Literature reflects life and reading literature from a specific time gives one a picture of the traditions, values, and morality of the society in that time. Through the literature of a variety of past societies, one can see an underlying connection. God created humankind for a relationship with Him, therefore a society’s writings will either reflect the benefits of that relationship or the consequences of no relationship with him.
In early American literature, the Puritans are deeply saturated in God’s Word. John Winthrop reflects this as he strives for community according to God’s principles. It makes sense then, that he encourages the ideal to live with both justice and mercy, which reflects God’s character. For Winthrop, justice and mercy go hand in hand and his beliefs are taken straight from the Bible. He believes it should be motivated by love, not duty and writes, “So the way to draw men to works of mercy, is not by force of argument from the goodness or necessity of the work; …but by framing these affections of love in the heart which will as natively bring forth the other, as any cause doth produce effect” (Winthrop 109). Living by example results in a community that dwells together with justice and mercy. Winthrop’s focus is Micah 6:8 which says, “to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God” (KJV). He explains, “For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man” (115). Love fulfills the law and best reflects a relationship with God.
Jonathan Edwards also reflects a deep relationship with God that covers both justice and mercy. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” focuses on God’s justice, and also shows mercy through the restraining hand of God. Edwards states, “If God should withdraw his hand, by which they are restrained… hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost” (Edwards 280), and “There is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up” (285). God restrains sin and punishment because of his patience and mercy. His listeners and future readers are reminded, “here you are in the land of the living and in the house of God, and have an opportunity to obtain salvation” (290). Edwards goes on to say, “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him and pressing into the kingdom of God” (290). God’s mercy gives mankind the chance to repent, turn from their sin, and enter relationship with God.
The transition from the time and writings of the Puritans into philosophical writing shows that society is moving from relationship with God to focus on relationship with self. Ralph Waldo Emerson has an unhealthy faith in self and man and seems to forget that man’s wisdom, knowledge, abilities comes from God. Emerson writes, “That there is One Man… that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man … is all” (Emerson 626). Without Scripture and the basis of God, there is no understanding that God created man for relationship with Him and with each other, to need community, and to find wholeness only in Him. Emerson shows his twisted beliefs about God and man when he states, “What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself” (627). Nature and creation, and therefore man, has no beginning or end. The power of man is to transcend into a god himself, in man’s own strength and abilities.
Following this philosophy does not result in the improvement of mankind, but instead is reflected in Herman Melville’s philosophy of man; the state of man is altogether hopeless. In his novel, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville shares that Bartleby was shaped by life experiences and could choose no other path, “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more ﬁtted to heighten it …?” (Melville 1093). Bartleby’s birth and life experiences result in a man of no emotion, no hope, and a lonely death. In addition, the lawyer sees no good in himself and comes to the conclusion that man is “predestinated from eternity … for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence” (1086). Melville sees little opportunity for change or growth in mankind. This hopelessness shows his belief that mankind is destined to a life of complacency and boredom, a life without relationship with God, a life without purpose.
God created man with a longing for Him, a longing for more. In the period of the Publicists, William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow each express this longing, but with different worldviews. Bryant finds a deep connection with nature, but fails to connect with the Creator of said nature. When Bryant states that nature “speaks a various language” (535), a Christian knows that God has revealed himself to mankind through nature and that man finds life in this connection to God. It appears that Bryant never came to this conclusion because he ends with death simply being sleep with pleasant dreams. There is no hope for life eternal or a relationship with God that transcends understanding. Longfellow, on the other hand, feels a deep connection to God in his soul. He realizes that his soul matters in the long run, and in “A Psalm of Life” he focuses on life and art and time, and how it is all connected through one’s soul. Longfellow writes, “Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal; / Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul” (5-8). His admonition to work hard, “Let us, then, be up and doing, / With a heart for any fate; / Till achieving, still pursuing, / Learn to labor and to wait” (33-36), is not about gaining all you can while on this earth, but about walking in wisdom, redeeming the time, doing good for the soul’s benefit. In other words, it is about laying up treasure on heaven and not on earth.
A discerning reader should filter literature through the lens of Scripture and see that the values of a particular society are reflected in their writings. God created mankind for relationship and that is expressed through story.
Bryant, William Cullen. “Thanatopsis.” American Literature. American Literature, Edited by William E. Cain, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Pearson Education, Inc, New York, 2014, pp. 535-37.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” American Literature, Edited by William E. Cain, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Pearson Education, Inc, New York, 2014, pp. 278-91.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” American Literature, Edited by William E. Cain, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Pearson Education, Inc, New York, 2014, pp. 626-41.
The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments: Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “A Psalm of Life.” American Literature, Edited by William E. Cain, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Pearson Education, Inc, New York, 2014, pp. 711-12.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” American Literature, Edited by William E. Cain, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Pearson Education, Inc, New York, 2014, pp. 1064-93.
Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” American Literature, Edited by William E. Cain, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Pearson Education, Inc, New York, 2014, pp. 103–116.