Evidence of wonders: writing American identity in the early modern transatlantic world

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2004

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Narratives about “wonders” pervaded early modern European cultures. Reports of unusual phenomena such as “monster” babies, sea storms wrecking a ship, and the acts of demons permeated both popular and elite writings, from news reports to scientific journals. To date, research on these texts has concentrated on English or continental writers, not American colonials. Yet wonders played a potent role at the colonial margins of the expanding empires. Reclaiming these influential but forgotten texts, this dissertation investigates seventeenth-century New England wonder writings and their role in the political relationship between England and its American colonies. Ultimately, it shows how New England Congregationalists used transnational Protestant and scientific rhetorics to develop a discourse of political legitimacy and American exceptionalism, and in the process, created new forms of writing and speaking. The study begins by discussing the most publicized event of seventeenth-century New England, King Philip’s War (1675-76), and the sensational reports about it written by individuals such as William Hubbard, Nathaniel Saltonstall, John Easton, and Increase Mather. These publications exemplify the identity politics at stake in texts about the colonies, especially in the narrative and reportage genres that would later carry wonder accounts. A second chapter re-examines this historical context from a broader angle, situating New England wonder writings within the period’s transnational legal and philosophical discourse about empire, including John Cotton’s influential rationale for banishing Roger Williams. The project then examines three case studies: a) sea providence narratives (featuring Edward Gibbons’ and Anthony Thacher’s stories as recorded by John Winthrop, James Janeway, and Increase Mather); b) natural history writings about “curious” objects, lightning storms, or apparitions (by John Winthrop, John Winthrop, Jr., Increase Mather, and Cotton Mather); and c) published arguments about Salem witchcraft (by Cotton Mather, Deodat Lawson, and Increase Mather). By recovering the political and social fields that these texts were intended to negotiate, the project shows how New Englanders used the shocking and vivid subject matter of traditional narratives to transact a shift in group identity, emphasizing the Americanness of their experiences to assert their political and spiritual distinction.

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