The Author’s Corner with Abram Van Engen

Abram C. Van Engen is Assistant Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. This interview is based on his recent book SympatheticPuritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Sympathetic Puritans?

AV: When I entered graduate school, I knew that I wanted to combine many interests into a project on literature and religion. I first proposed a study of Auden, but to cover my major field exams in American literature, I started with the Puritans and never really left. One thing in particular startled me: the tears. I had been given to understand that the Puritans were a stern, unyielding, unemotional, iron-hearted bunch of settlers who solved their problems primarily through a great deal of thought. That is what I learned through Hawthorne; and that is the crude version of Perry Miller’s magnum opus that seemed to filter through intellectual history and guide literary studies. The Puritans were a people of the head, not the heart. So what were teary, sentimental Calvinists doing in seventeenth-century Puritanism? I wanted an answer, and the answer I found led me into a Puritan theology of sympathy that seemed to have all sorts of ramifications for cultural, intellectual, and literary history. For the Puritans, the heart mattered most (as most scholars of Puritanism know full well)–and one good sign of a healthy heart was the proper experience and expression of sympathy.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Sympathetic Puritans?

AVSympathetic Puritans argues that a Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, and literature of seventeenth-century New England with widespread and long-lasting consequences. In this period, a dual meaning of sympathy–the active command to fellow-feel (a duty to sympathize with saints), as well as the passive sign that could indicate salvation (a discovery of such sympathy within)–pervaded Puritan society and came to define the very boundaries of English culture, affecting conceptions of community, relations with Native Americans, and the development of American literature.

JF: Why do we need to read Sympathetic Puritans?

AV: My study of Puritan sympathy addresses dominant narratives in intellectual history, the history of emotions, and American literary history. First, of course, there are the Puritans. For a general audience who sees the Puritans as the stern and iron forebears of Hawthorne, this book reveals a surprising Puritan investment in tears and emotion. For those who have long been familiar with Puritanism’s language of affection and the heart, this book demonstrates how and why Calvinists focused on such matters. And for both sets of readers, this book uncovers the significant and widespread impact of Puritan sympathy on early New England while also tracing forward its effects on important developments within American culture and literature.

Second, this book revises a prevailing story in intellectual and literary history, which attributes the beginning of any real thinking about sympathy to moral sense philosophers in the eighteenth century (Shaftesbury, Hutchinson, Hume, Smith, and so on) and traces the rise of America’s vast sentimental literary tradition to these thinkers. That narrative starts the story too late and assumes too secular a shape. My book shows that sympathy had religious roots and connotations in early America, and I open the possibility that a theology of sympathy in seventeenth-century Puritanism preempted, prompted, and even perhaps enabled the shape and embrace of moral sense philosophy that followed, as well as the meaning and experience of sentimental literature much later.

Finally, scholars in the history of emotions seem especially torn about historical distance and present understanding: does the experience of sympathy three hundred years ago, for example, resemble in any way what we might call sympathy now? Well, yes and no, it seems to me. The more I engaged with Puritan sympathy and its consequences for community, conversion, persuasion, preaching, rhetoric, and literary form, the more I realized how much these ideas recur today, sometimes in a strikingly similar form. A historical study of Puritan sympathy can teach us a good deal about the way we view sympathy now.

For all these reasons, I hope the book speaks to any student of American culture, American religion, American literature, and the history of ideas and emotions. The more one unpacks a Puritan theology of sympathy in early New England, the more one discovers just how far its consequences extend.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AV: This question is a bit vexed for me, since I never seriously considered becoming a historian (maybe because my father is one). Instead, I set out to become a philosopher. Good philosophy, I thought, can change lives by shifting the way we think about the biggest questions we face. But the more English classes I took in college, the more I realized just how attached I was to a well-told story or a well-wrought poem. Good literature, I thought, can change lives by putting into words what had only been sensed or by giving us whole new experiences and new ways of seeing the world. I thought maybe I would become a writer, and I worked hard at short stories and poetry. Along the way, meanwhile, I nursed a love of history and especially American history (in high school, for example, I collected books about the Civil War and toured battlefield sites). Good history, it seemed to me, could reveal how lives had actually been changed by facing big questions or encountering new experiences. Then one influential professor explained that if I went into English, I could do both history and philosophy while studying, writing, and teaching good stories. Such a claim is problematic, I realize now, but as an undergraduate I was inspired. I wanted to do philosophy, I loved history, and I’ve always been inspired by literature. English seemed to me the most amenable to doing it all.

In an interdisciplinary age, my desire should seem rather unexceptional now. Still, disciplines are disciplines because they often train people differently, emphasizing certain kinds of skills and certain ways of looking at evidence, arguments, and significance. I recognize that. And I am more comfortable describing myself as an English professor than an American historian. At the same time, like many English professors flooding archives across the country these days, I am drawn to American history–and not just as background context for a piece of literature. A new literary history requires a sustained engagement with cultural, intellectual, and other kinds of history as well. When I began the research for this project, I chose a dissertation committee composed of English professors and historians, and I wrote a book that I hope will speak to both.

JF: What is your next project?

AV: My next project is a history of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. Many do not know the surprising story behind this text. In its own day, A Model of Christian Charity went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. Only when nineteenth-century antiquarians rediscovered it two hundred years later did the sermon slowly turn into a defining statement of American identity. First published in 1838, A Model of Christian Charity gradually worked its way into national consciousness, achieving status as an American classic in the mid-twentieth century. My next book, American Model: The Life of John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, writes the biography of this rags-to-riches sermon, studying its original context, changing uses, new editions, and competing interpretations in order to examine both the way literary history takes shape and the changing shape of American self-conceptions.

Some of this work has been done previously (see Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill), but much remains to be told. For example, in an early essay from this project appearing in The New England Quarterly, I argue that the sole surviving manuscript is incomplete and that a headnote added later greatly influenced the reception and framing of this sermon in American culture. Another forthcoming essay sets the context for Winthrop’s utterance by revealing the broader seventeenth-century Catholic-Protestant debate about the meaning of “city on a hill” (Catholics claimed that this verse proved Protestants false). I am now delving into the nineteenth century recovery of the sermon and beginning to study the role of historical societies in the making and shaping of American literary traditions. In the end, I hope to offer a broader narrative about dominant and competing visions of American identity–the different “meanings of America” that emerge through rediscoveries, reinventions, and reinterpretations of its literary past.

JF: Thanks Abram!

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