Jonathan Beecher Field, SEA member and Professor at Clemson University, reflects on recent controversies and his research on monuments to New England Puritans.
For better or worse, these are exciting times to be an early Americanist. In a national moment of enormous contentions over almost everything, including the meaning of our past, I have felt fortunate not only to have some knowledge of our past, but also the history of how we remember that past. In recent months, one of the flashpoints for these struggles have been statues honoring Confederate soldiers. These contentions provoked the murder of a protester, Heather Hyer, by a white nationalist in Charlottesville, and have prompted clashes between protesters and counterprotesters wherever these Confederate statues are.
One of the dangers of this focus on Confederate statues is that it can occlude the ideological work that other statues can do. As it happens, I’d done research on statues of Puritan-era figures in Boston for an essay collection edited by Bryce Traister – American Literature and the New Puritan Studies, out now from Cambridge. The book includes essays by several other SEA members, and the gist of my argument is that there are surprisingly few statues of Puritan founders in Boston, and surprisingly many of their antagonists like Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, but that after the Civil War, statues of a generic Puritan figure popped up nationwide because the Puritan represented a cohesive (and white) national point of origin.
More recently I had the opportunity to present a condensed version of that argument in the Boston Review. My intent there, particularly, was to suggest that it is a mistake to think of Confederate statues as a problem that needs addressing, while ignoring the complicated racial ideologies at play in just about every statue in the United States. To cite only one example, the statue of Leif Erickson in the Fenway in Boston is a byproduct of a Harvard chemistry professor’s effort to take credit for “discovering” America away from the swarthy, Mediterranean Columbus, and give it to the blonde and blue-eyed Erickson. These are challenging times, and I think that early Americanists can rise to that challenge by working harder to hold our narratives of the past to a stricter account.