Puritan Jeremiad and American Myth: Sacvan Bercovitch’s Study in the Puritan Rhetoric and Imagination

Tingting ZHOU


Sacvan Bercovitch is the most influential and prominent Americanist and literary and cultural critic after Perry Miller. In a close textual reading of classic Puritan texts, Bercovitch concludes that the major legacy of Puritan New England is not religious, or moral, or institutional, but in the realm of rhetoric. Rhetoric for Bercovitch is more than verbal ornamentation. It is a set of aesthetic devices that constitute a particular structure of perception, a particular pattern of thought and mode of expression. Bercovitch tries to grasp the imaginative structure and symbolic pattern of American thought underlying in rhetorical devices and believes that the Puritan rhetoric is the primary force that drives and shapes the American imagination. Bercovitch analyzes the Puritan jeremiad, a particular Puritan literary mode, to be a case of his study in the Puritan rhetoric. By the rhetorical device of typology, the Puritans identified America as the new promised land foretold in Scripture. Their migration to New England was a flight from another Babylon or Egypt; their conflicts with the Indians were foreshadowed by Joshua’s conquest of Cannan; and New England would in due time be the site of new Jerusalem. Considered as “a kind of imperialism by interpretation” by Bercovtich, the Puritan typology enables the immigrants to usurp the very meaning of the story of the ancient Jews. The Puritan jeremiad survives the decline of Puritanism and persists throughout the 18th and 19th century in all forms of the literature. It bespeaks an “ideological consensus” and helps sustain the myth of America through three hundred years of turbulence and change in American history.


The Puritan jeremiad; American myth; Typology; Ideological consensus

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3968/n


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