Perry Miller was a complicated person. He was a teacher, writer, reader, literary scholar, O.S.S. officer, world-traveler, messy-eater, social critic, academic, alcoholic, atheist, spiritualist, philosopher, and, of course, historian. Was he the Father of American Intellectual history? I suppose there are a number of mid-century historians who might deserve that title, if it’s a valuable title at all, which is questionable. Regardless, Miller’s thought, if taken seriously and explored in all its delightful complexity, still retains untapped potential to inspire new modes of inquiry and writing in U.S. Intellectual history. Here is a brief (re)introduction to Miller as most of us first encountered him: historian of New England Puritanism.
By his own account, Perry Miller’s interest in the Puritans began when he was a student of literature at the University of Chicago in the late 1920s, after an accidental encounter and instant fascination with John Winthrop’s journal.1 Miller’s description of the incident resembles Hawthorne’s “discovery” of the scarlet letter in a custom-house, except that Miller’s fascination was with an idea rather than an object. But Miller found himself in an intellectual environment decidedly hostile to the study of ideas and even more hostile to the Puritans themselves. Progressive historians, most notably Charles Beard and Carl Becker, argued that material concerns, not ideological imperatives, were the motivating forces of history; ideology was merely a fig-leaf for these base motives. Furthermore, due to their unrelenting belief in progress, these historians viewed the Puritans– conservative even for the seventeenth century– as the enemy. Puritanism, social critic H. L. Mencken satirized, was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” In this context, Perry Miller began his life-long argument that Puritan ideology should be taken seriously.
Perhaps in response to this hostile environment, perhaps because it was his nature, or perhaps not wanting to be out-done by H. L. Mencken, Miller’s writings contain sardonic denunciations of the value of the history of the material. “I am fully conscious that . . . I have treated in a somewhat cavalier fashion certain of the most cherished conventions of current historiography,” he wrote in the introduction to his first book, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, published in 1933. “I lay myself open,” he continued sarcastically, “to the charge of being so very naïve as to believe that the way men think has some influence upon their actions, of not remembering that these ways of thinking have been officially decided by modern psychologists to be just so many rationalizations.”2 In 1961, in a new preface to The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, he again denounced the value of social history in the same cantankerous fashion, writing that after he once remarked ironically that the history of Puritan thought seemed to some historians “as much written by the actions of men of business as by theologians,” he was “soon appalled by the eagerness with which . . . reviewer[s] seized upon this . . . as a welcome release from the burden of ideas which my treatment had imposed upon them.”3 The most generous sentiment Miller could muster for the history of the material in this preface was his concession that “trade routes, currency, property, agriculture, town government and military tactics . . . indeed require an exercise of a faculty which in ordinary parlance may be called intelligence.”4
Based partly on these remarks, historians have built a false characterization of Miller, greatly limiting their understanding of his contributions to the study of history. Historians treat Miller as a foil. They inaccurately accuse him of believing that the realm of thought takes places completely removed from environmental influences, of stressing intellect at the expense of the emotional and irrational, and of portraying Puritan thought as static and one-dimensional. While Miller’s belittling comments about social history share some blame for this misrepresentation, even a cursory reading of his texts reveals that those comments do not begin to tell half the story. In reality, the constant theme throughout all of Miller’s works is the infinite complexity of the relationship of ideas to environment, of reason to emotion, and, above all, the intricacies of Puritan thought itself. Revisionists, in accusing Miller of ignoring nuance, have themselves ignored the nuance in Miller’s work, a better understanding of which can provide valuable insight into his philosophy of history.
The central tension that underlies all of Miller’s works and informs his theory of history is the complex relationship between the ideal and the material, or, as he understood it, the Puritans’ “errand” and their “wilderness.” Despite his sardonic comments about the material, Miller did appreciate the role of environmental factors in shaping history. The Puritans, he admitted in the first volume of The New England Mind, “took up many ideas not so much for theological as for social and economic reasons.”5 Even in his first book, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, he understood that “the hope of material advantage played a tremendous part in tempting people to colonial shores and shaping their life in the new scene.”6 Twenty years later, in the second volume of The New England Mind, he made the materialist argument that “the covenant had accurately described reality for John Winthrop . . . but now reality– all the complex, jostling reality of this anxious society– demanded new descriptions. Ideas relative to these facts had to be propounded.”7
Miller understood that the “wilderness”–environmental factors– shaped the Puritan’s “errand”– their sense of purpose, their ethos– just as much as their ideas helped shape their reality. “A basic conditioning factor was the frontier– the wilderness,” wrote Miller in Errand into the Wilderness. “Even so,” he argued, “the achievement of a personality is not so much the presence of this or that environmental element . . . as the way in which a given personality responds.”8 In other words, when Miller claimed that “the mind of man is the basic factor in human history,” he was not suggesting that ideas constituted the driving force in history, but rather that any meaningful history must be a record of what the human mind did.8 “To concentrate upon what the mind made of events rather than upon the events themselves,” Miller argued in the second volume of The New England Mind, was to address the central questions of history.9 Thus, for Miller, the driving force in history was neither ideas nor environment alone, but the tension between the two, though the real substance of the story was the way in which the mind responded to this tension.
In acknowledging the importance of the environment yet vigorously maintaining an essential place for the human mind, Miller participated in a similar exercise as his Puritan subjects. “They were struggling to extricate man from the relentless primordial mechanism . . . to set him upon his own feet, to endow him with a knowledge of utility and purpose . . . so that he might rationally choose and not be driven from pillar to post by fate or circumstance,” Miller explained passionately.10 He, too, in writing about the Puritan experience, struggled “to extricate man from the relentless primordial mechanism” and, while conceding the influence of that mechanism, carve out a significant role for human freedom.
Within the realm of ideas, Miller identified a tension with which the Puritans also struggled– the tension between reason and emotion. Historians have complained that Miller focused exclusively on organized thought at the expense of feelings and passion. Nothing could be further from the truth. As he did with ideas and the environment, Miller identified the complex relationship between reason and emotion, maintaining that thought could never be completely separated from feeling and favoring an analysis of feeling and emotion. Throughout his various works, Miller was drawn to the “Existentialist” character of Puritan thought. According to Miller, the Puritans felt profoundly alienated, from England as well as from God, and were overwhelmed with a sense of their imperfect nature and imperfect knowledge. They struggled to affirm human freedom and God’s will in the midst of what seemed to them an arbitrary and absurd world. This, for Miller, was the emotional, “real being” of Puritanism, found “not in its doctrines but behind them.”11
Just as the Puritans struggled to maintain a balance between their intellectual doctrines and their emotions, Miller struggled to deconstruct Puritan thought and reveal the complex relationship between reason and passion within it. From this endeavor he developed a philosophy of intellectual history well ahead of the historiographic trends of his time. Miller best expressed this philosophy in his discussion of Jonathan Edwards in the chapter, “The Rhetoric of Sensation,” in Errand into the Wilderness.
As a young man, Miller explained, Jonathan Edwards had read John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written in 1690. Accepting Locke’s argument that words are arbitrary constructions and therefore have no correspondence to the true nature of reality, Edwards “worked out . . . the immense distinction between knowledge of the word and knowledge of the actuality for which the word is a substitute.”12 “To excite the actual idea of certain realities” such as “the fear of God,” Miller wrote, proved a difficult problem for Edwards as a preacher trying to convey such ideas to his congregation. It is, however, an even more difficult problem for the intellectual historian, trying to understand what “the fear of God” actually meant, in emotional terms, to the Puritans. In dealing with this problem as a preacher, Edwards went far beyond Locke and “reached into a wholly other segment of psychology, the realm of the passions, and likened the word not only with the idea but also . . . with the emotions.”
This, declared Miller, was Edwards’ “great discovery . . . that an idea in the mind is not only a form of perception but is also a determination of love and hate.”13 Edwards, as preacher, and Miller, as historian, both recognized that to truly comprehend an idea required going beyond the words that symbolized it and penetrating its emotional meaning. With this understanding, Miller explained, Edwards “redefined ‘idea’.”14 “He so conceived it that it became a principle of organization and of perceptions not only for the intellectual man but for the passionate man, for the loving and desiring man, for the whole man,” wrote Miller, adding that “an emotional response is also intellectual . . . . an intellectual [response], in the highest sense, is also emotional.”15
Miller, too, “redefined ‘idea’” with this chapter in precisely the way he argued that Edwards redefined it. Miller published Errand into the Wilderness in 1956, well before the linguistic turn, yet his discussion of Edwards and the “real being” behind Puritan doctrine reveals that he understood what still eluded historians of his time: to fully understand an idea of the past, the historian must deconstruct the language which signified that idea. Historians of the 1950s had a narrow view of ideology, understanding it as inherently erroneous, a mere cover for material concerns (“Totalitarianism is ideology. Democracy of the American brand is anti-ideology,” wrote Jacques Barzun). In contrast, Miller understood ideology as the passions and emotions, the feelings of love and hate, which most accurately and meaningfully reflected the experience of his subjects. While intellectual historians in the 1950s also tended to understand ideology as doctrine consciously articulated by philosophers, Miller claimed ideology for any human with the ability to express passions and desires. Furthermore, far from separating abstract, organized thought from the emotional and irrational, Miller demonstrated that the two were inseparable and he focused on the importance of emotion.
In 1962, one year before Miller’s death, John Higham called for a new kind of history that would allow the historian “to grasp the moral tone of a particular time and place” and explore the “tangled combinations . . . of love and hate . . . pervading a career, a movement, or a period.”16 In Errand into the Wilderness, Perry Miller had already discovered, and indeed gone beyond, Higham’s new history. He explored the passions and emotions of the Puritans, the “real being” behind their religious doctrine, and strove to understand their ideas in their own terms. What remains most fascinating is that Miller developed this modern approach to history by following the lead of his seventeenth and eighteenth century subjects.
12 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, 178.
13 Miller, 179.
14 Miller, 180.
15 Miller, 180-81.
16 John Higham, “The Historian as Moral Critic,” American Historical Review, 67:3(1962), 622.