Paper presented to the Department of English, University of Bristol, June 1999


Allegory in America: From Puritanism to Postcolonialism

Deborah L. Madsen




The title I have given my talk today echoes the title of my 1996 book, but by substituting the term “postcolonialism” for “postmodernism” this title indicates the direction in which my research interests have developed in the intervening years.

Allegorical Discourses

Theories of allegory: fable versus typology

My early work on allegory was concerned with distinguishing the variety of allegorical styles and relating this diversity to the historical conditions that produced them. I was especially concerned with the difference between the allegorical style preferred by classical Greek and Roman writers as opposed to the style preferred by Christian writers. The first, classical style, conforms to the definition of the fable, where a one-to-one correspondence is established between an image and its referent, the literal and symbolic levels of meaning. It appears to me that this rhetorical form arises out of a polytheistic culture, where the deities that comprise the pantheon explicitly “stand for” some aspect of the human world – love, war, the seasons, astral bodies, etc. Personification exemplifies this process, where say the female figure named Columbia signifies the unity of the American nation. Many things can be said about this, but let me limit myself to the observation that this form of the fable is a static means of representation, admirably well-suited to the  tableau but poorly suited to the dynamic structure of narrative. And it was a dynamic puzzle of this sort that faced early Christian interpreters of Scripture, who needed to develop a meaningful relationship between the Old and New Testaments. This they did by identifying in scripture a divine pattern of promise or prefigurement and fulfilment, which tied together the two texts within an unfolding narrative of sacred history. For example, the OT image of Moses leading his people out of bondage into the promised land of Canaan prefigures Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and the release of souls from the bondage of sin, recorded in the NT. So the allegorical or secondary meaning of the OT is Christ’s actions and the covenant of grace He represents, which is the subject of the NT. Together, the two sacred texts represent stages in God’s providential history. Providence is the force guiding human history towards a pre-ordained future and the Bible is the text that, properly (ie allegorically) interpreted, instructs human readers in God’s divine intention. This style of allegorical interpretation is named typology, in reference to the imagistic “types” that are identified in the OT and the answering “antitypes” that fulfil the promise of OT images in the NT. This style of interpretation was extended in response to the question: if OT images foreshadow events recorded in the NT, then what do NT images prefigure? (given that providential history has not yet come to an end?) Different answers were proposed: in patristic terms, the spiritual meaning of OT events is Christ and the spiritual meaning of Christ’s deeds is the Church through which salvation is mediated. For Protestant exegetes, however, the response was complicated by the emphasis upon the individual’s understanding of the workings of grace. A mystical relationship links the individual soul and scripture; in the sacred text one can find a guide to Christ and an indication of whether one is saved or damned but scripture cannot offer certitude in the matter of election or damnation. The Bible is then interpreted in Protestant terms for signs of God’s favour or displeasure and in Puritan diaries, sermons, histories and (spiritual) autobiographies every life event is checked against biblical images for conformity to the rhetorical type/antitype pattern.

Allegory in America

American exceptionalism

Puritan migrants to the New World took this practice of typological interpretation and applied it to the historical significance of their colonizing endeavours. In answer to the question about the spiritual meaning of NT images, New England Puritans saw their own journey from Old World persecution to the promised land of America as fulfilling the series of biblical parallels between Moses leading his people out of Egypt and Christ leading the souls out of Hell; John Winthrop, the leader of the Arbella fleet in 1630 is explicitly likened to a modern day Moses (by Cotton Mather in his Magnalia Christi Americana). Confronted with the mystery of the New World and the hostility of its landscape, the Puritan colonists of the first generation had recourse to allegorical interpretation, specifically typology. These colonists inherited the practice of typological interpretation from the Tudor culture they left behind. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Acts and Monuments of the Church, 1559) and the interpretation of the Elizabethan Settlement inscribed there provided the terms for the interpretation of political history as the fulfilment of the divine will operating through sacred or providential history. The New England Puritans interpreted their mission as a sacred calling out of the spiritual bondage of Europe and into the New Canaan of America where this “saving remnant” of God’s imperfectly reformed European Church would complete the work of the Reformation by establishing a purified and perfectly reformed Church to stand as an example to all the churches of the world. They would found a community that would be what Winthrop called “a citie upon a hill”, a model to the whole world, a redeemer nation capable of saving all the peoples of the earth from their unredeemed selves. This is the origin of the mythology of American exceptionalism, the notion that the American nation is possessed of an exceptional spiritual destiny which is the salvation of all humanity.

           The early settlers interpreted their trials as signs of God’s “merciful chastisement” of His chosen people. Starvation, Indian attack, disease and internecine conflict all symbolized God’s concern for their spiritual welfare and for the success of their mission. Hardship was God’s means of warning the community of the dangers of complacency as well as of “backsliding”, moving away from instead of towards their exceptional destiny. The concept of “punitive typology”, typology used as punishment and threat, informs the popular genre of the captivity narrative in powerful ways. Perhaps the best known of these narratives is Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (published 1682, describing her abduction and ransom in 1676). Mrs Rowlandson interprets her experience as punishment for her neglect of religion. She interprets her ordeal in relation to the images she finds in the Bible she carries with her and this interpretative effort brings her to an awareness of her special spiritual destiny, as she renounces her earlier selfish and complacent ways and surrenders herself to the knowledge of God’s absolute power and sovereignty. Her physical redemption thus comes to mirror her spiritual redemption and her eventual restoration to the community of the elect in Boston prefigures the future destiny of her soul among the saints of heaven. Further, Mrs Rowlandson claims for her experience an exemplary significance as an indication of the special destiny reserved for God’s chosen people of New England. Her liberation from suffering, her rescue from the moral and geographical wilderness prefigures, in her account, the future liberation of the community of saints from the bondage of worldly sin into the freedom of heavenly bliss.

           Mary Rowlandson an other women like her – Hannah Swarton and Hannah Dustan, for example – who were otherwise denied a public voice found a voice in the genre of the captivity narrative. It was a compromised voice, and Mrs Rowlandson’s narrative included in the first editions a sermon by her husband as if to legitimate her story, but still allegory provided a means by which the otherwise silenced and marginalized subject could articulate her sense of her role within the exceptional destiny of the New World.

Counter Allegories

Ethnic writing

Other marginalized groups have also found in allegory a potent force for the expression of their position within American culture. In this regard, Gayatri Spivak’s concept of the subaltern as one who has been “written out” of history, whose story cannot be told within the parameters of official history, is very powerful. Exceptionalism, as I have described it, constitutes the grand narrative of American cultural formation. Women such as Mary Rowlandson were excluded from the narrative of national formation by reason of their gender but they were included by reason of their elite position within the Massachusetts colony. Those who were the subject of this New World colonizing effort, the colonized themselves, find that their position simply cannot be articulated within the terms of exceptionalist rhetoric. Exceptionalism erases from the historical record the indigenous voice of the colonized New World subject. The adoption of exceptionalist rhetoric as a strategy for “writing back” against this erasure is, therefore, a powerful decolonizing gesture.

The erasure of indigenous Indian subjects took a very literal form as the mythology of the “Vanishing American”, who simply could not live with the modern democratic civilization that America was divinely fated to bring to the wilderness of the New World. This mythology served to resolve the otherwise irresolvable tension between European claims to the land and the prior claims of native people. Within the terms of this mythology, which was itself informed by exceptionalist principles, native Americans faced a choice between physical extinction and cultural extinction, assimilation or death.  James Welch’s novel Fools Crow (1986) uses the typological rhetoric of exceptionalism to contest the myth of the Vanishing American. The narrative is set in the 1870s among the Pikuni (Blackfeet) tribe and deals with tribal responses to the increasingly dominant presence of “Napikwans” or whites. The protagonist, Fool’s Crow, is summoned in a dream by a powerful spirit to make a ritual journey for the good of his people. He is led to the sacred Feather Woman who reveals to him the future of his people. In her drawings he sees the complete absence of the game upon which the tribe relies for food and clothing; he sees his people starving, their corpses piled up unburied, he sees the people ravaged by disease, and he sees the children standing miserably in a Napikwan schoolground fenced with barbed wire. Fools Crow understands then the prefigured extinction of his people, through starvation, disease and acculturation or deracination. This grim promise is fulfilled by the massacre he encounters, at the end of the narrative. As he uncovers the charred bodies of women and children he also finds a few survivors who are so traumatized by the horror of what they have experienced that they no longer want to live in a world where such atrocities occur. But Fools Crow in a decisive reversal of the logic of American exceptionalism will not allow them to entertain an image of themselves as vanishing Americans; he recalls the rhetorical promise represented by Feather Woman’s drawings and insists that his people become agents of their own history and take charge of their own future destiny by defining how this promise will be answered.

Exceptionalist rhetoric was also used  to represent arguments for Native resistance by the Senecan Indian Handsome Lake, who experienced a sequence of visions in 1799. The vocabulary and iconography of American cultural mythology are used to reverse the power of the exceptionalist myth in the vision since known as “How America Was Discovered” (c.1799). Here, it is the devil, not God, who sends European settlers to the New World. A young man confides to Columbus the prophecy he has received of great wealth that is to be found in a land far across the ocean. The narrative concludes by identifying the agent of the vision as the devil who has used Columbus to unleash the power of greed and to corrupt the innocent and idyllic native community of the New World. Handsome Lake articulates a clear counter-mythology to explain the European invasion; he uses the apocalyptic notion of the New World mission to rewrite the mythology of American exceptionalism as the work of the Devil rather than God’s salvation history; exceptionalism in his terms is a narrative of persecution unleashed, not persecution escaped. Handsome Lake’s narrative is a powerful “counter-discourse” that deliberately inserts the colonized subject as the agent of the historical narrative. He uses the colonizer’s language to expose and condemn unjust imperialistic practices.

The annexation of ceded Mexican lands, in the wake of the Mexican-US War, provided the occasion for exceptionalist Hispanic counter-discourses. One of the lengthiest indictments of the hypocrisy of American exceptionalist idealism is María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872). The story concerns an established New England family, the Norvals, which is disrupted by the arrival of a wealthy dark-skinned young girl, María Dolores (Lola) Medina. The attempts by the family to appropriate the Hispanic girl’s inheritance functions offers a parallel with the US annexation of Mexico’s land and mineral wealth. Lola’s wealth and her racial profile together produce the complications of the plot as Ruiz de Burton sets out a damning critique of American imperialism. The mythology of American exceptionalism and its accompanying doctrine of manifest destiny is then seen to feed on ignorance, hypocrisy, self-deception, but above all greed rather than the noble motives of spreading democratic civilization and devotion to a divine imperative; the sacred mission enshrined in exceptionalist rhetoric is exposed as a sham in texts like Who Would Have Thought It?.

Allegory and the Subaltern Voice

Counter-discourses such as Ruiz de Burton’s, Handsome Lake’s, James Welch’s demonstrate the capacity of American allegory both to represent and to subvert the notion of American exceptionalism. The same rhetorical devices can be used for opposed thematic purposes. An explanation for this doubleness in allegorical expression is offered by the post-structuralist account of the ambivalence that lies at the heart of representation itself and allegory in particular.

Allegory and post-structuralism

Post-structuralist analyses of allegory are located within the symbolism versus allegory debate, the object of which is primarily Romantic poetry. Against the Romantic claim to make present in literature an epiphanic moment when subject and object, language and meaning become one, post-structuralist critics, following the work of Paul de Man, point to the incommensurability of language and thought or spirit or reality. Mimetic representation then is impossible; words cannot make present the material reality they signify and what happens in literary texts that attempt representation is the enactment of the failure of language to represent. And this rhetorical failure is what de Man calls allegory. As soon as thought enters language it ceases to be pure consciousness and becomes subject to the constraints of grammar; this is what de Man means when he writes that allegories are "allegories of the most distinctively linguistic (as opposed to phenomenal) of categories, namely grammar." Gayatri Spivak follows de Man in assuming allegory is not a narrative style or genre but a tendency within all language, that allegory in fact reveals the true nature of linguistic functionality. Allegory resides in the reading process, which attempts to overcome the alienated relationship between sign and referent. This double structure of referentiality is realized in the interpretative activity of transforming signifiers into signifieds, which allegory does not attempt to conceal. The contingent relationship between language and reference then opens a space for the articulation of what Spivak calls subaltern voices, voices that are written out of the colonizer’s language but which can intervene in the space opened by the failure of language to achieve referential closure.

Postcolonial Allegory

Let me conclude then with a few remarks about the role of allegory in an area where Spivak herself has become a dominant voice: postcolonial theory. The indeterminacy at the heart of allegorical reference, the capacity of allegorical rhetoric to signify several things, is used by subaltern subjects like Handsome Lake and Maria Ruiz de Burton to unanchor the colonizer’s rhetoric from the mythology of American exceptionalism and turn that rhetoric against itself, to enact a subversion of the very mythology it should represent. Because allegory is indeterminate in this way, allegorical narratives have recourse to privileged texts (in Western tradition the Bible) that will constrain the signifying potential of the rhetoric to a single authoritative meaning. We see this in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative where her Bible provides the terms for interpreting every event that befalls her. The allegorical rhetoric of American exceptionalism characteristically invokes the power of sacred history, inscribed in Scripture, to limit its potential for meaning. Writers like Ruiz de Burton and James Welch disrupt the relationship between the American national mythology and its invocation of providential history by introducing a distinct historical discourse – the historical narrative of invasion and colonization. Post-colonial writers, in this way, use the ambivalence of allegory to create a space for subaltern voices within the privileged discourse of US imperialism.



The point I hope I have made, in this thumb-nail sketch of allegory in America is that the history of American allegory is in important ways a history of America as a concept, both on its own national terms and in terms of the emergence of the New World out of the Old World culture of Europe.