all practical purposes, the meaning of America for those writers was connected with their imaginative epic regarding the covenant, an idea they borrowed from ancient Hebrew scripture. The strategy of sounding the alarm about the possible terrible failure was a summons to covenant renewal. The summons of renewal was a call to draw back from and avoid the abyss of the failure of the meaning of America as envisioned in their imaginative epic -- an abyss the depths of which no man or woman knows. (See page xxxiv.)
When I characterize their way of thinking as manic-depressive, I mean that the abyss they imagined represents the depressive polarity. Whereas the imaginative epic about the covenant represents the manic polarity. In my estimate, what Bercovitch described as the American Self (his capitalization) is manic-depressive. It's in the American cultural DNA as it were to be manic-depressive.
Now, once you catch on to the abyss that is lurking out there at the prospect of failure of the meaning of America, then you will be able to understand how and why "American optimism" is designed to be a strong check against plumbing the depths of the abyss. Granted, Charles Dickens' character Mr. Micawber in DAVID COPPERFIELD was not an American. Nevertheless, Mr. Micawber's optimism can be understood as related in spirit to "American optimism."
Now, despite Obama's rhetorical efforts to try to revivify the American Self and the American sense of the covenant, I have to wonder if the American civil religion has died and is therefore beyond being revivified.
After all, Jonathan Kozol has published one jeremaid after another calling attention to illiteracy in America, but to no avail. So what's wrong? Is Kozol simply not skilled enough as a jeremiad writer to evoke a suitable response? Or has the American civil religion of old died?
I know, I know, I myself may be speaking from the depths of the abyss regarding the lack of response to Kozol's jeremiads about illiteracy in America. Nevertheless, illiteracy in America is a problem that should be addressed.
But enough about the failure of the American covenant!
Bercovitch explains how later writers contributed to the imaginative epic that the New England Puritan writers had started. But Bercovitch does happen to mention the spirit of epics in oral tradition, a spirit that Virgil imitated in writing the AENEID and Milton, in writing PARADISE LOST and PARADISE REGAINED. According to Bercovitch, later American writers worked out a model of the American Self that had two distinctive parts: (1) a figure of spiritual commonality whose uniqueness lay in his or her determination to do his or her "own thing" in his or her "own way" and (2) individualism enshrined as self-interest to signify a cultural ideal of personal self-fulfillment. (See page xxxvi.)