Jun 28, 2010

What happens when we reassess

There's a bit of a revolution going on in Cotton Mather studies right now. In part this is due to a project one of the Americanists at Tübingen has helped make happen, the publication of Mather's magnum opus, which has never been published before, and a publication of accompanying commentary and reassessment. Part of it, too, is that it's time, and there's been a lot of work on Jonathan Edwards in the last decades and some of the work and some of the claims (like Edwards was America's first theologian) naturally lead to questions about Cotton Mather.

The revolution means -- and maybe starts with -- reassessment. Mather has been done wrong for so long, characterized as the archetypal, stereotypical Puritan, repressed and pinched and personally presiding over witch burnings, or as the first one who thought of "America" as an idea (since he used the word so often in his titles), or (and also especially and) as a cipher through whom the whole idea of America at its beginning, at its foundation, could be understood, that a reassessment is absolutely due. There's a lot of libel that's been accepted as history. He is, after all, the only colonial-era figure who's made an appearance in a comic book, where he was, of course, a villain fighting Spider-Man.

What happens, though, when the reassessment undermines exactly the things that make the subject important to us, or seem worthwhile for what we want to do or know? The reasons we dismissed Mather were the same reasons why he was important -- reassess those and there is the question, left over, of "so what?" What is left when what has to be reassessed is also precisely the reason that he seemed important to reassess? If Mather isn't a major figure in the witch trials, and isn't our caricature of religiously intolerant Puritan, if he saw himself as a New Englander and didn't and couldn't even conceive of himself as an "American," and if he isn't or really shouldn't be a cipher for us, then why do we study him? What do we stand to gain?

Haven't we hacked away, here, exactly the possibility of knowing the things we want to know? As if we have to choose between being wrong and knowing anything.

There's a sense -- and for me the problem is not about Mather at all -- that to save the subject is to lose it, to lose it is to save it, and to reassess it is to make it not worth reassessing. It's only worth reassessing if we don't reassess it, though of course if we don't it's not, again, and the "so what" slips, always away. What we study slips into this My Lai paradox and the question, "so what?" won't go away.

Relevant links:
Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana, America's first Bible commentary, is to be published soon; some of his other writings are readily available, but his major work was pretty much ignored; the work, the though, hasn't really had an impact on his reputation up to now.