Puritan Literature Characteristics

A classic novel is open in front of other classically bound books.
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The Puritans had a significant cultural and political impact on early American life. Puritanism lasted until the late 1720s, giving way to ideas imported from Enlightenment Europe and to a cultural and population shift to the South. The American colonies were also developing from a religious settlement into a political and economic power. Puritans kept diaries in which the focus was on the writer's spiritual journey. But often, special religious meaning or significance was found in everyday events. The appearance of a snake on one's property might suggest the presence of evil, for example.

1 Biblical Influence

Throughout the 1670s and 1680s, New England clergy wrote sermons which drew directly from the Book of Jeremiah. This Old Testament book is one in which the prophet Jeremiah scolds the Hebrews for losing religious dedication and in turn, God's favor. Contemporary scholars refer to these sermons as "Jeremiads." This literary genre is a formulaic one, in which the writer first summarizes the joy and faith once held by the community, castigates them for current and recent sins, and then pleads for their repentance. Because Puritans at the time studied both Scripture and nature for signs of God's intentions, they became increasingly alarmed by earthquakes, explosions and fires, which they equated with God's anger.

2 The Spiritual Quest

Puritan writers, including the poet Anne Bradstreet and John Winthrop, wrote about their own spiritual experiences. Bradstreet did so through personal poems and a journal. Winthrop is noted for a famous 1630 sermon known as "Model of Christian Charity," which was delivered aboard the ship Arabella as the Puritans approached the American continent. In the sermon, Winthrop highlighted key Puritan beliefs and his vision for the new society they hoped to create. The speech is often referenced by the "City Upon a Hill" metaphor that Winthrop framed within it, and seems designed to motivate the Puritans by contrasting their situation with an ideal society. American politicians still frequently quote the sermon.

3 The Plain Style

Puritan writers largely favored the "plain style" of writing, which strives to use simple sentences and common language. Latin quotations or elaborate metaphors were not typically used. Puritans adopted the plain style because they believed that it was a better tool for revealing God's truth than more ornate language. Allusions to Greek mythology or to classical literature were considered roadblocks to the essential spiritual message, by both Puritan readers and the writers. For example, instead of using a creative metaphor in which a sheet of paper is compared to a beckoning bowl of sweet cream, a Puritan writer would favor a straightforward description of blank paper.

4 The European Style

The poet Anne Bradstreet wrote her poetry as sonnets, in the same Elizabethan style as Shakespeare used for his sonnets. She was one of the first poets to write this sort of English verse in the American colonies. "The Author to Her Book" is an example of one of Bradstreet's sonnets. It is a very developed and extended conceit, or metaphor, for the speaker's book as an orphan child of sorts. The speaker calls the book "rambling brat" and "ill-formed offspring" to convey how difficult it is to manage. Bradstreet is clearly among the writers who avoided or moved away from strictly questioning spiritual symbols in life to a European poetic style.

Susie Zappia teaches humanities and research and writing courses online for several colleges. Her research interests include counterculture literature of the 1960 and instructional design for online courses and she enjoys writing about literature, art and instructional design. She holds a Master of Arts in humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills and a Master of Science in instructional design from Capella University.