Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sacvan Bercovitch: R.I.P.

He was named after Sacco and Vanzetti and he was one of the deans of American Puritan studies. I think it is fair to say that we are still wrestling with the implications of his The Puritan Origins of the American Self and The American Jeremiad.

Chris Looby has posted a fitting tribute of his life and work at the Early American Literature website. 

Here is a taste:

The Puritan Origins of the American Self famously ended with an assessment of the “palpable social effects” of the Puritan-derived rhetorical strategy of representative American selfhood: the material historical facts of social pluralism were subsumed in a national myth of sacred election, and this subsumption “argue[s] the importance of ideology (in the Marxist sense) in the shaping of the United States” (186). By the time of the Hawthorne book, Bercovitch found it necessary to say explicitly what might have been obvious to careful readers: that in his view, and in his critical practice, “ideological analysis can be a richly aesthetic form of criticism” (155), and to be truly critically penetrating it needs to be wise to the aesthetic dimension of literary texts. As he puts it elsewhere, those critics who are interested solely in ideological demystification have simply “left aesthetics to the aesthetes” (“Games of Chess” 16); his aim has been to “replace the reductive polarities of both old formalisms and new moralisms . . . with a more flexible sense of the interactive elements in art as cultural work” (Office 155). 

The example of scholarly rigor, searching curiosity, and untendentious inquiry that Bercovitch has presented has been widely influential, nowhere more clearly than in the work of the many graduate students he has supervised over the years. On the occasion of his retirement, Harvard University hosted a conference in his honor, featuring as speakers a selection of his doctoral students from Columbia and Harvard. “The Next Turn in American Literary and Cultural Studies,” as the conference was called, was notable for many reasons, but perhaps most conspicuously for the variety and distinction of the scholarly and critical work Bercovitch has sponsored: while there have been mechanically Bercovitchean essays and books published in the wake of his own, Bercovitch’s students have learned precisely not to mimic his work but to reproduce, as well as they can, his independence of mind and unpredictability of argument. It is this outcome that honors him most truly.