cover of book

The Story upon a Hill: The Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction
by Christopher Leise
University of Alabama Press, 2017
eISBN: 978-0-8173-9123-2 | Cloth: 978-0-8173-1947-2
Library of Congress Classification PS374.P8L45 2017
Dewey Decimal Classification 813.5409

In this provocative and thought-provoking volume, Christopher Leise sheds new light on modern American novelists who question not only the assumption that Puritans founded New England—and, by extension, American identity—but also whether Puritanism ever existed in the United States at all.

The Story upon a Hill: The Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction analyzes the work of several of the most important contemporary writers in the United States as reinterpreting commonplace narratives of the country’s origins with a keen eye on the effects of inclusion and exclusion that Puritan myths promote. In 1989, Ronald Reagan recalled the words of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop, who imagined the colony as a “city upon a hill” for future nations to emulate. In Reagan’s speech, Winthrop’s signature rhetoric became an emblem of American idealism, and for many Americans, the Puritans’ New England was the place where the United States forged its original identity.
But what if Winthrop never gave that speech? What if he did not even write it? Historians cannot definitively answer these questions. In fact, no group that we refer to as American Puritans thought of themselves as Puritans. Rather, they were a group of dissident Christians often better defined by their disagreements than their shared beliefs.
Literary scholars interested in Anglo-American literary production from the seventeenth century through the present, historians, and readers interested in how ideas about Christianity circulate in popular culture will find fascinating the ways in which William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and Marilynne Robinson repurpose so-called Puritan forms of expression to forge a new narrative of New England’s Congregationalist legacy in American letters. Works by Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison, and others are also considered. The Story upon a Hill raises a provocative question: if the Puritans never existed as we understand them, what might American history look like in that context?

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