Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Perry Miller Primer

As I write this, my students are sitting in front of me taking the final exam in my British Colonial America course.  They are wrestling with the idea, first proposed by Perry Miller and refined by Ned Landsman, that British America transitioned from "colonies" to "provinces" in the years between 1607 and 1763.  During the semester I have been trying to get them to understand the British colonial experience on its own terms, rather than through the grid of Whig historiography. 

During our unit on New England we spend a lot of time talking about the influence of Perry Miller on Puritan studies.  I give a historiographical lecture called "Miller Under Attack" in which I showed how that historians have attempted to revise or challenge Miller's understanding of New England Puritanism.  (After reading Jonathan Den Hartog's recent post at Religion in American history I realize that I need to revise this lecture to include some of the most recent literature).  I first gave this lecture when Donna Rilling let me take over (briefly) her graduate seminar on early American history at SUNY-Stony Brook back in the mid-1990s.

The next time I teach the Puritans to undergraduates I am going to consider using Rivka Maizlish's short introduction to Miller posted yesterday at the U.S. Intellectual History blog.  Here is a taste:

...historians have built a false characterization of Miller, greatly limiting their understanding of his contributions to the study of history.  Historians treat Miller as a foil.  They inaccurately accuse him of believing that the realm of thought takes place completely removed from environmental influences, of stressing intellect at the expsnese of the emotional and irrational, and of portraying Puritan thought as static and one-dimensional.  While Miller's belittling comments about social history share some blame for this misrepresentation, even a cursory reading of his texts reveals that those those comments do not begin to tell half the story...