Thursday, March 12, 2020

Abram C. Van Engen's "City on a Hill"

Abram C. Van Engen is associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is also a Faculty Affiliate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, and reported the following:
How did Ford Madox Ford know?

Page 99 of my book is just a section break. It reads, “Part III: Myths.” That’s it.

Whether this gets at the quality of my prose (concise!), I do not know. But it does open up the book as a whole. My book is a story about myths—a history of how national tales acquire an almost mythic quality in American culture. In particular, I explain how a lost and unknown text (John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon) became the canonical origin of American literature, history, and politics in the twentieth century. That part of the story is centered on Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch, and Ronald Reagan. But more broadly, I tell the tale of the Pilgrims themselves and how they journeyed through American cultural memory to shape conceptions of American exceptionalism from the seventeenth century to the present day.

Part III focuses on the early republic. With widespread divisions marking the early states, it was not clear how a new nation could bring such varied people together. Multiple efforts began to construct a national culture. Political leaders launched Fourth of July rites and rituals from state to state. Maps tried to visually ingrain the idea of one nation for all people. Then, in the 1820s, historical narratives suddenly tried to tie the nation together through a shared sense of the past. Bicentennial celebrations of Pilgrim Landing in 1820 marked this turn toward history, and as more and more schools started required the teaching of history, more and more textbooks flowed from writers and printers in New England. In the process, the Pilgrims became the new origin point of the nation, the beginning that could give the United States a clear identity and purpose.

In many ways, the Pilgrims were always an odd beginning. They were not the first people in America. They were not the first colonists. They were not the first English. They were not the first permanent settlement of any kind. In a hundred different ways, they were never the “first.” But in self-consciously presenting them as an origin point, early historians crafted a national tale of liberty that ignored whole swaths of the American population—a tale of freedom that still bolsters American exceptionalism today. “Myths” gets at this central idea throughout my book. In a story running from 1630 to the present day, I uncover and examine the different meanings of America that emerge from rediscoveries, reinventions, and reinterpretations of its past.
Learn more about City on a Hill at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue