Opinion » John Rember

The Puritan Impulse

Another creative writing lesson


Norman Maclean begins A River Runs through It with, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Reading that sentence, I decided Maclean needed an excuse to skip church and go fishing. That's not fair to Maclean, who demonstrates that fishing does indeed have its angels and demons, its Cain and its Abel, its heaven and hell, all of them located in Montana.

In my family, fishing was less metaphorical. Before the dams killed the runs in the Salmon River, my father guided salmon fishermen and approached fishing as a job. I also took on fishing as work, on a gill-netter in Alaska, catching more salmon in one short summer than my father had in his guiding career. If there's religion in fishing, I had it sucked out of me that summer on Bristol Bay when I pulled thousands of dead fish out of our nets and sold them to ships that were giant floating canneries.

But Maclean did write a book about heaven and hell disguised as a book about fishing. He got a wide audience, even among people who didn't consider themselves religious, even among people who saw a fish as something to eat or sell.

Organized religion has done a lot to harness our need for the divine to less-than-virtuous social and political ends. So when a writer like Maclean comes along and shows us what looks like a new, if narrow, path toward salvation, even if involves torturing fish, a lot of folks will take it.

I've just spent a sunny morning reading Jonathan Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The day is still sunny but no longer bright, and I've realized I might be inoculated against fly fishing but not against guilt. I'll leave it to Edwards to explain why:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

Not pleasant stuff, even without semicolons. This sermon and similar ones caused some of Edwards' congregation, including his uncle, to kill themselves, probably on Saturdays.

Edwards still is with us, even if we're contemporary secular Americans. If nothing else, his theology reminds us that fear and zealotry and hierarchy have formed the gray skeleton of civic life in this country. Dour and orthodox old men have sent young men and women off to war, have devised new and better ways of keeping poor people poor, and have taken their prosperity and power as evidence that they are but the agents of a vengeful god. We call ourselves a Christian country, but the Old Testament is alive and well in our social blueprint.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God detonates a shock of recognition, even if our most common reaction is to reject what he says and go out in the sunshine for a breath of guiltless fresh air. Of course, if you do, you risk running into Norman Maclean and his catalog of deadly fly-fishing sins.

At first glance Edwards and Maclean are much different writers, but they both see life as a spiritual journey, and the pitfalls along the way are many and deep. Both worship an unforgiving and hostile god. Both describe hell with enthusiasm and love.

It's tempting to see Edwards and Maclean as outliers in the pantheon of American authors, but they're mainstream, centered in a conversation that has gone on for some time. Try finding a great American novel that isn't about sin and the impossibility of redemption. You can start with the first page of The Great Gatsby.

You may not want to write as a Puritan, but remember that no one who writes escapes literary tradition. A good portion of your audience has been educated to see things the Puritan way. Ignore that education at your peril, whether you're writing scripts for YouTube or stories about urban hipsters or a novel about alien ships that show up one morning a mile over the Empire State Building. At some level, your readers will be reading to see if your characters are damned to a well-imagined hell.

It sounds unfair and reductive and anti-art, but when you attempt to add to American literature, you should be aware of your religious roots. You won't escape them. Jung, who has his own problems with Puritanism, says the unconscious is indistinguishable from fate, and that to act out of free will—to do something new—you have to know the arena you're playing in.

American writers in particular need to be conscious of the Long Puritanical Shadow. Otherwise, Jonathan Edwards—dead for centuries—will begin to stir and shuffle between your lines, and you won't even know it. If you're going to be a moralist, it's best to be a conscious one.

For me, there is no clear line between religion and writing, but at times I try to escape the moralistic portion of my cultural birthright. It frees me to notice the bright beauty of the world—however briefly and precariously—and with luck and with a painful grace, to put some of that beauty on the page.