Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism
Bryce Traister, English and Writing Studies Chair
The origin of what we call American Puritanism scarcely elicits much debate when there appears to be a consensus in what this term refers to, at least in political circles and in a somewhat leavened and myth-inflected chapters in standard history textbooks. However, it is much to Traister’s credit that he reopens the discussion by tracing the genealogy of puritanism back to its roots, and with the particular lens of focusing on the role of female piety which – against many misconceptions – was foundational rather than something subordinate or unimportant in the development of, and challenge to, American Puritanism. It is perhaps the secularization bias in historical studies that elects to remain quiet or dismissive on how the instrumental role more radical forms of female piety and polemic shaped the current discourse. It is, in fact, a gross generalization to look back at this formative period of early American history as merely a kind of harsh religious intolerance.
Traister explores several notable figures such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Rowlandson, and how they wrestled with the sometimes contradictory nature of personal piety and communal faith. This is a compelling read that addresses a major historical lacuna, but one that maps exquisitely on the current political discourse between the antipodean ideals of puritanism and secularism, and how understanding the origin of female piety in New England exposes many of the generalizations and assumptions made today.
Matrons and Madams
Sharon Johnston, BSc’79
A powerful story of loss and empowerment, we are introduced to two women who, after the Great War, find themselves on their respective paths of tragedy in Lethbridge. However, Clara and Lily could not be more on the antipodes, at least superficially, as Clara is the superintendent of a hospital and Lily runs a brothel. Their lives become entwined by a common cause to confront the hushed topic of venereal disease in a time of staunch conservative values, and in a setting where women’s roles were heavily prescribed. Clara and Lily, in their own ways, challenge those prescribed roles by showing fierce independence. Johnston employs a somewhat staccato approach to narrative through rapid switching and portrays the empirical messiness of life in the many segues and threads that do not neatly tie up in the end.
It is, by far, a highly ambitious work that might have prospered with more attention to some of the very heavy topics involved, possibly in a serialized form. From a historical fiction perspective, Johnston has a strong and masterful sense of the period. From the mental and physical challenges of returning soldiers, sexual abuse, controversy, death and a challenging of the mores of the day, this novel is quite sure to deliver.