I thought the whole mood of The Witch
was effective, and I like it, mostly, as a horror movie, but as I indicated on the podcast, when Adam and I discussed it briefly, I had a hard time accepting the world as authentic. The film has been touted as being thoroughly researched and authentic, using language of the time and so forth, but it seemed to me to be peddling in the same tired stereotypes of Puritans as witch-hunting, prudish, hysterical, hypocrites that Nathaniel Hawthorne and others have peddled for a long time. (Though to be fair to Hawthorne, it's more the perception of his work than his work itself that has promoted stereotypes - Scarlet Letter
is great as are his short stories of the Puritans; "Young Goodman Brown" and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," for example, are complex and superb.) I was attacked on Twitter for having the gall to say a good word for the Puritans, people who, the Twitter user said, "would have killed people like [him] back in the day" (he was gay). And I'm sympathetic to his point of view, but I'm less interested in defending Puritans as a whole or defending everything about them - obviously, they were biased and limited (as, indeed, we are today in various ways) - as I am in wanting to complicate the boring stereotype. And I think every stereotype, if there's a human being underneath it, is worth complicating.
I give one lecture on the Separatists and Puritans in my Intro to American Literature class when/if we study John Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" sermon (the "city on a hill" sermon, still so disturbingly applied in American politics) and William Bradford's writings (eg. Of Plymouth Plantation
). And prepping for the lecture has rather soured me on Puritan stereotypes of the kind in The Witch
. I get that the family in The Witch
was, in some sense, outside the community, so perhaps not representative of the community, but when, as 21st century Americans, that's the only kind of "Puritan" we ever see, I get a bit annoyed.
Don't know if this is remotely interesting to anybody, but here are my lecture notes for my intro to the Puritans/Separatists (in the actual class session, it'd be peppered with more content and class discussion though this "intro" still hardly covers the complex expanse of what we might call "American Puritanism"): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PGWBfscvLbPTCmaDjUGSRqhguxvQ2E3v_Bsb_7xmU64/edit?usp=sharing
Or, here are a few quotes from some of lecture sources as food for thought:
From The Puritan Dilemma
, Edmund S. Morgan: “The Puritans of New England are not in good repute today. Authors and critics who aspire to any degree of sophistication take care to repudiate them. Liberals and conservatives alike find it advantageous to label the measures they oppose as Puritan. Whatever is wrong with the American mind is attributed to its Puritan ancestry, and anything that escapes these assaults is smothered under a homespun mantle of quaintness by lovers of the antique. 17th C Massachusetts has thus become in retrospect a preposterous land of witches and witch hunters, of kill-joys in tall-crowned hats, whose main occupation was to prevent each other from having any fun and whose sole virtue lay in their furniture
“Puritanism required that [Winthrop] work to the best of his ability at whatever task was set before him and partake of the good things that God had filled the world with but told him he must enjoy his work and his pleasures only, as it were, absent-mindedly, with his attention fixed on God . . . Puritanism meant many things, but to young John [Winthrop], it principally meant the problem of living in this world without taking his mind off God. It would have been easier to withdraw from the world, as the monk and hermits did, to devote oneself wholly to God, but that was not permitted. Puritans must live in the world not leave it.
” ( 8 )
Of John Winthrop: “He was a countryman of simple tastes who liked good food, good drink, and good company. He like his wife. He liked to stroll by the river with a fowling piece and have a go at the birds. He like to smoke a pipe. He liked to tinker with gadgets. He liked all the things God had given him, and he knew it was right to like them, because they were God-given. But how was one to keep from liking them too much? How love the world with moderation and God without?
“To please God the Puritans demanded of themselves a standard of behavior not far different from that required by most modern codes of morality. They did not think it necessary to be either prudes or prohibitionists. They did not dress in drab clothes or live in drab houses or speak drab words. The people who appear in the pages of Winthrop’s journal, the good men and women who showered him with venison and partridges and fat hogs to celebrate Margaret’s [his wife’s] arrival [from England], the boys and girls who skipped rope on the decks of the Arabella the men who build ships and caught fish and planted corn were all human enough
Anyway. It's a fine movie. But I do think the Puritans have gotten a bum rap.
(Marilynne Robinson is really good on the Puritans in something like Death of Adam
, her book of essays.)