THE LIFE AND TIMES OF COTTON MATHER by Kenneth Silverman

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF COTTON MATHER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Like Mather's own 1(apple) hour sermons at North Church, Silverman's biography is densely packed with learning, energy, and intelligence; but only a select congregation will be able to sit through the performance. Nobody else has attempted (bothered?) to do a life of our great ""national gargoyle"" since the one by R. P. Boas and Louise Boas in 1928, and Silverman's definitive work is not likely to be challenged for a long time. Yet Silverman, Prof. of English at NYU and an expert on the Colonial era, makes a strong case for the Rev. Cotton Mather, D.D., F.R.S. (1663-1728) as both the first major figure in American culture and an extraordinarily complex/ contradictory man. Posterity has been impressed by Mather's herculean productivity (388 books or essays plus cartloads of unpublished diaries, letters, etc.) and the wide range of his interests (he was an eager amateur scientist and helped introduce inoculation for smallpox); but it has damned him for his part in fomenting the Salem witch trials and generally pictured him as the archetypal frozen and forbidding Puritan. Though Silverman doesn't revise this judgment in any radical way, he gives it all sorts of nuances. He stresses, for example, that Mather warned against the use of ""spectral evidence"" (testimony about crimes committed by a specter of the accused person) and doubted charges unsupported by spontaneous confession--but he admits that in the end Mather's preaching and writing ""did much to keep alive in Massachu-setts a sense of the malice of the invisible world."" Critics have also carped at Mather for being a political trimmer, an ambitious self-promoter, a vain, envious, mealy-mouthed character. While Silverman acknowledges the considerable justice of these charges, he also highlights Mather's reputation for unstinting charity and witty conversation. He continually reminds the reader of Mather's personal agony in losing his first two wives and 13 of his 15 children. And, impressively, he argues for Mather as an authentic native voice, praising his elephantine Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) for its rude, epic force (a sort of pious proto-Moby Dick). Too strenuous to be entertaining--but a splendid resource for scholars and advanced students of American literature.

Pub Date: March 14th, 1983
Publisher: Harper & Row