Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Susan Howe

Confusion of Origins: Notes on Historical Approaches to Puritanism


What makes a writer attach themselves to a subject, particularly a historical subject? Is it a way to frame contemporary experience, in light of the experience, words, and actions of others who are somehow perceived as part of a lineage? Or is it a way to seek redemption, inspire the future, isolate the past from the contemporary moment, or enrich our flattened understanding? Is it a desire to find a missing part of ourselves?

I have thought about this question a lot, since whenever people ask me about my literary thesis project – what made me drawn to the topic of my thesis on Susan Howe’s interest in Antinomianism (the radical use of evangelizing rhetoric by Anne Hutchinson of the Boston Massachusetts Colony to resist judgement by her community before being ousted by the elders of the Puritan community to the wilderness) – or what makes me currently drawn to Frances Fuller Victor – a historian of Oregon writing in the mid-nineteenth century who cast doubt on the “predestination” of westward expansion – I cannot come up with a clear, or personally viable answer. There is a bit of confusion about my decision to concentrate on certain material and the nature of my approach.

Today, I will shift my attention away from personal inquiry to question the motivations of several authors whose work attaches itself to Protestant religious belief systems as origins for any number of contemporary phenomena including capitalism, American mainstream identity, or racism.

For instance, Max Weber’s famous thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism suggests that a “spirit” of capitalism is inherent to protestant values, specifically of the English Calvinist tradition (the precursor to Puritanism) based on the notions of a “calling” and “predestination” which could suggest that material wealth was a sign of salvation. This topic is still questioned, as the American business class (see this article in Forbes) may find an ideological use for asserting Puritanism as its original ideological guide. Weber’s work was particularly influential for the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.

Without further investigation, this could make anyone skeptical at a glance, since it suggests that capitalism has an eternal “spirit” lacking breaks, fractures, or permutations. Likewise, it seats the origins of the capitalist mechanism in European territory, since Max Weber claims that Buddhism and other religious groups were less capable of fully adopting individual material gain as a virtue independent of social systems. It is easy to feel skeptical towards these ideas in our current era of vast globalization in which many belief systems are capable of molding their values to embrace capitalism, granting it the appearance of a performed, rather than essential practice. It is interesting to note that Max Weber’s work contradicted Marx, who described the motor of history as the material, economic base. Weber suggests that ideology, or belief systems likewise produce an effect.

R.H. Tawney responded to Max Weber in the essay, “Puritanism and Capitalism,” in 1926, unwilling to accept his clean-cut description of Calvinism:   

Weber, in a celebrated essay, expounded the thesis that Calvanism, in its English version, was the parent of capitalism, and Troeltsch, Shulze-Gaevernitz and Cunningham have lent to the same interpretation the weight of their considerable authority. But the heart of man holds mysteries of contradiction which live in vigorous incompatibility together. When the shriveled tissues lie in our hand, the spiritual bond still eludes us.

In every human soul there is a socialist and an individualist, an authoritarian and a fanatic for liberty, as in each there is a Catholic and a Protestant.

Thus, in Tawney, Puritanism itself becomes an example not of separation, but of an inherent complicity with the things its tenets both accept and reject.

Puritanism itself involved a constant questioning of acceptance as the quest for finding evidence of “grace” the proof of God’s salvation reveals; and rejection marked by violent determinations, as the Pequot War exemplifies. Overall, such close attention to the mystical aspects of Puritan “grace” theology and its many perplexing internal contradictions and effects always stand in relief to a relative inattention to native interpretations of Puritan violence.


Later, Perry Miller, a Historian of Harvard University, wrote his famous book entitled, Errand into the Wilderness (1964), which questioned whether the reason the Puritans came to America was considered self-determined, or pre-determined, in which case, the higher power (a potentially capricious power) could change its mind and drop support for the social experiment. This project distinctly proposes justifications for considering the Puritan-American mind as something distinctly different from the European mind, due to Puritan isolation and uncertainty. Once more, this effort to detach Puritanism from its sources as part of an effort to establish an American essence gives the work an air of nationalism. However, Perry also took up a contemplation of irresolvable contradictions, namely to which extent do idealism (the errand) and material realities (the wilderness) shape history. Earlier, in his work entitled, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1961) Perry contemplates the role of the mind as a factor in shaping human history, through the study of rhetoric and Puritan language and texts. Yet, notably, Perry treats the realities of the social and mental spheres as independent as a means of defining their relationship.

Perhaps granting such a deep psychological aura to Puritanism itself is problematic, as it grants undue attention to the interior social constructs of one particular group of historical agents during the “origins” of America, without considering the numerous factions of other influential agents, and the division within the Puritan’s community itself. Ann Kibbey, a leftist-feminist scholar continued to question the rhetorical uniqueness of Puritan doubt and uncertainty, while she attempted to link this rhetoric to what she considers an inherent tendency for violence and prejudice towards natives and women alike within the Puritan colonies in her book The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A Study of Rhetoric, Prejudice, and Violence first published in 1986. This work grants special attention to Anne Hutchinson, a woman who was scapegoated from the Puritan community before the rash of witch trials swept through the Puritan communities. However, I feel it is in our interest to consider the Puritan’s development of violence a performed act, rather than a necessity, since even though it invoked imagery, language and forms as the associated rhetoric of violence, this does not mean that these forms literally caused violence: people’s actions did. From my perspective, people may act or embrace ideology with cruel intentions, and they should be duly reckoned for these intentions, but ideology in a vacuum has no conscience, no power. Ideology itself becomes an excuse.


Another sea of inquiry that highlights the unique role of women and natives as agents shaping the “uncertainty” of Puritan society were the wildly popular captivity narratives of women such as Mary Rowlandson who described their experiences as having been abducted and then returned safely from life with the natives. Poet Susan Howe writes about Mary Rowlandson in her essay “Captivity and Restoration” found within her book entitled The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. The narratives produced by Rowlandson (and her male congregational ministerial scribes) are deeply steeped in religious rhetoric and typology producing an effect that function follows predetermined form. Howe writes, “Early New England rhetoric claimed for every single Christian a particular evangelical and secular use and progress. Individual identity was prophetic and corporate. In the hermeneutics of the Bay Colony every member of the Elect was a figural type on the way of federal eschatology. The break with the Old World was a rupture into contraries.” She reveals that the dilemma of form involved the extremities produced by the pressure of isolation.

Combined, the quest for some innate Euro-American origins using religious explanations of the Puritan mind, rhetoric, profit motive, or any other simplistic framework is not complete without a consideration of natives, women, material realities as well as emotional, mystical, or rational frameworks. The study of Puritans has accommodated such diverse fields of discourse for different ideological frames of inquiry yet, a recurring theme within the study of Puritanism itself is contradiction and what do we do with it? How can we reconcile the simultaneous rupture and continuity of European traditions in the New World, symbolized by the Puritans? The crisis of identity at the core of their history is notable and it resembles narratives of immigration to America from diverse communities as well: coming to seek opportunity, but never feeling a sense of belonging. Deeply consuming life with a quest for transcendence, salvation, and belonging. Yet, understanding that nothing is guaranteed, so we must consume ourselves with work, industry, production as a means to defy uncertainty, etc…

Furthermore, the imperative for economic freedom through markets via rupture (discussed in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine) perhaps makes Puritan contradiction a convenient parallel for our own contemporary forms of brutality. However, Klein herself would attribute this not to one particular doctrine, but any that embraces fundamentalism at its core. She reminds us that any effort to cleanse a system of impurity and eliminate all co-existent ideologies is inherently dangerous and filled with risk, yet such extremism continues to shape and influence our political and economic spheres.

So what draws me to my own autodidactic historical research? The condition of my immigrant heritage to America and the complicit violence and prejudice it suggests? My uprootedness? Perhaps questioning itself, as my method, may be the only identifiable material of my existence.

What marks off the “self” is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

— Simone Weil, ibid.


Collage: Sound Forms, Conversion, Colonization


The following is an assemblage of quotes and notes. It is inspired by my Master’s thesis, but it won’t fit in my thesis, due to its dispersal into too many corners of thought:

In response to the question, “Where does the title come from?” Susan Howe responds that she thinks title of the poem, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, is “a definition Schoenberg gives to music,” while also having found a similar definition to language in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary (Talisman Interview, The Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history 172).

Webster’s first definition of “Language” is as follows: “Human speech; the expression of ideas by words or significant articulate sounds, for the communication of thoughts. Language consists in the oral utterance of sounds, which usage has made the representatives of ideas. When two or more persons customarily annex the same sounds to the same ideas, the expression of these sounds by one person communicates his ideas to another. This is the primary sense of language, the use of which is to communicate the thoughts of one person to another through the organs of hearing. Articulate sounds are represented by letters, marks or characters which form words. Subsequent definitions include concepts that include the arrangement of words in writing, and the speech of a nation.” (http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,language)

“The crucial importance of speaking in conversion shows that Puritans believed written texts were in some way fundamentally dependent for their intelligibility on their incorporation into speech, that sound—however transitory and precarious—was essential.” (Anne Kibbey, The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: a study of rhetoric, prejudice and violence 8)

The acoustic shapes of rhetoric depend on faith, precisely because they lack referential meaning.

“To an almost alarming extent—alarming for me, sound creates meaning.  Sound is the core.  If a line doesn’t sound right, and I do always have single lines or single words in mind, if a line doesn’t have some sort of rhythm to it, if my ear tells me it’s wrong, I have to get rid of it, or change it, and a new meaning may come then.” (Howe, Difficulties Interview I 31).

The phrase could also simply describe voice, the vocalization of speech, and the speech-act of utterance. One’s vocalization in time carries with it an independent identity. No two voices sound quite the same. Meanwhile, written text forms the illusion of sameness across time due to its visible sameness in copied reproduction through time, which reifies the subjective temporality of a speech act.

“And the friars composed couplets, or ballads, in Quiché. / Ballads using their rhymes and intercadences / recounting the creation of the world / the fall of man, / the banishment from paradise, the flood, the death / of the son of God and his resurrection. / They showed the verses to four Indian merchants in Guatemala / who went to buy and sell in the Quiché. / They set them to music / to the sound of the Indians’ instruments / ‘accompanying them with a lively and high-pitched tone / because the instruments of the Indians were low and hoarse” (Ernesto Cardenal The Doubtful Strait (El estrecho dudoso) Trans. John Lyons 117)

The epigraph that follows serves as en excellent example of the privileging of “sound-form” as a basis for poetic linguistic organization:

from seaweed said nor repossess rest

scape esaid

(Howe, Singularities 1)

“We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to ‘repossess’ something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s’s (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e’s and o’s, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. (Marjorie Perloff, “‘Collision or Collusion with History’: Susan Howe’s Articulation of Sound Forms in Time 520)

“A Bible, recently translated into the vernacular, was owned by nearly every member of the Bay Colony. It spoke to readers and nonreaders and signified the repossession of the Word by English” (Susan Howe, The Birthmark 48-49, Italics mine)

Howe’s epigraph provides an example of how sound forms a connective tissue of speech that may lack the syntax for forming determinate meaning, while still expressing a desire for return, or “repossession.”

“The greatest literature shows the impossibility of self-fulfillment through desire” (René Girard Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 “Conversion in Literary Christianity” 267).

According to Charles Lloyd Cohen: “True piety consists in consciously turning back from sin to embrace God, reversing one’s earlier path” (God’s Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience 5).

“Cortés took the compass: / they opened paths with their arms / and came out again in the same path they had opened. / Cortés was bursting with anger. / They wanted to turn back / but now it was very late for turning back. / They raised their eyes and could not see the sky. / They climbed trees to get the lay of the land / and saw no land, only tree after tree. / Two guides fled by night. Only one guide remained / who did not know the way. / And the henequen cloth. / In 20 leagues they made 50 bridges. / More swamps and rivers which weren’t on the cloth. / Now there were no towns. Only abandoned villages, / burned huts. / And more swamps to go through. / The night rain extinguished their fires, / and animals howled all around. At this point / some deserted to return to Tenochtitlán / where they never returned.” (Ernesto Cardenal The Doubtful Strait (El estrecho dudoso) Trans. John Lyons 117)

Emmanuel Levinas: “A work conceived radically is a movement of the Same towards the other which never returns to the Same” (CP 91; italics in original).

“The idea of conversion is much more than reform, repentance, re-energizing, repair, regeneration, revolution, or any other word beginning with ‘re’ which suggests a return to something that was there before and which therefore limits us to a circular view of life and experience. In Christian conversion, a positive change is connoted which is not caught inside a circle” (René Girard Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 “Conversion in Literary Christianity” 267).

Primitive referred to a prior time in the history of the species, in terms of evolutionary time. Europe came to be mythically conceived as preexisting colonial, global, capitalism and as having achieved a very advanced level in the continuous, linear, unidirectional path. Thus, from within this mythical starting point, other human inhabitants of the planet came to be mythically conceived not as dominated through conquest, nor as inferior in terms of wealth or political power, but as an anterior stage in the history of the species, in this unidirectional path. That is the meaning of the qualification “primitive” (Quijano 2000b, 343–44). (Cited in Maria Lugonés “Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System” 192).

Anecdote: Hypotheses on literary aesthetics, “America,” and Susan Howe

Susan Howe, author of “Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history”

I’m cautious towards making a statement about aesthetics of American literature because I find this particular national construct menacingly impossible to comment on.  One qualification is that by the end of this post, I will have mentioned a rather limited set of authors, all in orbit of the work of Susan Howe.  Unfortunately, her influences are white-washed, and for me, weak in that sense.  Another qualification is that hopefully, I won’t descend to the cliché of capitalistic spectacle as a compelling concept for American aesthetics.  For me, the term spectacle is not important for what I want to say.

Aside from those comments, I’m intrigued by the creative interpretations of the poet Susan Howe, whose work expresses the need to gain a sense of belonging within a national literature as multivalent and diverse as that of the United States.  In some poets’ work, the desire to commemorate becomes quite intimate and fueled by longing due to a lack of collective identity.  For those who are exiled from within, batted around the workplace and the suburbs of the U.S. like a pinball, who find no collectivity anywhere but in the relationship of an author gazing on the lines of another author, commemoration forms a private, but nevertheless political act of friendship and alliance.  The legibility of two-ness transcends that sour American individualism that merely services an invisible machine.  When no longer reflecting a past homeland after immigration, authors have sought to establish identity based on the familiarity of textual belonging and curatorial quests for predecessors or some kind of artificial ancestry.  Commemorations such as Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book establish unpredicted alliances that cross boundaries of time and gender.  Individuals thus re-knit their work into the fold of other singular works in a way that sparks with potential.

Similarly, these two commemorations reflect a defensive mechanism put forth by poets against the critical or academic rendering of American culture. Their intimate etching of influence marks the resistance to theorists whose diagnosis collects upon their fore-runners like dust. Similarly, commemorations express resistance to the capitalistic shellac of advertising and Hollywood that is defined and exported as American-ness by media corporations in the form of mass-produced cultural objects. Instead, poets stake claims to a hidden path of culture developed through a close, slow, drawn out intimacy that capitalism will never know.

My interest in American literature is the in part due to the slow-birth of textual alliances such as these two works that oppose results-based or conceptual works.  While identity politics increasingly sub-divides groups according to traits with labels that sometimes form such splintered patterns that they merely invite the advance of newly emerged crevices to shatter identity anew. Sometimes identity services a form of further stolen flexibility from within the bounds of ‘human.’ The increasing specificity of categorized personhood is a symptom of the neo-liberal agenda of individualism.  American authors set themselves apart from one another through ever-smaller categorizations, and they have perfected the art of identifiable personhood by epitomizing individuation. Our canonical figures are each distributed as iconoclasts of some sort, symbolized for their distinguishable traits or habits. However, in works of commemoration, we see a gesture that slightly evades such individualism.

In works of commemoration, the smallest form of collectivity that one could possibly invoke—a pact between one living author and one dead—comes to life in full spectral resilience.  Each poet who commemorates digs up a grave and invites the corpse into an intimate consummate exchange.  What necrophilia! And yet, it gives us hope to see some sort of combined effort that is glorified as such.  Whatever its feeble form may suggest, it is still a form of that ever-persecuted elephant in the room of American politics, the collective. This poetic weed is bound to rise, in spite of the fact that the U.S. government all but disallows its own unity as a collective body for the sake of the neo-liberal agenda.  In my opinion, writer’s commemorations form a hidden, American, guerrilla formation of solidarity against the shadow looming overhead.

Furthermore, Susan Howe’s “path-finding” metaphor found in one of her most thought provoking texts, “Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness of American poetics,” expresses the simultaneous condition of loss and being lost that seems to mark a wide range of American experimental texts.  It is important to note that the underpinnings of this condition apply to the sense of separation that occurs for all moving persons, normally due to political unrest. This movement produces confusion not only about space, but also about purpose when the past and future no longer make ‘sense.’ The unsettling global movements of such an assemblage of people that the United States represents, and the proliferation of abandonment, exile, and unrest that fuels each movement, finds a less bleak, but no less troubling expression in the manic desire to succeed expressed by the catch phrase “American Dream.”

Howe revels in this confusion, and she claims its identity as feminine.  She traces this theme back in time to one of the documents of English textual history in the United States, in the Antinomian Controversy, when Anne Hutchinson’s over-pious “enthusiasm” for radical faith-based Puritanism threatened the church leaders’ sanctioned authority, and she was therefore punished by banishment into wilderness: the convenient wall-less prison devised by the courts of early American settlers. Nature, God, or natives would thereby do the work of punishment that each sentence of exile implied, in the minds of the persecutors. We should never forget how American settlement was in part spawned by a chain reaction of westward moving religious exiles. The puritans were purged from England to Boston, and they continued only to purge their own dissidents further west.

Howe writes about Hutchinson and her counter-tradition ghost that haunts other texts with regards to textual marginalization caused by editorial practices.  The shaping of her words for the historical record by the earliest ministerial/rhetorical think-tank censors in the U.S., provides a basis for what would eventually follow.  Howe notes that this clamping-down of culture simultaneously parallels the proliferation of another more manic and enthusiastic form of textual marginalia production, as well.  The pressure of censorship spawned the babbling noise of highly indeterminate excitement, perhaps just a form of textual anxiety, but nevertheless a trace of something, exemplified by Emily Dickinson’s trunk of slant-rhyme fascicles and other texts that Howe cites.

The simultaneity of schism and non-obedient enthusiasm marks the unevenness of American culture and its textual production.  Reflecting on American history of textual practice, as well as politics, Howe is able to assert that forms such as schism, gap, fragment and absence create a compelling theme in some American texts.  For me, these unexplained absences reflect the non-binding agreements waged by false colonial peace treaties with natives in the past, but also the contemporary manipulation of media and information control sponsored by the C.I.A.  The distinction between what is said and unsaid in the United States has always been a consciously perceived, yet indefinable threat.  The uncertainty towards a kind of magnitude of loss that simultaneously pairs with an uncertainty towards the magnitude of space, possibility, and freedom.  This dual uncertainty is reflected in the absences of experimental texts, including Howe’s emphasis on spaces of the page, H.D.’s use of palimpsest, T. S. Eliot’s use of the fragment, and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  Going back further, we find absences in the form of Emily Dickinson’s dash and Melville’s Bartleby and his precarious absence of desire to perform human subjectivity.

One of the most powerful effects of these absences is their assertion of literary non-rational production that opposes the necessary completions and well-defined presences of logical discourse and identity.  Refusal towards logic itself, through the imposition of absence, forms a possible underlying critique of how America’s science fetishism is unique for it’s disconnection from the humanities.  Poetry expresses the exile of humanities from its Frankenstein offspring: modern science.  Perhaps deep down, in the poetics of this country assert some kind of reactionary re-rejection back towards science.  The anti-rationalist gesture of missing syntactical components is for me an embittered response towards the schism that our academic institutions interjected between the humanities and the sciences along with a simultaneous and by no means contingent militarization of U.S. society. Science, in this strange schism, seeks to purge humanity from the authority of ‘nature’ with no new nature to colonize.  Thus, we have rockets futilely launching outward to space, mounting forms of toxic waste, and unprecedented extinctions.

While this is a rather general impression of a very complicated set of aesthetic hypotheses, American culture in some ways appears as a repository of strange experiments that look incongruous in relation to the mass-produced commercial culture that reaches for a total form of cultural manipulation.  I think they are expressions the failure and insignificance of this control.  I must state (again) that I have mentioned a rather limited set of authors, all in orbit of the work of Susan Howe.  I hope to qualify this set of impressions by suggesting that this is only one lonely corner of American-ness in an endless field of interpretation.