March 27, 2010


American Jeremiad: A Manifesto (WEN STEPHENSON, 3/28/10, NY Times Book Review)

From the 17th century on, our writers have taken their cue from the biblical prophet Jeremiah and the particular form of Puritan sermon — at once lament and indictment of the community’s sins and exhortation to return to the true faith — that bears his name. Americans aren’t supposed to write manifestos. We write jeremiads.

In his classic study “The American Jeremiad” (1978), the Harvard scholar Sacvan Bercovitch put his finger on the distinctive shading our writers have given the ancient form: “American writers have tended to see themselves as outcasts and isolates, prophets crying in the wilderness. So they have been, as a rule: American Jeremiahs, simultaneously lamenting a declension and celebrating a national dream.” We Americans, the jeremiad proclaims, have failed to live up to our founding principles, betrayed our sacred covenant as history’s (or God’s) chosen nation, and must rededicate ourselves to our ideals, reclaim our founding promise.

If the manifesto looks fearlessly to the future, seeking to replace the established order with something alto­gether new, the jeremiad is at once jittery and nostalgic, looking anxiously over its shoulder at a prelapsarian past. The American jeremiad, Bercovitch observed, “made anxiety its end as well as its means. Crisis was the social norm it sought to inculcate.” Whether “denouncing or affirming,” its vision “fed on the distance between promise and fact.” Aware that the present fails to measure up to past ideals, the jeremiad nonetheless can’t imagine a future on any other terms. It yearns to repair the breach.

Consider Thoreau, one of Bercovitch’s 19th-century Jeremiahs. Bercovitch notes that Thoreau was writing “Walden” around the same time “The Communist Manifesto” appeared in print. Whereas Marx and Engels “proposed a new form of government, based on a wholly different social system,” Bercovitch writes, Thoreau was making “a protest from within,” hoping, “like a biblical prophet,” to “wake his countrymen up to the fact that they were desecrating their own beliefs.”

Of course, it's the only country that's based on a set of beliefs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2010 5:39 AM
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