This essay was originally published in Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, Volume 13.1 (April 2009) 21-44
Topics and Keywords
Puritan New England, Indians, conversion, Christianity, evangelism, Roger Williams, Key Into the Language of America, John Eliot
For many years students of early American literature tended to think of Puritan New England’s cultural production as intended largely for local consumption, but more recently a new wave of colonialist scholarship has rediscovered the transatlantic circuits of discourse that connected New England and Old from the start, and that shaped much (if not all) of the Puritan colonies’ writing. A subject of that writing that proved especially amenable to export to the mother country was the Puritans’ effort to convert the Indians who lived near them to Christianity. At the same time, from a different direction, a generation of ‘ethnohistorical’ scholars has taken up the mission literature anew, for the first time attending closely and often critically to the Puritan missionaries’ cultural biases, and more importantly attempting to recover the meaning of Christianization for those natives who were its objects, treating them finally as subjects in their own right.1 In this essay I will bring aspects of these two projects together, drawing on two theoretical models—provided by Mary Louise Pratt and James Scott, respectively—and extending these influential writers’ arguments and key terms to early New England’s mission, while at the same time exploring some of their limitations. Although Pratt’s and Scott’s are not the only theoretical models one might apply to the literature of the Puritan mission, I choose them in part because of my interest in how an English teacher might render the complex textual dynamics of Puritan-Indian evangelism more accessible, and in this regard Pratt’s attention to ‘the literate arts of the contact zone,’ and Scott’s model of ‘public and hidden transcripts’—especially when used in concert—provide especially useful, text-centered tools for handling New England’s mission literature.
About the author
Patrick J. Cesarini, University of South Alabama