Friday, September 12, 2008

Grief and the Myth of Puritan Stoicism

Over at The Historic Present, Lori makes a good point about the power of evocative epitaphs to combat the idea that the Puritans and their descendants were phelgmatic stoics who did not mourn their dead (particularly dead children) as modern Americans would.

The pernicious myth of Puritan dispassion has at least three main sources:
  • the colloquial use of words such as "puritan" and "puritanical" to describe prudish or moralistic elements of American culture — I prefer "Comstockery"
  • an assumption that the prevalence and capriciousness of death (particularly in early childhood) before the advent of modern medicine inured people to sorrow
  • the work of historians such as Lawrence Stone and Phillip Greven who argued that the early colonists were subject to powerful fathers who were both physically and psychologically abusive and who controlled every aspect of their children’s and wives’ lives (This line or argument has been substantially challenged by more recent work by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Roger Thompson, John Demos, and many others, who have investigated cooperation, affection, and spaces for autonomous action within the Puritan family. If anyone is interested in these studies, I recommend Wallington's World by Paul Seaver — even though it's about an English Puritan, Seaver does a great job of examining the emotional involvement of Puritan parents.)
It's tough to draw too many conclusions about Puritan emotions from epitaphs because extensive epitaphs are rare before 1700, and I'm not sure that you can really call anyone past the 2nd generation a "Puritan." The epitaph as a form of literary expression in New England hit its peak between 1750 and 1830, so I don't want to misattribute sentiments to Puritans when they really belong to unitarians.

I also do not wish to promote ahistorical thinking by asserting that the experiences of death and grieving do not change over time. As Drew Gilpin Faust argued so convincingly in This Republic of Suffering, dying and mourning are social, historical processes. Certainly, the shock of losing a child in modern America is different than it would have been in an earlier era when parents would have shared that experience with many others and could access community-sanctioned explanations for children's deaths. 

Even with those caveats, I do think that epitaphs combat the idea that people in the past grieved less passionately because death was omnipresent. When we assume that people who are surrounded by death can't possibly feel the depth of emotion that we feel over our own tragedies, we dehumanize them. The same can be said of many Americans' indifference to the suffering in the developing world.

Eighteenth-century Americans felt the deaths of their loved ones accutely. Parents who lost children were devastated. For proof, we need look no further than the gravestone erected by Timothy and Sarah Stearns of Billerica, MA, in memory of their son, who died in 1795 at age 2:

Thrice of this cup we drank our fill,
Wormwood & gall we tast[e] it still;
O who can tell that never felt
What Parents feel for children's death.

This verse also appears on a baby's grave in Bedford, MA.
I don't know how much thought they put into this, but the verse is nearly perfect iambic tetrameter, the metre of folk ballads and Romantic poets.

1 comment:

RJO said...

I think the Puritans are about to undergo a sympathetic (if minor) popular revival. Sarah Vowell's book will be an important contributor to it.

People who believe in their supposed stoicism (in the context of things like dead children), should be made to read this.