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A Celestial Time in the City of Destruction: Hugh Nissenson’s The Pilgrim

Perhaps if you have been reading my offerings over the last couple of months, you have come to believe that I can find John Bunyan and The Pilgrim’s Progress in just about anything I read. Perhaps I am a bit too quick to spot the Bunyanisms of this world, but in Hugh Nissenson’s 2011 novel, The Pilgrim, the connections seem too apparent to ignore. Even if we ignore the title of this book, the time period in which it is set, the early 17th century; the religious milieu, English separatists; and the long-suffering protagonist all evoke images of Bunyan’s Christian, while at the same time reminding the reading of Bunyan’s autobiography, Grace Abounding the Chief of Sinners.

Even had he not created an admirable work of fiction, Nissenson should be applauded for the depth of understanding that he manages as he inhabits the minds of several members of a 400-year-old religious sect. He seems to grasp the theology, warts and all, that animated English Protestantism in the early Stuart years, and he places that theology in the minds of earnest but flawed vessels who accept it, pervert it, misunderstand it, ignore it, and live it at turns. I’m reminded, by way of contrast, of Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, in which the limits of the author’s comprehension of her characters’ religious background were quite apparent in several places. To grasp a religious community of which one is not a part is no simple feat. Kingsolver stumbled in attempting to convey a fifty-year-old religious group, while Nissenson seems pitch perfect in reaching back eight times as far.

As the book’s narrator, Charles Wentworth, travels from triumph and tragedy in England to a grasp for new hope in New England, one can hear the oft-trod historical narrative of a supposed paradise turning out to be purgatory or worse beginning to work itself out. Indeed, as any one who knows anything of the the Plymouth Plantation can attest, life there tested the faith of the most zealous. Wentworth finds himself in a second settlement, some twenty miles from Plymouth, and things very quickly begin to unravel for him and his companions. As the story nears its end, Wentworth has checked off virtually all of the Ten Commandments and feels himself, after killing an Indian, sure to be damned. At the same time, those around him have seen their dreams of glory tempered or dashed. The historical Mayflower leader William Brewster utters significant words toward the end of the book.

Brewster said, “Alas, my dream of creating an apostolic community of equals in New England was not to be. I should have known. We are all fallen. Even the Elect amongst us are fallen. We look only to enrich ourselves. You have seen my big house. My fellow Saints built it for me and my family. I accepted it without demur. I who once dreamed of rebuilding an antique Christian commonwealth in New Plymouth.”

But then the strangest thing happens. After bringing back to Plymouth the head of an Indian leader–a head he has severed from the corpse with a saber–Wentworth receives a dose of grace. Having believed in the Reformed theology of his teachers throughout his life, Wentworth finally achieves the sense of assurance that played such a significant role in Puritan religious life. Like John Bunyan, Wentworth, the “chief of all sinners,” experiences what he takes to be redeeming grace. Almost literally, Nissenson finishes his novel with a Deus ex machina, yet, given the care with which he has placed his story into its context, nothing else would seem quite right.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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