Sacvan Bercovitch, Scholar Who Traced America’s Self-Image, Dies at 81

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, Sacvan Bercovitch

Sacvan Bercovitch, a distinguished literary scholar who traced America’s self-image of “exceptionalism” to the rhetoric of the colonial Puritans of New England, died on Dec. 9 at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 81.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Susan Mizruchi, said.

In perhaps his most influential work, “The Puritan Origins of the American Self,” published in 1975, Dr. Bercovitch argued that unlike colonists in New Spain, New France or New Amsterdam, who saw their outposts as an extension of European societies, the Puritans saw New England as something new — “a city upon the hill,” as John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, described it — which would be a shining example for the rest of the world.

Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan echoed the phrase in their speeches, and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, in his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, played off the reference, accusing Reagan of overlooking the hardships of the poor. “Mr. President,” he said, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’ ”

Werner Sollors, a professor of English literature and African-American studies at Harvard, where Dr. Bercovitch taught from 1983 until he retired in 2001, called him “the last of the great American studies scholars.” ...

Read entire article at NYT

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