It was my junior year English class that confirmed a lot of things. It made me realize I really was destined for a degree in English, that my writing could actually improve (I was overly confident for too long – although that was not really resolved until college), and that in order to be a true American intellectual, you have to suffer through a lot of strange pamphlets.
The one semester class was taught by the classic high school English teacher, half the doting teacher wanting her darling pupils to succeed and half brassy lady, who many looked upon with dislike for her stringent opinions regarding everything. (She once came up behind me while we were doing class projects in the computer lab and started braiding my hair (maybe it was a pony tail). I never knew if this was a “aren’t you great” moment or if she had noticed I was messing around instead of doing my work.) This class was geared for the best of the “honors” students and if anyone was going to push our limits about literature, she was going to. She may have wanted to be “our divine inspiration,” “our beacon of literature,” but she chose material that I found not even PhD students in Literature had read due to it’s extremely boring and possibly irrelevant topics.
Passionate Puritans and the Root of American Literature.
That was the name of the class and it was the summer reading list from hell. I could handle the Nathanial Hawthorne (in fact, I rather enjoyed it) and the other 19th century American writers, but it was Pilgrims Progress that did me in. Having desperately fought through page after page of allegorical characters, my favorites names being Hope and Charity, unless you count the main characters Christian and Christina, I found myself pondering the unthinkable. But it was time; I was ready. On one of he last days of my summer vacation, I prepared myself and finally, lost my Sparknotes virginity.
For my pre-junior year self, this was a gigantic deal. I had never not been able to finish a book, or at do a quick read. I had been the kid in junior high who not only read at least 4 books a week for fun, I would recommended books to the school librarian and she would buy them. Sparknotes violated every thread of literary morality I had ever possessed and I knew when I crossed that bridge, I could never come back.
For the sake of all those who ever had an ounce of interest in a book named Pilgrim’s Progress, the title is basically everything you need to know. In fact, the scene in Little Women where the characters act it out is probably the most fun anyone has had revolving around PP. Because as every one knows, being a puritan is no fun. Being a puritan on an allegorical journey, testing yourself against Satan and his folly, is a punishment with a purpose.
American cultural item most opposite from PP: 1960s beach party movie.
[Strangely enough in trying to find an apt example of a beach party movie, I found a clip on YouTube in which there is the Puritanical figure of an old man fishing, who discovers an unhappy surprise towards the end. Youth and the demise of civilization!]
But surprisingly, in the class Passionate Puritans, I found myself enjoying the strange religious texts delving into the world of people bent on finding a space to call their own. Yes, they were crazy, but who’s to say that my own French Canadian relatives were no less mad for leaving their estates in France to go to a frozen land, where the most comfort you could find was in a warm beaver pelt. Forget baguettes, brie, and wine.
I had completely forgotten about these strange people until I started reading Sarah Vowell’s book, The Wordy Shipmates, this past week. After hearing her pieces on NPR’s This American Life, I expected the book to be a motley of comic observations. But Vowell has proved herself an adept historical commentator. She pairs the history of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Company with our own modern stereotypes of history, attempting to straighten out misconceptions while reminding us that there is humor in just about everything. What are the Puritan theological differences? It’s like someone asking a Godfather II fan if there really is a difference between each film, she says.
Like her, my quest in discovering the Puritans is far from over. Like the over-quoted city upon a hill, it is just beginning. And although Pilgrim’s Progress was a rough start, there was no turning back.