THE ADMIRABLE COTTON MATHER by James Playsted Wood

THE ADMIRABLE COTTON MATHER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In spite of its zeal, unenergetic -- and perhaps because of its zeal, variously unsound. ""The crown prince of the Cotton and Mather dynasty. . . was born to the Puritan purple,"" writes Wood, after dwelling unduly on genealogy to project the glory (but never the burden?) of CM's illustrious heritage; a typically vague locution proclaims that he had ""the usual intelligence and nervous intensity of temperament which made him conform quickly and willingly to the pattern he knew."" Under said pattern, including religious orthodoxy and a theocratic politics, is later subsumed 'standard practice' -- one among several defenses applied in the ensuing compulsive (nay, obsessive) vindication of Mather, especially re his part in the Salem witch trials. Mr. Wood might be right in his thesis -- but not for the reasons he advances: his arguments are circular, his evidence inconclusive; and he stands up for straw men in refuting the ""popular legend"" that ""Increase and Cotton Mather were the instigators, . . . bloodthirsty persecutors of the innocent,"" that CM ""worked to keep the witchcraft scare alive."" Furthermore, throughout, the attendant history is too circumscribed: Mr. Wood defines no terms, be they general (the word Puritanism is interchanged with Calvinism and Congregationalism without qualification), or particularized (Increase Mather was ""hummed,"" suspects were tried in courts of ""oyer and terminer""); he identifies Jonathan Edwards as ""the greatest religious and philosophical thinker in America,"" period; British physicist Robert Boyle is confused with the Irishman Richard Boyle, dead at the time; CM's involvement with slavery receives nary a comment. Even for the supposedly predisposed audience, the non-functional, often non-sequitur structure, archaic affectations, and multiple repetitions will be giant obstacles: Mather's virtues, contributions, and talents may have been entirely (though more likely partially) 'admirable,' but he emerges here as humble and egocentric, both excessively, the former a bore and the latter a blight.

Pub Date: March 4th, 1971
Publisher: Seabury