Sacvan Bercovitch is perhaps the most influential and controversial Americanist of his generation. Born in Montreal, Quebec, he received his B.A. at Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University (1958) and his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School, now Claremont Graduate University (1965). (He has since then received honorary degrees from both institutions: an LLD from Concordia in 1993 and an HLD from Claremont n 2005). Bercovitch taught at Brandeis, the University of California-San Diego, Princeton, and from 1970 to 1984 at Columbia; from 1984 until he retired in 2001 he taught at Harvard, where he held the Powell M. Cabot Professorship in American Literature (the Chair formerly held by Perry Miller); he is now the Powell M. Cabot Research Professor at Harvard. Bercovitch has also been a visiting faculty member at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, the Bread Loaf School of English, Tel-Aviv University, the University of Rome, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, the Chinese Academy of Social Studies in Beijing, the Kyoto University Seminar in Japan, and the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He has received the Distinguished Scholar Award for Extraordinary Lifetime Achievement in Early American Literature (2002), the Jay B. Hubbell Prize for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies (2004), and the Bode-Pearson Prize for Lifetime Achievement in American Studies (2007).
Sacvan Bercovitch's early books, The Puritan Origins of the American Self and The American Jeremiad (along with his edited collections on typology and The American Puritan Imagination) presented a new interpretation of the structures of expression and feeling that composed the writing of Puritan New England. They proposed (1) the importance of scriptural typology in Puritan New England thought; (2) the centrality of the imagination in the New England Puritans' writings; (3) the relation between the imagination, religious belief, and cultural-historical context; (4) the centrality of the text in the process of communal self-definition, from the Puritan view of scripture through the Declaration of Independence; and, from all four perspectives, and (5) an understanding of the origins in New England Puritanism of a distinctive mode of expression and belief that eventuated in the "American" identity. The result was a model of cultural continuity. Bercovitch saw the Puritan "errand" as a proto-capitalist venture that offered a singularly compelling rationale for an expanding modern community. What made it compelling was not just its religious emphasis; it was the crucial reversal, or inversion, this effected in the Puritans' secular concept of mission. Whereas other colonists...in New France, New Spain, New Amsterdam...understood themselves to be emissaries of European empire, the New England Puritans repudiated the "Old World." Instead, they centered their imperial enterprise on the meaning that they read into their "New World": "America" as the new promised land...which is to say, the promised land of the new modern world. Over the next two centuries their vision opened into a sacred-secular symbology, one that (in changing forms, to accommodate changing times) nourished the rhetoric of a new identity, the United States as "America." A leading literary theorist, commenting on The American Jeremiad, noted that Bercovitch's work "should make it impossible for anyone to use easily the word America."
Through his exploration of the expressive culture of Puritan New England, Bercovitch moved forward, into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, toward a description of a distinctive nationalist ideology, involving the distinctive strategies of liberal culture. That ambition yielded his major books of the nineties, The Office of "The Scarlet Letter" and The Rites of Assent (as well as his edited collections on literary history and Ideology and Classic American Literature), which in effect "complete the writing of the history of American liberal-capitalist culture begun in the earlier work--a history that provocatively specifies how, in the United States, acts of withering dissent are put to the service of a vision of consensus." More largely, Bercovitch has argued that the strategy of American pluralism is precisely to elicit dissent...political, intellectual, aesthetic, and academic, both utopian (progressivist) and dystopian (catastrophic) -- in order to redirect it into an affirmation of American ideals. However, Bercovitch has qualified that analysis in a series of essays on individual authors, from Melville to Twain, acknowledging, on the one hand, the "modes of basic resistance to ideology" within democratic liberalism and, on the other hand, pointing out the energizing utopian qualities in American ideals: In 2004, Bercovitch completed a 20-year project as General Editor of the multi-volume Cambridge History of American Literature, which has been called "without a doubt, and without a serious rival, the scholarly history of our generation."
Criticism and Controversy
Bercovitch's first writings competed with Perry Miller's foundational synthesis of "the New England Mind," and Bercovitch was charged with having failed to see "in Puritan books . . . their capacity to instruct, their power 'to open the heart and educate the soul.'" His following work, connecting aesthetics and religious typology with historical-cultural issues, competed with the formalist theories of the then-regant New Criticism and Bercovitch was reproached for his "indictments of American imaginative power." Furthermore, Bercovitch's view of the consensus-making powers of "the myth of America" (the visionary "America" as a source of social cohesion) was attacked politically from both the right and the left. From the right, he was decried as the central figure of an upstart generation of "New Americanists." From the left, he was criticized for analyzing the culture from within and so "replicating its dominant forms," rather than offering a "new politics." Bercovitch never replied directly to these critics. But he has celebrated Perry Miller's "towering achievement" ; he has edited numerous Puritan texts and taught Puritan thought and theology to several generations of students; and he has repeatedly emphasized the aesthetic dimension of cultural inquiry. And while he has explored the liberal dissent in terms of "the paradox of containment" -- -- meaning both containing the power of radical dissent and contained within the culture's liberal norms -- he has also insisted that such dissent can issue in a fundamental challenges to the system. With the growth of multi-cultural studies, Bercovitch has been criticized as the author of a "powerful version of American exceptionalism." Again, this charge is debatable. Bercovitch emphasizes that the United States as shaped by the growth of Western modernity...the growth of modern capitalism...and that its history is much like that of many major powers, modern and premodern: a history of injustice, oppression, imperial expansion, racial and ethnic discrimination, and excessive violence in all these aspects. What remains distinctive for him nonetheless...distinctive, not unique...is the national belief in its own exceptionalism, the rhetoric of the American dream, the utopian hope inscribed in the vision of "America."
Bercovitch's work, which has been translated into many languages, redirected the study of Early American Literature and marked a new, historicist turn in American literary and cultural criticism. It is characterized by large historical claims and bold intellectual syntheses; it is intensely scholarly in certain traditional ways; it is often focused on close textual reading; and it is broadly theoretical in its implications, from his early essays on typology to his later essays on ideology and on questions related to interdisciplinarity. His contribution may be summarized as follows: (1) he has helped restructure American literary criticism by tracing literary continuity beyond the Revolution back to the New England Puritans; (2) he has called attention to the complex religious dimensions of what had been seen as the secular American Way; (3) he has led in the inquiry into the rhetorical and social constructedness of the American identity; (4) he has helped formulate the connections between ideology and imaginative expression, emphasizing not only the cultural pressures on aesthetic expression but the explosive aesthetic force of literary texts; and (5) he has been influential in exploring the limits and radical potential of dissent in America. In the assessment of a recent literary historian, Bercovitch's "audacious writings signaled an important shift in the understanding of culture.... After Bercovitch, culture no longer seems . . . the disinterested location for abstract reflection, but rather the place in which American power pervasively resides. . . . Animated by this insight, Bercovitch transformed [the standard views of] the 'classic' writers . . . enshrined by American Studies" -- a transformation "suggestive of new interpretive energies" and "compelling revisions of [traditional] categories and assumptions." In one of his citations for lifetime achievement, " Bercovitch has been the foremost interpreter of early American literature for his generation and probably of several generations." The Hubbell Prize Committee commended Bercovitch for his "transformative effect on the practice of American literary scholarship." The citation for the Bode-Pearson Prize of the American Studies Association commended Bercovitch as "the key figure in the ideological turn of American literary study and the galvanizing source of its interdiscilpinary practice."
Bercovitch has held fellowships in residence at the Yale Center for American Studies; the Center for Advanced Study in the Social and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the American Antiquarian Society, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Huntington Library; he has won fellowships and grants from the Ford Foundation, the John Carter Brown Library, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities; he has represented the Fulbright Scholar Program in Europe (Prague, Moscow, Warsaw, Coimbra. Portugal, and elsewhere) and has been a distinguished lecturer and keynote speaker at countless universities, colleges, and conferences throughout the world; he has served on a wide array of professional advisory boards, editorial boards, fellowship panels and committees; and he has won awards for both teaching and scholarship, among them the Brandeis Award for Excellency in Teaching (1967), the Cabot Award for Achievement in the Humanities (1991), and the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Languages Association for the best scholarly book (1992). He has served as President of the American Studies Association (1982—1984), and in 1986 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Modern Languages Association (2002,2004) and from the American Studies Association (2007). In recent years he has returned to his early interests in Jewish Studies (he has translated Sholom Aleichem and other Yiddish writers) and received an Emeritus Professor Grant from the Mellon Foundation for a project on “The Ashkenazi Renaissance, 1880-1940."
Bercovitch has been a popular teacher on both the undergraduate and the graduate levels; his students now occupy prominent positions at universities and colleges from Yale to UCLA, and from Beijing to Oxford, Tel Aviv, and Rome. One former student, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written of his "enormous talents as a teacher" that Bercovitch conveyed the ways in which "the same resources of language that transmit ideology also carry the capacity to 'break free' from preexisting ideas and to open new thresholds of aesthetic experience and understanding" In a more general tribute, another former student, now professor at UCLA, stated:
"The example of scholarly rigor, searching curiosity, and untendentious inquiry that Bercovitch has presented has been widely influential, nowhere more clearly than in the work of the many graduate students he has supervised over the years. On the occasion of his retirement, Harvard University hosted a conference in his honor, featuring as speakers a selection of his doctoral students from Columbia and Harvard. “The Next Turn in American Literary and Cultural Studies,” as the conference was called, was notable for many reasons, but perhaps most conspicuously for the variety and distinction of the scholarly and critical work Bercovitch has sponsored: while there have been mechanically Bercovitchean essays and books published in the wake of his own, Bercovitch’s students have learned precisely not to mimic his work but to reproduce, as well as they can, his independence of mind and unpredictability of argument. It is this outcome that honors him most truly."
The Puritan Origins of the American Self, 1975: Yale University Press, New Haven and London; Second Printing, 1976; Paperback edition, 1977. ISBN 0300021178
The American Jeremiad, 1978: University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. Paperback edition, 1980; 2nd edition, 1989. ISBN 0299073548
The Office of "The Scarlet Letter", 1991: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Paperback edition, 1993. ISBN 080184584X
The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America, 1993: Routledge, New York and London, Paperback edition, 1993. Chinese translation, 2005. ISBN 0415900158
Typology and Early American Literature, 1972: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. Introduction, pp. 5—10; bibliography, pp. 124—246
The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation, 1974: Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge. Introduction and Bibliography, pp. 1—16, 212-216. Reprinted, 2004. ISBN 0521098416
Reconstructing American Literary History (Harvard English Studies, vol. 13), 1986: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Introduction, pp. ix-xii ISBN 0735102287
Ideology and Classic American Literature (with Myra Jehlen), 1986: Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge. Afterword, pp. 418—447.
Cambridge History of American Literature, 8 vols, 1986-2004: Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge; Chinese translation, 2007.
Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings, 1997: Library of America, New York. Selection and Chronology, pp. 807—812. ISBN 1883011280
Chapters/sections of books
"Romance and Anti Romance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," in Critical Studies of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", ed. Donald R. Howard and C.K. Zoker, 1968: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, pp. 257—266.
"The Ideological Context of the American Renaissance," in Forms and Functions of History in American Literature, ed. Willi Paul Adams, Winfried Fluck, and Jorgen Peper, 1981: Berlin, pp. - 20.
"The Biblical Basis of the American Myth," in The Bible and American Arts and Letters, ed. Giles Gunn, 1983: Fortress Press, Philadelphia, pp. 219—229
"A Literary Approach to Cultural Studies," in Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Marjorie Garber, Paul B. Franklin, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, 1996: Routledge, pp. 247—256.
“Games of Chess: A Model of Literary and Cultural Studies,” in Centuries Ends, Narrative Means, ed. Robert Newman, 1996: Stanford University Press, pp. 15—58, 319-329.
“The Function of the Literary in a Time of Cultural Studies,” in “Culture” and the Problem of the Disciplines, ed. John Carlos Rowe, 1998: Columbia University Press, pp. 69—87