A covenant in fiction: Legacies of Puritanism in the post-war American novel
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A Covenant in Fiction offers a narrative of the way American prose has engaged with the legacy of Puritanism its beginnings to the present. As religious fundamentalism becomes an increasing concern in world politics, I suggest that William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon provide crucial reconsiderations of America's Puritan foundations--a few examples of a broader trend in contemporary fiction that seeks to investigate the roots of America's Christian past in an effort to contest increasing claims that America is, in a basic sense, a Christian nation. The first chapter seeks to identify Emerson's and Hawthorne's competing ideas of the constitution of the private self in the wake of Puritanism's dissolution--I claim Emerson, often considered one of the progenitors of "individualism," actually seeks to sustain the Puritan's fundamentally identical subjectivity, whereas Hawthorne is more concerned with parsing how one maintains a sense of community in a world where the self is increasingly sundered from the other. Chapter Two returns to the site of this contest, as Gaddis advances upon and more clearly articulates the problem of expressing one's self in the face of the overdetermining pressure of capitalism--rejecting the conflation of "purity" and "origin," and dismissing the notion that purity in either artistic or religious practice is ideal, or even possible, Gaddis makes clear the necessary negotiations one must make with the burden of history in order to remain a viable and vital contributor to one's society. Vonnegut finds a similar frustration with the demands and influence of capital on the private life: I show how Slaughterhouse-Five revisits the form of the Puritan captivity narrative to highlight America's reliance on the form of a particularly religious episteme to ground its claims to moral superiority in world affairs, but lacks the necessary religious content to function morally. Instead, I claim, Vonnegut sees America's ethics as simultaneously overdetermined by capital but underdetermined in every other respect, and thus the novel's own position on ethics is utterly ambiguous. Thomas Pynchon addresses this ambiguity by instead promoting the value of ambivalence : in returning to the historical heresy of William Pynchon's 1660 The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, Gravity's Rainbow unearths tolerant and inclusive branches on the roots of what is often considered a monolithic Puritanism. Gravity's Rainbow promotes ambivalence instead of rigid dogmatism, and in so doing helps to recover tendencies within America's Puritan origins to accept rather than suppress difference. In the conclusion, I offer two trajectories along which one might proceed with this narrative, reading William Gaddis and Marilynne Robinson as uniquely different inheritors of the jeremiad, and thus uniquely disposed to either purge or redirect the energies of America's Puritan past.