- Historic Sites
The Garden Of Eden And The Deacon’s Meadow
To early Americans the Old Testament and its scenes, even its speech and names, were as familiar as their own backyard
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
Therefore the survival into the early Nineteenth Century of such a recalcitrant Hebraism as these “primitives” exhibit is to be found mainly in older settlements where pastoral conditions still reinforced the analogy with Israel, or where the more complex (and conservative) theology of pristine Calvinism resisted the emotionalism of the frontier and the city. Mrs. Stowe was herself one who moved with the century further and further from the intellectuality of her heritage. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was effective because it spoke the language of revived pietism, and Uncle Tom was made a sentimentalized Christ-figure, not an Israelite in bondage. Oldtown Folks is in part a bitter attack upon what she called the “tragedy” of New England life: this, she says, consisted of a “constant wrestling of thought with infinite problems which could not be avoided, and which saddened the days of almost every one who grew up under it.” Yet at the same time she looked back with an irresistible nostalgia to a grandeur that had, with the softening of doctrine, been lost. And the heart of this magnificence, she explicitly realized, had been that people then lived in constant face-to-face intimacy with Hebrew literature. The dramas of the Old Testament were their own dramas, the ordeals were theirs and the triumphs.
Just as a child brought up under the shadow of a cathedral, Mrs. Stowe mused, would have his mind stocked with legends of saints and angels which he could not understand, “so this wonderful old cathedral book insensibly wrought a sort of mystical poetry into the otherwise hard and sterile life of New England.” She was undoubtedly speaking out of her own experience when she had her hero remark that, “although in details relating to human crime and vice, the Old Bible is the most plain-spoken book conceivable, it never violated the chastity of a child’s mind, or stimulated an improper curiosity.” To her dismay, she says through her alias, she was in later years astonished to learn the real meaning of passages she had formerly listened to “with innocent gravity.” (Innocent gravity may well stand as expressing the essential charm of the illustrations for this article.) Harriet thus reveals, as no social historian can, why the colonial acceptance of the Old Testament gave way, however reluctantly, to the pragmatic pietism of the revival: she and her generation could no longer stand up to the violence in the Old Testament which their grandparents had taken in stride, not as pertaining to the record of a distant and exotic people in Palestine, but as the axiomatic premise of their own existence.
Indeed, as Harriet continues, she casts more and more light onto the world out of which these paintings came, a civilization that was steadily being transformed during her lifetime and that she could describe in 1869 as utterly vanished. The hero remarks that his grandfather’s prayers were completely Hebraistic: “They spoke of Zion and Jerusalem, of the God of Israel, the God of Jacob, as much as if my grandfather had been a veritable Jew; and except for the closing phrase, ‘for the sake of thy Son, our Saviour,’ might all have been uttered in Palestine by a well-trained Jew in the time of David.”
Henry Adams, searching at the beginning of The Education to indicate how remote the time in which he wrote was from the world into which, in 1838, he had been born, instinctively compared his status as an Adams to that of one “born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen.” Just that real, just that tangible, just that comprehensible had the Old Testament been to the primitive American mind. Though the mood of the culture has undergone many changes since then, and no doubt will move even further from the original, still the stamp of this long period of Hebraistic imagination will always be impressed upon it. This is part of our submerged memory; from day to day we ignore it, until suddenly we are confronted with such crude but eloquent tableaux as are here reproduced, and before them, to our astonishment, we recognize our own forgotten selves.