The Story upon a Hill: The Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction analyzes the work of several of the most important contemporary writers in the United States as reinterpreting commonplace narratives of the country’s origins with a keen eye on the effects of inclusion and exclusion that Puritan myths promote. In 1989, Ronald Reagan recalled the words of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop, who imagined the colony as a “city upon a hill” for future nations to emulate. In Reagan’s speech, Winthrop’s signature rhetoric became an emblem of American idealism, and for many Americans, the Puritans’ New England was the place where the United States forged its original identity.

But what if Winthrop never gave that speech? What if he did not even write it? Historians cannot definitively answer these questions. In fact, no group that we refer to as American Puritans thought of themselves as Puritans. Rather, they were a group of dissident Christians often better defined by their disagreements than their shared beliefs.

Literary scholars analyzing Anglo-American literary production from the seventeenth century through the present, historians, and readers interested in how ideas about Christianity circulate in popular culture will find fascinating the ways in which William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and Marilynne Robinson repurpose so-called Puritan forms of expression to forge a new narrative of New England’s Congregationalist legacy in American letters. Works by Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison, and others are also considered. The Story upon a Hill raises a provocative question: if the Puritans never existed as we understand them, what might American history look like in that context?

Christopher Leise
is an associate professor of English at Whitman College and the coeditor of Pynchon’s “Against the Day”: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide and William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays.

“I know of no other critic who could bring together in this fashion the theologies of early New England and contemporary novels.”
—Kathryn Hume, author of Pynchon’s Mythography: An Approach to “Gravity’s Rainbow” and American Dream, American Nightmare: Fiction since 1960

The Story upon a Hill takes up a satisfyingly broad and representative range of postmodern texts—literary, religious, and political—that echo, reframe, or critique both the American Northeast’s original Eurocentric religiosity and its intermediate literary interpreters from the captivity narratives to Hawthorne and beyond. Christopher Leise pays proper attention to the ways in which this heritage has elbowed aside other regions and other creeds that have figured in the evolution of Americanness. This is an impressive and highly readable piece of scholarship.”
—David Cowart, author of Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period and Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History

224 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1947-2 Cloth
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9123-2 Ebook