Zach Hutchins is Assistant Professor of English at Colorado State University. This interview is based on his new book, Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millennialism, and the Making of New England (Oxford University Press, 2014)
JF: What led you to write Inventing Eden?
ZH: I suspect that throughout world history few—if any—words have been read more frequently than those comprising the first verses and chapters of the Bible. Certainly the Genesis story of Adam, Eve, and Eden was ubiquitous in Anglo-American culture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it was cited as a source of authority in debates over medicine, farming, corporal punishment, linguistics, slavery, gender, monarchy, religion, and a dozen other topics. I could hardly imagine a more significant or comprehensive lens through which to investigate early American literary history. As a graduate student I saw the influence of Eden in every primary source I read; conscious that scholarly interest in early American religion had declined during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I concluded that the time was ripe for a reconsideration of the role that this foundational narrative played in shaping colonial and then national history and culture.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inventing Eden?
ZH: Inventing Eden argues that the colonists-cum-citizens of early modern New England shaped their land, bodies, educational institutions, language, churches, and government after the perfect example of Adam and Eve’s biblical paradise. The edenic aspirations of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonists influenced the Antinomian Controversy, the transatlantic Great Awakening, the American Revolution, the modern environmental movement, and a belief in Franklinian self-made men; the pursuit of paradise molded both great events and the everyday lives of average men and women.
JF: Why do we need to read Inventing Eden?
ZH: Because a belief in the historical Eden affected so many aspects of American history, this is a book that surveys an enormous array of sources on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Chapters transition from the paradisiacal ideals of European thinkers such as Christopher Columbus, Francis Bacon, and John Milton to the ecclesiastical visions of John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, and Jonathan Edwards and the revolutionary principles of John Otis, Thomas Jefferson, and Phillis Wheatley. Inventing Eden thus intervenes in a wide range of scholarly debates: whether the Declaration of Independence is a theistic, Christian document; the timing of a Puritan shift from primitivism to millennialism; the relative merits of transatlantic and hemispheric models of study; and the utility of American exceptionalism, among others. It also tells stories—about public nudity on New England streets, Arctic exploration, and Freemason influences on the republic’s founding—that will interest a broader audience.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ZH: As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a Mormon), I grew up in a family deeply invested in religious history. In the early twentieth century, my aunt Bertha Fales wrote a detailed manuscript history of Norfolk, Massachusetts, and my mother is an amateur genealogist who peppered me with stories of Anne Hutchinson (an eleventh-generation great aunt) and Hutchinson’s Quaker niece, Patience Scott, an eleven-year-old who traveled one hundred miles to condemn the Massachusetts General Court. She also sent me out every summer to hoe a rocky garden that seemed, to my young eyes, the size of several football fields. When I visited Plymouth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village each year, I identified with the staff members plying their hoes in colonial garb; they seemed like deceased relatives come to life. I don’t know that I ever decided to become an American historian. Rather, I fell naturally into a longstanding family tradition reinforced by the Mormon conviction that recording history is a sacred pursuit.
JF: What is your next project?
JF: Thanks, Zach.