"By birth more noble than those creatures all,
Yet seems by nature and by custom cursed,
No sooner born, but grief and care makes fall
That state obliterate he had at first..."
---Anne Bradstreet, "Contemplations"
This book is Round's attempt at providing an explanation of Bradstreet's words "by nature and by custom cursed" and how it is an essential concept in the understanding of 17th century New England culture.
I found the most useful and interesting information in the Introduction. Round states that the book is not a book about Puritanism, but rather a book involving Puritans. Further, it is a study of New England cultural formation which begins with Bradstreet's "mediation on the vanity of the natural world precisely because its primary terms--nature and custom--were employed by a wide variety of early modern English men and women to set the parameters of conversations about everything custom" (1).
He then focuses directly on Bradstreet's choice of the words "nature" and "custom" in the poem. He says that when she wrote this, she was speaking in at least two registers: 1. of English civil society, and 2. of Reformed Protestantism, with their different resonances depending on the social context in which they are uttered. He then says that with Bradstreet in particular, "to orthodox members of her own Puritan community, nature and custom referred to natural depravity at one extreme and to the newly invented 'customs' of Archbishop Laud's Anglican Church at the other" (1).
Round also makes an argument that "the various and competing discourses that adhered to debates about the meaning of custom and nature during the English 17th century had a profound impact on first generation New England's own self-representation" (2).
Round discusses one very important topic pertaining to 17th century New England: civil conversation. According to Round, New England's cultural formation arose within "the ferment of the broader English discourse of 'civil conversation,' a discursive sphere whose limits were fixed by nature and custom, and within which early modern English men and women negotiated their increasing anxieties about social hierarchy, a topic that dominated 17th century English political though" (2). He further describes this idea by calling it a "discursive engine for an emerging moral economy based on social change, contractual relationships, and colonial expansion" (3).
He explains in detail this "engine" by saying that it offers to preserve social order in the emerging nation by:
1. Promoting the continuance of communication
2. Exhibition of "noble" manners
3. Performance of a gentlemanly ethos over all other rhetorical concerns
This is especially important with regard to the poetry of Anne Bradstreet because during the period of her Lincolnshire upbringing, civil conversation was a vital component of the efforts of English men and women to come to terms with the social fragmentation that had resulted from: rapid population growth, inflation, enclosure, polarization of wealth, increasing poverty and a general fear of disorder. He explains that under this "menacing social climate," English citizens turned their attention toward the popular culture of English villages because change was most visible in these areas.
Round then goes on to explain the concept of a "curse" in terms of 17th century Puritanism in New England. He explains that the Old World social positions continued to haunt English me and women in the New World, shadowing much of what was "truly innovative, saintly and progressive in their social institutions" They remained somewhat "cursed" by both nature and custom in the sense that they were "held in thrall to English civil conversation long after they settled in the New World" He explains that in this sense, Bradstreet's choice of word "cursed" was appropriate because by designating a predestination of a curse, she cleverly but covertly acknowledges that the colonists' destiny remained tied to the problems of the mother country--a situation that Round argues was formative in New England cultural development.
Round also discusses Bradstreet with regard to her similarities with Anne Hutchinson. He writes that both women, whether by immediate or later recollection, were fearful and dreadful of the "new world [with] new manners" that awaited them on the New England shore. Round claims that this similarity proves that New England's emigrant women were "immediately placed in a tense discursive position in which they rarely felt free to release their cultural productions into the public world of male judgment."
Also, both Hutchinson and Bradstreet seemed to have benefited from very strong, educative relationships with their fathers, which is evident especially when Bradstreet writes a manuscript to of her poetry to her father allowing him to determine it's literary faith. He explains that in 17th century New England, it was common practice among educated reformers for fathers and daughters to share cultural spaces like the study. Having been educated by her father, Bradstreet was well aware that her writing would be perceived as suspect and an "unnatural" act and Round states that by writing the manuscript, Bradstreet was "participating in a long-established Renaissance tradition strongly marked by class implications"