23 July 2009

The Greek Chorus

John Woolman utterly lacks a sense of his own depravity.
James Stripes, Fall 1989
Professor Alex Hammond sought to provoke discussion with a question along the lines of how The Journal of John Woolman (1774) differed from the texts we had been reading. We were near mid-semester and had devoted the first half of this Seminar in Seventeenth and Eighteenth American Literature to the writing of the Pilgrims and Puritans--from William Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation (c. 1650) and Anne Bradstreet's poetry to selections from Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." For the bulk of the next ninety minutes, we debated Puritan ideology again--some of my peers thought we were finally leaving that behind--and focused upon my perceptions of Woolman's self-righteousness.

John Woolman was a Quaker, and had been among the earliest prominent Americans to speak out against the institution of slavery. Perhaps Hammond thought our discussion might focus upon his enlightened liberalism, but my comment drove us back into the darkness of New England Puritanism. In comparison to the theological orthodoxy and intellectual vitality of the Puritans, Woolman represented a fall from grace: he was a naive simpleton. Whatever merits might have existed in Quaker theology and the beginnings of the anti-slavery movement on the eve of the American Revolution, his anthropology was deficient--he lacked accurate understanding of human depravity.

At least that's how the discussion began that night.

The Puritans held no such illusions. Several weeks earlier, perhaps the second or third week of class, the assigned reading had been Bradford's history. One of my classmates celebrated the author's report on the case of Thomas Granger. Although the Puritans may have picked up a reputation in the intervening years for sexual repression, they did not shrink from public discussion of the details of buggery. There was no question that the teenage Granger was to be put to death as a consequence of his conviction, but biblical law demanded also the death of those animals which he had known carnally. The beasts were paraded before the court so the youth could positively identify "a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2 calves, and a turkey." It was hard for him to identify precisely which sheep, Bradford tells us.

Before class I had confessed to a couple of my fellow students that I did not get through the reading assignment. My claim, perhaps true, was that Woolman's sense of his own righteousness rendered me nauseous. Perhaps my embrace of the Puritan doctrine of total depravity was nothing more than a typical student strategy for avoiding a discussion for which I was not prepared. I had read the better part of The Journal of John Woolman, but not all of it. Graduate students, like undergraduates, occasionally skimp on reading assignments. For those of us in English and history--my degree program bridged the two--each class was generally one book per week (we usually carried three such courses at a time, and they all required research papers on top of the reading). Most folks cannot read that much day after day, week after week, without occasional lapses. However, my peers held the belief that I always finished the assignments. One or two knew the truth that night.

During the break--these three hour classes always had a ten minute reprieve--two of my buddies took me to task for dominating the discussion of a book I hadn't read. That week I had been busy grading papers for the courses I taught, preparing the research for my paper on Cotton Mather as the father of American Studies, and visiting my children three hundred miles away--my divorce would soon be final. I did not start reading Woolman until the day class met, and was not able to get through the whole in one sitting.

A Corner of Paradise

My future wife, the writer Claudia Ann Peck (1952-1996), had called us the Greek Chorus because we sat together at one end of the long table and often seemed to speak as a group. We thought were were smarter than our peers--Thad certainly was. Claudia was one of the first in class to suffer our ire when she made up some sort of Jungian nonsense in answer to the professor's question regarding Puritan notions of type and antitype. Professor Hammond habitually assigned individual report topics to each student in his graduate seminars--a nifty means of assuring that long discussion classes would not break down in embarrassing silences because no one had anything to say. Claudia had missed the previous week's class to attend her sister's wedding and did not know that she was responsible for this topic. Although, as her mother would tell me later, "Claudia is from the Bible Belt," she had learned little of Calvinism growing up in east Tennessee.

She did not comprehend the New England Puritan understanding of biblical prophecy, but she was well versed in Carl Jung's notion of archetypes. Her answer drew a fair amount of disdain from the neo-Calvinists at the other end of the table. We were rude. During the break, she let us have a piece of her mind. I listened, apologized, and the courtship began. Mark and Thad had run off to get some coffee or bags of salty snack.

Thad, Mark, and I had established ourselves as Calvinists--secularized though we were--and approached the works of the eighteenth century colonists with a reverence and enthusiasm rather unusual for our time and place. Mark had been raised in the Dutch Reformed church and attended Calvin College for his undergraduate degree. No longer a practicing Christian when I met him, he remained a Calvinist in much of his thinking. Thad's undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, he was something like 22 years old--the average age in my graduate program was early 30s--and seemed to understand everything that he read. Some of my peers that were frustrated by my ability to bring Bible passages into discussions about anything and everything--I had read the Christian scriptures cover-to-cover at least five times in the early 1980s--were nonetheless comforted to believe that I no longer considered the text authoritative. Meanwhile, my patience for the politics of the Christian Right was growing thinner day by day.

Even so, I could discuss unconditional election as if I embraced the doctrine, and I believed in human depravity--Danny DeVito's famous expression of this perspective in The War of the Roses hit the theaters that winter.
At fifteen, I became an evolutionist, and it all became clear. We came from mud, and after 2.8 billion years of evolution, at our core is still mud. Nobody could be a divorce lawyer and doubt that.
Gavin (Danny DeVito) in The War of the Roses (1989)
DeVito expressed this mud at our core as evidence of science, but I heard it as religious doctrine--the anthropology of the human condition in moral terms. The movie was released near the end of my own messy divorce, and I was looking for secular expressions of my dark understanding of human moral potential: the Reagan years had demonstrated at least that much, and now the elder Bush had sold his soul to become the high priest of Voodoo Economics.

But, I was in paradise! In graduate school, we read constantly and our social lives consisted of extended discussions and debates about our reading. A typical English graduate seminar met from 6:00pm to 9:00pm in a classroom with two eight foot tables set end to end. A dozen or so of us would sit around these tables with the professor at the head and argue our points with ample references to the text(s) in question. After class ended, the professor would go home, but most of the students would hike the one block to the nearest pub where the arguments would continue another several hours over pitchers of stout or ale. There discussions of Puritan theology often gave way to arguments concerning the proper pronunciation of Kierkegaard and just pricisely what he was advocating at the edge of the precipice. On weekends in the same tavern, English graduate students competed in the recitation of poetry--as the beer flowed, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were recited in Middle English.
Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

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