Friday, June 4, 2010

Great American Literature- Cotton Mather

Here is one of the definitions of literature, compliments of Webster’s Dictionary (online, of course): Writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest. Based on that definition we have a fair amount of room to work with for Friday’s recurring topic. In conversation with my Blog Mentor, The Ocean Kayaker, I brought up the idea that today’s entry would be the original piece of American literature. I was thinking, of course, of the Declaration of Independence. Ocean Kayaker, being older and wiser, looked further back to the prolific writings of Cotton Mather. Most of you are probably asking “Who?”

I knew the name and knew a bit about the man from reading about him just recently in “History of the American People” by the great historian, Paul Johnson. Here is what I remember from my reading. He was born on February 12, 1663. He will forever be associated negatively with the Salem Witch trials, probably unfairly as recent scholarship demonstrates. Suffice it to say that he was probably the Joe McCarthy of these trials (I just read a book about Joe McCarthy, too). He was a polymath, whatever that is, and taught himself seven languages. He was a very prolific writer who published over 450 books and pamphlets and was considered one of the most influential religious thinkers of his time. He was a predecessor, of a sort, of Ben Franklin – who was also a polymath – who read and enjoyed his works. Okay, a polymath is a person of encyclopedic learning. His masterpiece was the Magnalia Christi Americana, which according to Paul Johnson has a strong claim to be considered the first great work of literature produced in America (H/T to Ocean Kayaker on that note). This work also is said to have influenced the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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