46: Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness

Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness is the book (according to Amy Kaplan, anyway) that started the field of American Studies.  Miller wanted to find out what was exceptional about America and to see if he could get some insight into the “American Mind” (aka culture), and he realized while loading barrels of oil in the Belgian Congo that the best way to do that would be to check out our origins.  Therefore, he returned to graduate school and started studying the Puritans.

According to Miller, the Puritans came to America of their own accord, with the errand of forming a perfect society in America so that Europe would see it as a model and invite them to go home and rule England.  They were god’s chosen people, creating Winthrop’s “city on a hill” in the wilderness of America for the benefit of corrupt old Europe.  But not long after they left, conditions in England changed, and the eyes of Europe were no longer upon them; they then had to figure out what their errand was.  And they decided to build a godly community in the wilderness, for their own benefit.

For the first generation, the wilderness is less a shaping factor than a backdrop for the social shaping of the errand.  For the second and third generations, however, the wilderness, which was analogous to leaving the community and falling from grace, became more and more a part of who they were.  The jeremiads of these generations, which enumerated their sins and exhorted them to return to god, functioned as a kind of confession that allowed them to keep sinning – or, as Miller sees it, to keep integrating themselves into the wilderness, and thus to form a new kind of American culture.

Part of what was so revolutionary here was Miller’s method: he combined close reading of primary sources with an attempt to situate them in the Puritans’ material world; in an era of New Criticism, he was an early proponent of interdisciplinarity.  While the centrality of New England, the theory of a unitary American culture, and American exceptionalism more generally have long been discredited, this method, along with Miller’s incredibly entertaining good-old-boy style, his interest in the connection between landscape and culture, his understanding of the connection between Old World and New World cultures, his understanding that culture proceeds dialectically with its environment and by generation, and even his interest in the “internal logic” of a culture all still inform American Studies today.  He was a smart guy, that one.

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