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Reading the minds of the Puritans

IN the standard version of American literary history, it's the eloquent speeches of the revolutionary fathers in which a distinctly ``American voice'' is first heard. According to Patricia Caldwell, however, the origins of American expression are much humbler, go back much further, and include both men and women.

The Brown University English professor says the first truly American utterance is found in the ``conversion narratives'' of the first Pilgrims to set foot in New England. Conversion narratives were confessions of sin and rebirth that Puritans testified to in church - evidence that one, in the words of minister John Cotton, ``hath a new mind, and a new heart, new affections, new Language....''

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Dr. Caldwell's work is part of a pattern of newer scholarship examining the interior beliefs and motives of early Americans.

The study of the Puritan beginnings of America - a field that many scholars say was nearly dried up in the 1970s - has been enjoying a modest revival in recent years.

It was in Harvard's Houghton library that Caldwell stumbled onto the ``confessions'' of 51 first-generation American Puritans from the First Church of Cambridge, Mass., which pastor Thomas Shepard had recorded in his notebook between 1637 and 1641.

Surprisingly, the confessions - in English dialect - had never been fully translated. The job took Caldwell six months with a magnifying glass.

By the time she finished, Caldwell realized that these confessions were somehow different. ``I was sitting in the Royal Library in London reading through an early English conversion testimony and sat up thinking `H'm. This doesn't really sound American,''' she said in a recent interview.

During the next few years, Caldwell wrote a book (``The Puritan Conversion Narrative,'' Cambridge University Press) backing up her perception. ``An important, original book,'' said Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University; ``One of the two most essential reference works in early American literature,'' one scholarly journal said.

Caldwell found that both the tone and structure of the American voice was different, but in subtle ways. There is a higher pitch of anxiety and expectation, she finds.

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The voyage across the ocean is a central experience - treated almost as a biblical Red Sea deliverance. Yet, like the Children of Israel, Caldwell says, the Americans find that the promised land does not lie just on the other side of the sea. They find themselves alone in the wilderness, with the Bible as their only refuge. While the English Puritans may use biblical examples and similes in their confessions, the Americans speak as though ``they are living inside the Bible.'' Which, says Caldwell, they are.

``Their difficult experience comes through - in what are supposed to be joyous confessions. There is a sense of unfinished business, of struggle. Their speech is tougher, more muscular. From the start, these people didn't settle for easy answers.''

Part of the reason Puritan studies has stayed vital, experts say, is the popularity of ``social history,'' which came into vogue in the late 1960s. Social history sets aside wars, treaties, and politics to take a ground-level view of ordinary people and communities.

Monographs were written on what American colonists ate and wore, the tools they used, their bartering systems, number of offspring, and so on.

Of late, this social history has declined. ``Quantitative methods proved to be a limited way to get at the issue of consciousness - of why people did things,'' says colonialist David Hall. But in studying village life and community records, scholars opened up new areas of study and refined their understanding of the atmosphere and dynamics of early America.

The role of religious faith has been an area of renewed interest - including the spiritual life of lay people, and new appraisals of the contribution of women in churches.

As Caldwell says, ``I'm interested in real people talking about real things. Too much of our scholarship deals with the abstract.''

She also wants the people of history themselves to speak. Historian Page Smith concurs: ``We need to listen to what early Americans really say. They seem to have an idea about what they were doing. Why should we believe some Harvard professor instead?''

Today, the Puritan legacy is often blamed for everything from personal neuroses to poor foreign policy. Caldwell feels this is a ``bad rap,'' and that students need to hear the other side. ``People look back and see Puritans as being very hard.... They made such large demands. But they were never harder on others than they were on themselves - and this is what the critics don't understand. The Puritans believed your contribution to the community had to do with how seriously you took your religious, inner life. They had great and passionate souls.''

Students today, says Caldwell, can learn from the Puritan ability to think symbolically, to see larger issues in the mundane - something students today do not learn, she feels.

``The Puritans saw meaning in everything,'' she says. ``The 17th century still had hold of a symbolic way of thinking that was very complex, but which the average person was quite used to, and capable of. It's all a question of `How do you read?' Students who don't study literature, and read, have a harder time understanding symbol and metaphor. And these are what you have to know to get into the important and great questions.''

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