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Bercovitch on the American Self and the American Covenant (REVIEW)

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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.


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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.

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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).

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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.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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