Pilgrims, Puritans, and popular culture : performing citizenship in the 20th century national imaginary




Guenther, Amy Kathleen

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Pilgrims, Puritans, and Popular Culture argues that representations of the Puritans in the twentieth century were most often used to negotiate national identity in terms of hegemonic whiteness at moments when the idealized citizen as white, Protestant, heterosexual, and male was in crisis. Whether represented as proto-Americans or moralizing killjoys, they embodied the US’s national origin story and helped to define what citizenship meant in the twentieth century. Using performance as both the object of study and methodological lens, I demonstrate how national identity and citizenship are performed through actual bodies on stage playing Puritans. I organize my analyses around three common Puritan narratives adapted into stage performances: the First Thanksgiving, the Salem witch trials, and The Scarlet Letter. My examination of these texts focuses on what I call Puritan formations, an extension of sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s (2015) concept of racial formations. Using archival documents such as scripts, performance reviews, and programs, I theorize how a constructed historical memory can be embodied in and imposed upon present bodies. The introduction provides a brief overview of how Puritan formations began to function in the nineteenth century. As I argue, the traits twentieth-century citizens often criticized the Puritans for harken back to a nineteenth-century search for a unified national identity more so than the archive of the Puritans. Chapter one examines the early twentieth-century practice of using Thanksgiving plays in public schools to teach US history and assimilate Southern and Eastern European immigrant children into a unified (white) national identity. The next chapter continues through the mid-twentieth century with an analysis of Arthur Miller’s racial and performative adaptation of Tituba in The Crucible (1953). The third chapter concludes the twentieth century with an analysis of Phyllis Nagy’s 1994 feminist stage adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, comparing the play’s production context to Hawthorne’s. To conclude, I begin to consider what the use of a Puritan past might mean in the twenty-first century. Throughout, I suggest that tensions in Puritan formations reflect the tensions of remembering a national past steeped in settler colonialism, slavery, assimilation, and democracy.


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