Sunday, March 18, 2007

The American Apocalypse: John Winthrop’s "Arabella" Sermon, Michael Wigglesworth’s "The Day of Doom," and Herman Melville’s "The Confidence Man"

The Watts riots in L.A., 1965

William Atherton at the apocalyptic end of "The Day of the Locust" (1976)

The American Apocalypse: John Winthrop’s Arabella Sermon, Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom, and Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man

Since the early Christian era, our civilization has been obsessed with the idea of the apocalypse—the end of the world (and also the birth of a new one). Early Christians misunderstood what Jesus meant by “the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.” Recently Biblical scholarship has revealed that what Christ was talking about was a radical change in the existing social order—a political and spiritual revolution governed by Christian ideals, not the sky renting open and the Four Horsemen descending.

Jesus got his ideas from John the Baptist. Forget The DaVinci Code; Christianity’s big dirty secret, if you read between the lines of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), is that Jesus was John’s disciple. That’s why John baptized him. John originated the ideas behind Christianity, and as we all know now, John was an Essene—a member of the radical monastic Jewish sect that deserted the corruption of the cities for the clean, sterile desert and waited for the apocalyptic war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. That’s where the Book of Revelation comes from, and that’s the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls—they prove that John was an Essene, and so (through osmosis) was Jesus.

The Cave of John the Baptist

Christianity’s other big dirty secret is that the religion was corrupted and destroyed by St. Paul, who created the bureaucracy of the Church, and worse, made sexual guilt the primary concern, where it had never had existed before in the faith. Paul (originally Saul of Tarsus) was originally a Greek secret police agent hired by the Romans to ferret out and destroy these new Jesus-loving Jews; and Christ’s original followers were all Jews, you better believe it—nobody else in the ancient world would buy a religion based on the Hebrew Old Testament.

Then something happened—Paul said he had a magical conversion experience in a flash of light on the road to Damascus, and then he changed his name to Paul. Imagine J. Edgar Hoover dropping acid and all of a sudden turning into a combination of Timothy Leary, Hugh Hefner, and Eldridge Cleaver so that he could lead the New Left, the counterculture, and the Black Power movement in the late Sixties. Wouldn’t you be the least bit suspicious?

Above the law: J. Edgar Hoover and O.J. Simpson

These two facts—the fact that John the Baptist founded Christianity, not Jesus, and the fact that St. Paul was an authoritarian bureaucrat who was obsessed with sexual guilt—make Dan Brown’s “heresy” (which we all read in the Eighties in Holy Blood, Holy Grail) that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had kids, and fled to France look insignificant, in terms of how it changes your perception of the religion.

I’m an eleventh-generation Puritan American—my first name, Wolcott, is an old Puritan name, and I count among my ancestors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wolcott, who signed the Declaration of Independence for the state of Connecticut. I know Puritanism pretty well, and I’ve studied the Bible my entire life, with an emphasis on the historical Jesus and early Christian heresy. I once gave a sermon on how Matthew 25 is the foundation of Christian humanitarianism to a storefront tabernacle in Atlantic City while working for the mayor there, but that’s another story.

While I was an undergraduate at Princeton in the mid-Seventies, I was fascinated with messianism, millennialism, eschatology, and chiliadism—all the dramatic ideas that infuse Christianity and American Puritanism, and that also inform modern mass radical political movements, especially Marxism, the philosophy of the social gospel, and even a lot of fascism (blame Hegel). (Check out The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn, The Radical Kingdom by Rosemary Ruether, and The Burnt-Over District by Whitney R. Cross.)

In my freshman year, I encountered a brilliant young scholar in the English department named Emory Elliott, who specialized in American Puritanism and who is now a nationally-recognized authority in the field. Now he’s teaching at the University of California at Irvine, where he’s the director of the Center of Ideas and Society. I knew Emory when he was writing such landmark books as Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England and Revolutionary Writers. He went on to become the editor of The Columbia Literary History of the United States and The Columbia History of the American Novel, and he’s now Series Editor of Cambridge University Press’ The American Novel and Penn Studies in Contemporary American Fiction.

Emory showed me whole new ways of looking at American literature, and he very much correlated American literature with the recent events of the Sixties and what was going on in the Seventies at that time. In the fall and winter of 1974, I was lucky enough to take his graduate-level class on Puritanism’s impact on American literature, and the following essay was based on a paper I wrote for his class in January 1975.

The original title was The American Apocalypse: The Eschatological Vision of Winthrop, Wigglesworth, and Melville,” and it focused on the American apocalypse as seen through John Winthrop’s Arabella sermon, The Day of Doom by Michael Wigglesworth, and The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville. Originally I wanted to include an analysis of The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West, but the paper was getting to be too long, and Christ, I had a deadline.

I grew up in an apocalyptic time—Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, with three million dead Asians; the race riots of the Sixties; the civil rights and Black Power movements; the campus uprisings and America's Third Great Awakening (as Norman Mailer has termed it), the great nationwide spiritual revolution triggered by the counterculture and the New Left where young people in America recognized that America was nowhere near as innocent as we’d been taught; Nixon’s attempt to create a police state known as Watergate and his downfall; and two major oil crises in 1973 and 1979 that nearly destroyed the Western economy.

Three years after I left college, a 70-year-old orange-haired movie actor who was a front man for the John Birch Society became President. He created a huge crippling deficit by eliminating taxes on the rich and corporations while jacking up the military budget, he created nationwide homelessness where none had existed before, he supported nun rapists and torturers in Central America, he honored SS men in Bitburg, Germany, and he allowed a strange new blood disease that at first only attacked gay men and IV drug users to menace the future of the entire human race.

After awhile I started to feel like I was living in some kind of terrible science fiction story from the Fifties or Sixties, but not one of the nice ones. No, it was one of those dark New Wave SF stories like Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron with a fucked-up future, where things just got worse and it was clear that the rich and powerful were doing everything in their power to take advantage of the expanding chaos. After space travel, computers were introduced, and then the Internet, and all kinds of amazing technological devices—just so that in 2000, a demagogic Texas governor who rode his love of the death penalty to the top, a villain straight out of a Hollywood thriller like Stephen Seagal’s Hard To Kill, could openly steal a Presidential election, take advantage of a terrorist attack on New York that the government was unable to prevent, and stampede a post-Vietnam America into a wholly unnecessary war with Iraq (which made as much sense as invading Mars), just so he could steal a second Presidential election in 2004. Then he let New Orleans drown.

Rip Torn lookalike: the young George W. Bush

If you had written this up as an SF story and tried to sell it to Galaxy or Worlds of If magazines in 1955, the editor, Horace Gold, would have laughed at you right in your face. Too far-fetched. Too unbelievable. That’s the world we’re living in. And that’s apocalyptic.

The American Apocalypse: The Eschatological Vision of Winthrop, Wigglesworth, and Melville

At the very beginning of the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Americans—or those soon to be Americans—expressed their most fundamental doubts and fears concerning their City on a Hill in explicitly apocalyptic terms through the vehicle of the literary jeremiad. In 1630, at the very outset of the Puritans’ New World venture, John Winthrop, one of their leaders, delivered a lay sermon, "A Modell of Christian Charity" on the deck of the Arabella in the midst of the Atlantic and warned the Puritans of the catastrophic punishment God would visit upon them if their dream of perfection failed.

In The Day of Doom (1662), Michael Wigglesworth, working out of his own feelings of spiritual inadequacy, sought to rouse the souls of the rising third generation of Puritans, already breaking down under the strain of the impossible spiritual demands made upon them by their parents, by depicting the gruesome Judgment a harsh Christ would pass upon errant Christians. Herman Melville, in The Confidence-Man (1857), portrayed American society, morally adrift after the disintegration of Puritan absolutism and perfectionism, headed for disaster, as a result of the severing of social bonds among its citizens.

The apocalyptic riot that ends "The Day of the Locust"

Both Wigglesworth and Melville draw directly on the eschatological imagery of the Book of Revelations; but of the three writers, only Wigglesworth allowed the possibility of salvation for America in the face of the Lord's holocaust.

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

As a spiritual and political leader, John Winthrop saw fit to impress upon the passengers of the Arabella the magnitude of their mission: the establishment of a colony that was to be the creation of an exemplary Christian community overseen by God. As he defined it:

it is by a mutuall consent through a speciall overruleing providence, and a more than ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ to seek out a place of Cohabitation and Consortshipp vnder a due form of Government both ciull [civil] and ecclesiasticall. (1)

Thus, the enterprise was to fulfill a religious function at the same time it served a secular purpose.

Significantly enough, he began the lay sermon by setting down class distinctions for his audience. In God's arrangement, "some must be rich some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignities others mean and in subieccion [subjection]" in order "That every man might haue need of other, and from hence they might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affecion" (p. 195). This clearly-marked social structure was designed to maintain order in the wilderness, and Winthrop, like the great majority of Christians of his day, saw no conflict at all between believing that God regimented society and yet all men are created equal before the eyes of God. However, once the Republic was inaugurated and Puritan restraints were abolished, Melville recorded the chaos that ensued when Americans were both free and free to exploit one another economically.

Winthrop freely admitted—and accepted—the "extraordinary" level of spiritual and social perfection the Puritans sought to attain. In his words:

wee must not content our selues with vsuall ordinary meanes whatsoever wee did or haue done when wee liued in England.... neither must we think that the Lord will beare with such faileings at our hands as hee dothe from those among wee haue lived. (p. 198)

A homeless youth during the Depression

From there he introduced the Covenant drawn between the Puritans and God that obligates them to succeed in their holy mission.

Winthrop outlined the divine penalty for failure to fulfill the articles of the Covenant:

the Lord will surely breake out in wrathe against vs be revenged of such a periured people and make vs knowne the price of the breache of such a Covenant. (p. 198)

Thus the Puritans were under contract to attain perfection. To show them what they could develop should they be fruitful, Winthrop held out the magnificent dream of "meekenes, patience and liberallity, we must delight in eache other, make others Condicions our owne reioyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together..." (p. 198). The only possible alternative he could envision was catastrophe. In the event of failure, he preached, "it is propounded unto vs this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it." (p. 199)

It is telling that he used this image to conclude "A Modell of Christian Charity." As an absolutist, he could not see any middle ground: either the colony would ascend to sainthood or degenerate into vice. Only, in Winthrop's Old Testament vision of eschatology based on Covenant theology, no chance was held out for redemption. The burden of such a belief upon the minds of the first generations of colonists was almost predestined.

Michael Wigglesworth is a painful example of the terrible responsibility Winthrop and the other founding fathers imposed upon the colony. The Day of Doom, though meant perhaps to be the definitive American defense of Calvinism, proves to the modern reader to be its most damning critique. Like Milton, Wigglesworth set out to justify the way of God to man, but to us his epic poem illustrates as no other literary document the dread, hysteria, and insecurity rampant in the second and third generations inspired by American Puritanism, which swiftly produced its own disintegration and created a spiritual and cultural void that, as Melville showed, was never filled.

Michael Wigglesworth Slate Gravestone, 1705, Malden, Massachusetts

From the very outset of his poem, Wigglesworth unconsciously reveals his motives for authorship and his malaise. In his preface, "To the Christian Reader," we can see that the poem functions as his compensation for guilt caused by his fear that his physical weakness is actually a sign of his secret lack of true faith. He gives this explanation for his constant fatigue:

But I'm a Prisoner
Under a heavy Chain:
Almighty God's afflicting hand
Doth me perforce restrain
. (p. 2)

Raging at those who accuse him of harboring selfish hypochondria, he glories in his afflictions. He says proudly, "But ten days after what I feel/and suffer, few can reach." (p. 2) To him his trials are a testament to his true strength. Of his critics he says, "If they had born my griefs./Their courage might have failed them..." (p. 3) Thus he converts a psychological liability into an asset.

In the same fashion he rationalizes the source of his suffering. God is testing him. As can be seen from the following stanza, he does not interpret God's Rod as a cause for anger; no, every stroke of the Rod is an additional sign that God is paying attention to him.

But why should I complain
That have so good a God,
That doth mine heart with comfort fill,
Even whilst I feel his Rod?
In God I have been strong,
When wearied and worn out;
And joy'd in him, when twenty woes
Assail'd me round about.
(p. 3)

Ergo, in his view, if God is lavishing so much of His chronometrical time on an insignificant sinner such as himself, He must be gravely concerned with the state of his soul. The Lord wants to give Wigglesworth every possible opportunity to prove his faith. So, God actually loves him very deeply. Convoluted and contradictory as this thinking might seem to us, it supplies Wigglesworth with his understanding of God, which informs his entire interpretation of God's Covenant with man, which in turn gives The Day of Doom its import. Just as he explains his psychosomatic torment in religious terms, he justifies the near-psychotic dogma that is tearing apart his society as well as himself.

"One of these days, a real rain is going to come along and wash all the scum off the streets": this famous line from Taxi Driver is derived directly from The Day of Doom's "tempestuous showres" (God's punishing rain of fire)screenwriter Paul Schrader is a Dutch Calvinist, and Travis Bickle is a classic tormented Puritan avenger

In the main body of the poem, he employs as his major technique scare tactics. Time proved that he was crude but effective. "A copy of The Day of Doom was sold for one out of every twenty persons in New England...." (p. iii). Although he never mentions New England once in the poem, it is obvious what audience he sought to reach. In The Day of Doom, he is placing the whole of American Puritan society on trial.

He models the beginning of the poem on the Apocalypse as described in Revelations. For instance, stanza 12 (p. 12), detailing the attempts of mankind to hide from the Wrath in caves, comes directly from Revelations 6: 15-16. References to verses from Revelations dominate the marginal notes.

The poem opens with God's "tempestuous showre" (st. 3, p. 10) catching a complacent, sinful mankind (representing Samuel Willard's "Degenerating New England") unawares. From the sins Wigglesworth bothers to list, we can tell what vices he believed were causing the downfall of the colony: sexual desire among the young ("Virgins unwise'') and normally good Christians living in this world rather than the next ("the wise/through sloth and frailty slumber'd," st. 2, p. 9).

Virgins unwise

When the thundering voice of the Lord booms, His "flaming Eyes hid things doth 'spy/and darkest things reveal." (st. 13, p. 12) Here he lets slip one of his society's "hid things," the Puritan concept of the secret sin that every soul harbors.

The flawed, weak, handsome young spiritual leader of the community who harbors a terrible guilty secret sin: he could be the Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter

After the traditional Christian apocalyptic cycle of the End of Days has been completed—earthquakes, the heaving of the seas, and the raising of the dead—Christ makes his Last Judgment on the souls of all mankind past and present. In Wigglesworth’s view of Puritan absolutism reinforced by Ramean either/or logic,

A separation, and diffring station
by Christ appointed is
(To sinners sad) 'twixt good and bad,
‘twixt heirs of woe and bliss
. (st. 21, p. 14)

In passing judgment upon a human life, there is no amelioration, there are only extremes. One is either a Sheep or a Goat. One is either saved or damned.

After the Elect (chosen before the Creation, for whom Christ died) are pardoned, the Judgment begins. The remaining souls are damned. They are allowed to plead their case, but in every instance, Christ the judge points out that they have been living in the secular world rather than the spiritual. Using this device, Wigglesworth describes in detail each type of sinner in the hope of warning his wayward Puritan brethren. Since he has only his own community to draw upon, we can assume that he is commenting on what he sees as the sins of the Puritan New England of his generation.

Wigglesworth's vision: the burning of rural New England via a divine rain of hellfire and damnation

The identity of each group of petitioning sinners that he describes is important, because it reflects directly on social and religious issues being argued in the author’s time. Of the first three groups, labeled "hypocrites," the first is of ministers who plead that they attended the spiritual needs of their communities, but who are damned because they lack "true Faith" (st. 72, p. 27); Christ asks them how they expected to save others "From Satan’s pawes, whilst in his jawes your selves were held more fast?" (st. 71, p. 27)

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: a fisher of men

Although later Wigglesworth will have Christ damn those who claim they were led astray by their ministers, with the words of, "I gave you eyes,/and light to see your way" (st. 116, p. 38), it indicates the depth of depravity he believed held sway over the colony if the alleged spiritual guardians were tainted thoroughly as well. Part of this sentiment no doubt springs from the exceptional burden the Puritans placed on their leaders to lead exemplary lives, but another part originates from a wracking community self-doubt.

Nothing to hide: Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy

The identity of the second group of "hypocrites" refers to the controversy of the Half-Way Covenant and the practice of some more liberal ministers, such as Solomon Stoddard, to allow all who attended services to partake of Holy Communion, in the faith that a desire to be saved was a sign of certain salvation. This group of sinners protests that they participated in Communion (st. 74, p.27), but Christ damns them because, "You lov'd the Creature more than th' Creator" (st. 79, p. 29). Wigglesworth is not only stating his position on the Half-Way Covenant; in his insistence that all those who believe they have faith are apt to be indulging in hypocritical illusions, he is eroding the already tenuous security the Puritan community has left. This pattern remains his practice as he continues to elaborate on Christ's judgment.

"The Day of Doom" by the eminent British painter Carel Weight

By his choice of the identity of the third and last group of "hypocrites," he is commenting on the pattern beginning with the Robert Keayne controversy, the use of the Protestant Ethic on the part of enterprising members of the community to increase their economic and so their social standing. When they proclaim their honest piety to Christ, He retorts that as committers of "vain glory," they used piety for profit to gain prestige (st. 90, p. 31). The Puritans preached that a man's worldly position was a sure sign of his standing with God; but according to Wigglesworth, even those impulses are false. Wigglesworth is acting out of all sincerity, seeking to point out what he sees as paths to damnation, but he does not realize that he is leaving very few avenues of spiritual assurance open for his seventeenth-century audience.

The remaining group of sinners is not labeled as hypocrites, but is instead those who lived for their earthly lives rather than for their souls. The "civil honest men" who plead that they obeyed God implicitly are damned for their lack of "True Piety" (st. 96, p. 33), which produced "Dead works... and vanitie" (st. 100. p. 34). "You thought to scale Heav'ns lofty Wall/by Ladders of your own," Christ thunders (st. 101, p. 34), not understanding they were doing their best. Those who died young, who complain they died before they could see the light of grace, are damned because Christ believes that if they had truly wanted to repent, they would have done so before they died (st. 113, p. 37).

Wigglesworth's Christ does not tolerate human frailty. Those who eschewed Him out of fear of persecution are damned because they were the blind "who carnal peace/more than true joyes did favor" (st. 12, p. 41). For those who say that their lack of faith was predestined, and thus their damnation was insured, Wigglesworth composes a brilliant summation of predestination that skillfully blends free will and predetermination. Christ says of his Father:

He that fore-sees, and foredecrees,
in wisdom order'd has,
That man's free-will electing ill
shall bring his will to pass.
(st. 14, p. 46)

In other words, God was able to select who to save and who to damn before the Creation because He could discern who would choose faith and who sin.

It must have been difficult for Wigglesworth to justify the damnation of the last two groups of sinners in his Judgment, but he managed to, because his faith demanded it. These are the heathens and those souls who died in infancy. Certainly their damnation is the most painful for modern readers to accept. The heathens argue they cannot be held accountable because they never heard of Christ before or saw His Word. But He damns them because with their God-given "Clearness of sight, and judgment right," it is their own fault for not intuiting the truth of the Word independently (st. 162, p. 49).

In their defense, the infants say that they cannot be damned because they could not have participated in Adam's Fall. In response, Christ tells them that Adam was selected to be the moral representative of the human race. Had he possessed the faith to obey, all of mankind would have been saved, in which case the souls of the infants would have gone to Heaven; but since he sinned, they must go to Hell (st. 175, p. 53). However, Wigglesworth had such misgivings about having to uphold so dubious a position that out of guilt he has his Christ assure the infants, "But unto you I shall allow/the easiest room in Hell" (st. 175, p. 34), which considering his description of Hell to follow is not saying much.

It reveals much about Wigglesworth's conception of Christ that when a group of sinners appeal to Him for the divine mercy of which they have heard so much, they are informed, as they are being damned, that they have already received it. In Christ's view, they had their opportunity for salvation, and instead they chose to wrong their Savior through sin (st. 136, p. 43). Wigglesworth's Christ is more than stern; through His brutal, absolutist judgments, He induces such tension in the minds of His Puritan followers, terrified of eternal damnation, that the result is a permanent psychological state of driven hysteria. Wigglesworth hints that all these sinners should actually be quite grateful that Christ, in His patience, has allowed them to plead their case before they are dragged off to the Pit. In fact, Christ reprimands them for even petitioning.

To whom the Judge, What you alledge,
doth nothing help the case?
But makes appear how vile you were.
and rend'reth you more base
. (st. 118, p. 38)

Their petitioning is a sign of their sinful pride, and only makes them look worse. As members of the depraved human race, they should really accept their damnation quietly, as their due. They do, at the end of Judgment, and are informed it is impossible to commit suicide to escape their fate. "Yea, now it would be good they could/themselves annihilate,/and cease to be" (st. 184, p. 55). No doubt Wigglesworth is commenting on the alarming practice growing in his time of Puritans killing themselves out of despair over the fate of their immortal souls.

Then comes the damnation. His description of it is chilling and lovingly compiled, with gruesome detail piled on detail. The damned are now lost forever, he emphasizes, and beyond all hope. "Thus shall they ly, and wail, and cry,/tormented..../There let them dwell i' the Flames of Hell" (st. 218, p. 63). Family members gladly watch their closest loved ones suffer everlasting torture because, after all, they are witnessing a wicked sinner receiving his due punishment (st. 197-9, pp. 58-9), and as good Christians they are following Christ's admonition in Luke 9:26 to forsake all family and friends for His sake. Wigglesworth's obvious object is to terrify, and he succeeds in more ways than he is aware of.

He attained his goal of reaching the hearts of many of his fellow Puritans, in the hope of saving their souls. In proportion to population, The Day of Doom is the greatest bestseller in American publishing history, even in this age of mass-marketing book distribution. And Wigglesworth's influence extended far beyond his own generation. His book was widely read a century after its original publication. (3) In 1867 there was sufficient demand to prompt a reprinting, and the anonymous author of the "Memoir of the Author" praised Wigglesworth and the other Puritan divines for their "fervent piety" and strong morals, ominous qualities in light of the dark things exposed in the poem. He goes on to comment, "if they were wrong in faith, they were right in life."

Donald Sutherland goes berserk at the end of "The Day of the Locust," stomping a devilish child actor who's been endlessly tormenting him to death and triggering the apocalyptic riot

They were patient, hopeful, humble, believing, faithful. They stood on a higher plane than their successors, and exercised a proportionately higher power over their hearers. Their people revered them, were constant in attendance on their services, and submitted gladly to their sway. (5)

But this anonymous author, in his awe for the Puritans' strength of faith and command of their community, manifested the hold that Puritanism has over the American imagination, rather than understood it.

It is no surprise why so many turned to Puritanism and why so many today practice its fragmented tenets. Perhaps there shall never be another religious orthodoxy that supplies so many absolute answers and such a complete guide to the living of one's life. Puritanism answered all of the major questions of existence. (Why, are we here? What should we be doing? Why is there suffering? What happens after death?) There was no debilitating dispute over scriptural interpretation; the Word was to be followed literally. Although it may seem a peripheral issue to us today, predestination was especially important; if some souls are to be saved and others damned, then God, in His infinite power, must have selected them before the Beginning.

The homeless march on the U.S. Capitol during the Great Depression

Three centuries later, we may wonder why the Puritan clung to his beliefs so faithfully if his overwhelming guilt and self-doubt resulted so often in crippling neurosis, hysteria, breakdowns, and suicide, until we understand that at least he believed he had some control over his life. He believed that if he only regulated his behavior and arranged his earthly works sufficiently, he could determine his salvation or damnation; and he knew that God was concerned about his soul and would respond to him. God might visit him with suffering—and we may mock him for rationalizing his losses as God warning him for his sins—but he always believed that if he repented and prayed afterward, he could thereby right his course. He never believed himself to be cast adrift in an uncaring universe; to a great extent he believed himself in control of his destiny. Can we say the same today?

This faith supplied the enduring strength that allowed a small, insecure group of Europeans to perform the impossible feat of founding a hardy colony that grew in a devastating wilderness. But in Wigglesworth's day, Puritanism began to turn on itself, as The Day of Doom attests. Isolated from the rest of the world, the colony fed off itself. In their insane zeal for perfection, the Puritans destroyed rather than built. All of Wigglesworth’s doctrine is technically correct, according to English Puritanism, but like the sinners it damns, it fails because it follows the letter rather than the spirit of the faith. It produces not reassurance but terror.

It was inevitable that the values of such a perverted faith should crumble. Puritanism annihilated itself; the tensions it created shattered the strength it inspired. Like Hawthorne's Hollingsworth, the Puritans felt that, as instruments of God's will, all their impulses must be divinely inspired as well, and they sought the impossible end of creating total perfection in man the imperfect. Ignoring the doctrine of Original Sin that teaches that all men are morally flawed, they could not accept that fact that, even with God's help, the society they founded had to mirror their spiritual imperfections.

The result was a nightmare. Though setting out with Winthrop's dream of creating a Utopia of God's love, they founded a totalitarian society based on intolerance, fanaticism, and dread. Among other things, in their crusade for the Lamb, they hanged Quakers, burned sundry old women at the stake for witchcraft, slaughtered Indians, and stole the land from its aboriginal owners, with few second thoughts. Eventually, as the gulf between doctrine and practice continued to yawn, the bridge collapsed. It is only terribly ironic that Wigglesworth was so wrong in his choice of sins that would bring on the American apocalypse; instead, as Melville recognized, the destruction of the City on a Hill would be caused by the very forces of mad extremism and absolutism that forced Wigglesworth to write The Day of Doom.

The America whose self-destruction Herman Melville foresees in The Confidence-Man is an America in which the death of Puritan values has left a spiritual vacuum. In the wake of the loss of Puritan absolutism, moral chaos rages, a chaos reflected in the ambiguity of Melville's typology and in his lack of faith. For Melville sees human existence as God's April Fool's joke on man. The punchline is the apocalypse.

Chicago police riot, 1968

Birmingham, 1963

Man's best friend: Abu Gharib

This America, Jacksonian America just before the Civil War, imagines itself to be a land of infinite frontiers in terms of political freedom, personal expression, physical development, and economic growth. In this land of alleged boundless opportunity, Melville discerns a mindless, cheerful optimism flourishing in the form of endless confidence. The Puritan impulse toward spiritual perfection has merely become the American national impulse toward material perfection and the total self-realization of the individual. Just like the Puritan, the American cannot recognize where his ideals have failed; America the land of opportunity and confidence has no room for a tragic view of life derived from the idea of Original Sin, teaching that certain aspects of human life are inevitably flawed.

Aboard the Fidele, horror stories telling of the victims of an uncaring universe or of human cruelty abound; there are the tales of "the unfortunate man" (allegedly John Ringman), the cripple posing as a Mexican War veteran, Charlemont, and China Aster. Only, their listeners (who are invariably avatars of the Confidence-Man) refuse to believe them. They adopt the position of the Herb Doctor who admonishes the crippled "soldier of fortune" for criticizing "Free Ameriky," since our government must reflect the divine government; one must have confidence that appearances are deceptive. (6) Like the Puritans, the Confidence-Man would have us ignore visible reality as false and misleading and conducive to cynicism.

Melville understood that the disintegration of Puritan standards left America wide open for confidence men of all sorts, religious, philosophical, and criminal, the criminals at least sometimes being caused by economic conditions. As the Herb Doctor (himself the Confidence-Man) explains, "Were they not in poverty, I think they would hardly do what they do" (p. 114). The lack of a guiding national moral structure produces gullible victims as well; the agent for the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum is able to cheat the widow because she so lacks confidence in her own faith in others that when he questions her goodwill, she automatically makes a "contribution" (p. 58).

With Puritan values gone, Melville can see that Americans will still behave in the extreme. This is borne out in his portraits of Pitch and Colonel John Moredock. Pitch overreacts so to the lack of moral standards in his society (manifested in his unruly boys) that he only wants the company of machines (pp. 160-1). In their argument over whether delinquent boys can be reformed, both Pitch and the Philosophical Intelligence Officer prove themselves to be moral extremists. Where Pitch holds that people can never change, the PIO man believes they can only change. In their search for easy answers, neither wants to deal with the complexity of life.

Colonel Moredock is Melville's representative American. Although an extremist, the Indian-hater embodies principles that in diluted form are shaping his society. For Melville, Colonel Moredock is where American society has arrived and where it is headed. As the herald of American civilization, forging into "the territory ahead," he is the quintessential American who, turned loose in a hostile, dangerous wilderness populated by his fears, projects his rage against the environment onto the Indians.

Having met with one incidence of evil at the hands of the Indians (and that from renegades), he, left alone on the frontier, is unable to judge rationally, and swinging to the extreme, hunts down every Indian he can find. His Indian-hating is like a religion. Colonel Moredock does not disappear into the wilderness, never to be seen again, cutting himself off from civilization to devote himself to Indian-killing, like "the solitary Indian hater" (who represents the American, claimed at last by the frontier), but he resembles a monk in his vows of purity, refusing a chance to be Governor of Illinois because his Indian-hating would represent a conflict of interest (pp. 219-20).

Like the Puritan, he offers an extreme response to the wilderness. On hearing of him, the Cosmopolitan cannot believe that a man that brutal and ruthless could supposedly be charming. But like America itself, Colonel Moredock can slaughter Indians and be eminently likeable at the same time, because to him Indians are not human beings.

The world of The Confidence-Man is tied closely to that of the Puritans. As John R. May has pointed out in his study of American apocalyptic literature, Toward a New Earth, Melville, who mentioned Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Chrsti Americana in both "The Lightning-Rod Man" and "The Apple-Tree Table" (the latter published while The Confidence-Man was in progress), may well have well have been inspired by Chapter Five of the Seventh Book of Mather's work, "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing," since it describes imposters passing themselves off as Puritan ministers in colonial New England. (7)

And when the Cosmopolitan tells Charles Noble "you will throw out nothing to the prejudice of the sons of the Puritans" (p. 243), he is not only identifying himself as a Christ figure, but he is also allowing Melville to inform us that he is aware of the role the Puritans played in creating the social chaos rampant in his America by their insistence that external reality is to be ignored in favor of religious faith—religious confidence.

Rev. Jerry Falwell: another fisher of men

By no means is Melville a Puritan. He is entirely aware of the damage Wigglesworth's "self-tormenting fears" (8) performed on the American psyche. But he employs Puritan apocalyptic typology in order to depict the social holocaust he sees happening as a result of the heritage of the failure of Puritanism in America.

One of the great questions that has always plagued Christians is: in a world created by God, how does one account for evil? Melville does so by believing that Christ and Satan are only two sides of the same being—God. In his view, it is impossible to conceive how God, operating on his chronometrical scale, could possibly be concerned with our existence, which runs on hortological time; like Herod demanding Christ to perform a miracle to prove His divinity, we expect God to think and act in our terms. Essentially, God does not care about us; otherwise, Melville asks, how could he sanction the horrible tragedies we witness every day?

Comin' home to Dover

For Melville, God is the Confidence-Man. He constructs The Confidence-Man on the model of the Apocalypse of Revelations in order to show how God's failure to protect man from the evils of his fellows and from circumstance—indeed His sanction and perhaps encouragement of it—coincides with the catastrophe that is overwhelming American society because of the failure of the Puritan experiment.

KKK March on Washington, D.C., mid-1920s: they ruled 25% of America at the time

Melville's apocalypse begins with the advent of the lamb-like man, which represents the last loosing of Satan, the Confidence-Man. In the first chapter, the lamb-like man seeks to distract the crowd from the wanted poster of "the mysterious imposter from the East" (himself—on p. 9, "he seemed already to have come from a very long distance") by raising a blackboard inscribed with messages of mindless confidence in one’s fellow-man from Corinthians. When the crowd rejects him, he retreats to the forward part of the ship, where he falls asleep and reappears in the third chapter as Black Guinea (a "black sheep"), whose "knotted black fleece" (p. 15) "matches the "long fleecy nap" of the hat worn by the lamb-like man on his advent (p. 3).

His ploy as a false Christ figure having failed, the Confidence-Man becomes Black Guinea, a crippled beggar, initiating his pattern of making his con-game more sophisticated with each chapter. But he is unmasked by a Hawthorne-like cripple, who, when asked what profit a confidence-man might have gained posing as a poor black beggar, replies, "How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?" (p. 48). Just as Satan, as the serpent, was tempting the Parents for God, the Confidence-Man is obeying the divine will by fleecing the passengers of the Fidele.

For the rest of the first half of the book, the Confidence-Man assumes the shapes of John Ringman, the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum agent, the President of the Black Rapids Coal Company, the Herb Doctor, John Truman, and the Philosophical Intelligence Officer, always cheating the passengers by preaching blind optimism to gain their confidence. By inference, through the Confidence-Man, Melville compares Christianity to a con game. Like Christianity, the President of the Black Rapids Coal Company sells New Jerusalem (pp. 70-l).

The Herb Doctor refers the dying old man (a symbol for Western civilization), who says he needs a "guardeen," to John Truman, who "makes people's everlasting fortunes for them" in exchange for confidence. Afterwards the old man returns to the Herb Doctor, claiming John Truman cheated him. Hungering for a messiah, the old man moans, "nobody caring for me, everybody fleecing me," a reference to the false Christ of the lamb-like man. Always helpful, the Herb Doctor tries to find John Truman; and it is Melville's comment on John Truman, the savior who insures people's fortunes in return for their confidence, that the Herb Doctor mistakes a clergyman for him (pp. 141-3).

A wolf in sheep's clothing: Nazi agent and wildly popular anti-Semitic radio priest Father Charles Coughlinafter FDR, the second most powerful man in America in the 1930s

In the beginning of the second half of the book, the Confidence-Man appears as Charles Arnold Noble, who, by stating that Pitch revealed that he came from the East, exposes himself as an avatar, since Pitch only mentioned this fact to the Herb Doctor and the PIO man, two previous avatars (p. 242). Charles Noble—and the Confidence-Man—confirms his Satanic status with his remark that he "Ate of a diabolical ragout at dinner"; as H. Bruce Franklin reminds us in a footnote in his edition of The Confidence-Man, "The Devil's favorite dish is man." (9)

Strange bedfellows: Donald Rumsfeld thanks a loyal and invaluable friend of America in Baghdad on December 20, 1983

Frank Goodman, the Cosmopolitan, is Christ, but in addition to being a confidence-man, he is also a Confidence-Man, if not a separate avatar of the protean Confidence-Man. He appears dressed in a colorful suit; and as the PIO man remarks just before his appearance, "The butterfly is the caterpillar in a gaudy cloak" (p. 173). He is merely another form of the Confidence-Man, who ultimately is God. His identity becomes clarified when in his encounter with Charles Noble, Noble says, "we are thus joined in mind" (p. 224). Not only are they parts of the same divine whole, but their intentions, to destroy man by inspiring false confidence, are the same. For the Cosmopolitan too enjoys man, "that good dish," served up "alá Yankee" (pp. 186-7). Thus for Melville are Christ and Satan joined.

The turkey was plastic so the Confidence-Man's arms wouldn't get tired

The Cosmopolitan is clearly Christ. While each is trying to get the other drunk, the Cosmopolitan and Charles Noble are Christ and Satan testing each other's mettle in preparation for the Apocalypse. "You are a man after my own heart,'" says the Cosmopolitan, with "candor" (p. 224). Charles Noble is being ironic when he shouts, "go to the devil, sir!" because the Cosmopolitan is with the Devil. When the Cosmopolitan tells Charles Noble, "I will see you tomorrow" (p. 264), he is referring to the coming Apocalypse when he as Christ will engage Charles as Satan in the last battle; and when Mark Winsome warns him of Charles Noble and says, "But I repeat the hope, that, thus far at least, he has not succeeded with you, and trust that, for the future, he will not," he is articulating man's fears for the outcome of the Last Days (p. 276).

The Cosmopolitan expresses a gentle Christic love for man. When Mark Winsome asks, "'Who will pity the charmer that is bitten with a serpent?'", he answers, "'I would pity him,'" voicing Christ's concern for mankind after the Fall—and he probably believes it. (Melville may believe that the fact that God believes Himself to be sincere may be His greatest folly.)

But he, as a Confidence-Man, does practice deception, which casts doubts on his professions of goodwill. When Mark Winsome mentions "the strolling magi of these days," the Cosmopolitan, Christ, lies, saying, "But that is a matter I know nothing about" (p. 275). After first openly warning the barber that he may be angel or devil (p. 313), he convinces him to have confidence that all his customers will pay, then leaves without paying (p. 327).

In the final chapter, as the End of Days (and the end of the book) approach, the references to the Cosmopolitan's Christic identity become more explicit than ever. The old man he finds waiting in the cabin is compared to Simeon, who witnessed the first Advent (p. 333). When the Cosmopolitan enters the room, he is compared to the bridegroom, a familiar name for Christ (p. 334).

The hints that the Apocalypse is coming grow stronger as well. The Cosmopolitan is described as wearing "a waiting expression.” When the old man remarks that one would think that from the way he was looking at him "it was war-time, and I had a newspaper here with good news" (referring to the Bible in his hands) and the Cosmopolitan replies that it is "the very best of good news" (p. 334), the war they are referring to is Armageddon, and the good news is Christ's triumph. When the Cosmopolitan mentions the Apocrypha, a voice cries out from a darkened bunk, "What's this about the Apocalypse? (p. 337).

The chapter is rightly entitled "The Cosmopolitan increases in seriousness," for in it, his actions become extremely ominous. As the end of all things earthly approaches, he assures the old man to have confidence. In the midst of his deceptive counsel, a voice cries out from the dark, "'Who's that describing the confidence-man?'" (p. 336).

The torch is passed: a teenage Bill Clinton meets JFK, June 6, 1963

"What an ugly thing wisdom must be!" the Cosmopolitan says, and the old man, taken in, agrees that "to mistrust the creature, is a kind of mistrusting the Creator" (p. 338), not realizing who he is talking to. After the old man purchases a counterfeit-detector, the Cosmopolitan wants him to accept all of his bills as genuine, although he knows how rampant counterfeiting is in that area (pp. 345-6).

When the old man asks for a life-preserver, fearing the ship might meet with disaster that night, the Cosmopolitan gives him a bedpan. After remarking how "in Providence, as in man, you and I equally put trust" (a lie—the Cosmopolitan puts no trust in man) (p. 349), the Cosmopolitan extinguishes the horned lamp (the horned altar of God in Revelations 9:13), "while in the darkness which ensued, the cosmopolitan kindly led the old man away. Something further may follow of this Masquerade." (p. 350)

At first glance, the last two pages of the novel may seem to indicate that Melville is stating that just when we need a safeguard against disaster, God hands us a receptacle for our bowel movements. But in the event of a shipwreck, the bedpan will float; if there is no cataclysm, the old man will need it anyway in the course of the evening. Perhaps what Melville is saying is that where we need to get us through the night is not a life preserver but a bedpan.

But his vision is more complex than that. The Cosmopolitan here is not intentionally deceiving the old man; in fact, he is "eyeing the old man with sympathy" (p. 349). No, the Cosmopolitan, being divine, simply does not know better. He has no conception of human needs. He calls the bedpan a "life-preserver" (which it is—it preserves life), but admits, "I don't pretend to know much about such things, never using them myself" (p. 349). When the old man cries out, asking for someone to guide his way back to his stateroom, the Cosmopolitan answers, "I have indifferent eyes, and will show you" (p. 350). Melville is telling us that if we let God be our guide. He will lead us into the darkness, because He is indifferent; the fact that he allows tragedy to occur unabated is a sign of his indifference.

But it is not entirely His fault, even though He arranged existence the way it is. He is divine and we are human; how can we seriously expect him to understand, much less care about, our plight?

Unfortunately, we are at His mercy. As the Cosmopolitan says, man is a creature "who, being a man, is the sport of fate's wind and wave, and who mounts toward heaven or sinks toward hell, as the billows roll him in trough or on crest" (p. 288). Being who he is, the Cosmopolitan should know. The old man must accept the bedpan from the Cosmopolitan, thinking it a life preserver, because he is helpless.

What happens to the old man after the Cosmopolitan leads him "kindly" into the ominous darkness? Nothing. It has already happened to him. All this time he has been waiting for the Apocalypse when God has been keeping it in steady progress. He has already been destroyed, having been made to wait all his life for a salvation that will never occur. The Fidele does not sink that night; "in after days" the barber tells the story of how the Cosmopolitan cheated him out of a haircut (p. 328).

The Apocalypse has already arrived, and yet it is continuing all the time. It is manifested in the destruction of "the unfortunate man," the cripple posing as the Mexican War veteran, Charlemont, and China Aster, and in the agony of all the crippled, sick, and aged aboard the Fidele (whose beds, like human existence, are "devised by some sardonic foe of poor travelers, to deprive them of...tranquility," p. 99), whose suffering and faith is exploited by cynical confidence-men both human and divine. This is the catastrophe that will overtake the society—not a photogenic display of pyrotechnics, but a slow, gradual process of individual and social disintegration.

What further will follow of this Masquerade? Living one hundred and fifty years afterward, we already know. Colonel John Murdock will open up the frontier, exterminating Indians with his hatred, and Pitch will follow, with his machines. Soon afterward, of course, the confidence-men will appear. No cataclysms will occur to satisfy deep-seated apocalyptic longings and thereby free all the members of the society permanently from the trials of existence. I am sure Melville foresaw the Civil War fast approaching on the horizon, but I am equally sure that he recognized the fact that the apocalypse may come and go, but life in America goes on and on. The Confidence-Man's deliberate buildup of our apocalyptic expectations is his Masquerade; we are condemned to life. When God has our confidence, Melville is saying, the joke is on us.

Since the Puritans came to this country, the literary jeremiad has played an important role in articulating America's deepest fears. The Puritans feared they would be damned for living more in this world than the next. As history has turned out, they damned themselves by being devoted to fanatical religious concerns, when they would have done better to involve themselves with the concrete world they found in New England.

Of course, expecting human beings to behave realistically is unrealistic in itself; and if there is anything the Puritans have taught us, it is not to expect, much less seek, human perfection. But the consequences of their failure still live with us. John Winthrop, in “A Modell of Christian Charity," set a goal of perfection too high to be achieved, and as an alternative to total success, he could only envision God's wrath destroying the Puritan settlement.

The Pentagon, September 11, 2001: 60 years after Pearl Harbor, no defenses against an attack from the air on America's military nerve center

As a result of such a community vision, when less than perfection was achieved, hysteria set in, and the Puritans turned in upon themselves and on themselves, as can be witnessed in Michael Wigglesworth's tormented imagination that produced the near-psychotic Day of Doom—whose orthodoxy, representative of its time, offered no hope, only fear; no assurance, only despair. When the Puritan synthesis broke down, as it had to under such stress, it left a spiritual wilderness more fearful than the natural wilderness John Winthrop encountered.

Be a man, join the Klan: the spectre of lynching in America

In The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville, writing of pre-Civil War America, showed that in a new nation as culturally barren as America, the death of Puritan absolute faith created total skepticism, resulting in social and personal fragmentation that in turn precipitated personal and social catastrophes, leaving in its wake only bitterness, hypocrisy, and despair. In response to Winthrop's vision of divine rage at man's sundering of the Covenant, Wigglesworth feared a religious apocalypse; but in the midst of the cultural wreckage produced by the spiritual bankruptcy of Wigglesworth's Puritanism, the apocalypse that Melville found was real.


  1. John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity." The Puritans, ed. by Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson (New York, 1963), 197-8. All page references to this lay-sermon are from this edition.
  2. Michael Wigglesworth, The Day of Doom. ed. by Kenneth B. Murdock (New York, 1929), p 2. All references to this work are from his edition.
  3. Michael Wigglesworth, The Day of Doom (New York, 1867), p. 3.
  4. Ibid., p. 10.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Herman Melville, The Confidence Man, ed. by H. Bruce Franklin (New York. 1967) p. 136-7. All page references to this work are from this edition.
  7. John R. May, Toward a New Earth (Notre Dame, 1972), p. 72.
  8. Wigglesworth, ed. by Murdock, st. 35, p. 18
  9. H. Bruce Franklin footnote, Melville, p. 241.


Elliott, Emory. Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England. Princeton, 1975.

May, John R. Toward a New Earth. Notre Dame, 1972.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man, ed. by H. Bruce Franklin. New York, 1967.

Wigglesworth, Michael. The Day of Doom. New York, l867.

Wigglesworth, Michael. The Day of Doom., ed. by Kenneth B. Murdock. New York, 1929.

Winthrop, John. "A Modell of Christian Charity." The Puritans, ed. by Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson. New York, 1963.

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Facts on Essene Culture

Warm Regards from the Other Side of the Moon.
Bijoy Cletus - Kerala, India