Sacvan Bercovitch

Sacvan Bercovitch (born 4 October 1933 in Montreal, Quebec) is a Canadian Americanist, literary and cultural critic and academic.

Education and academic career

Sacvan Bercovitch is an influential and controversial Americanist. Born in Montreal, Quebec, on October 4, 1933, he received his B.A. at Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University (1958) and his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School, now Claremont Graduate University (1965). (He has since then received honorary degrees from both institutions: an LLD from Concordia in 1993 and an HLD from Claremont n 2005). Bercovitch taught at Brandeis, the University of California-San Diego, Princeton, and from 1970 to 1984 at Columbia; from 1984 until his retirement in 2001 he taught at Harvard, where he held the Powell M. Cabot Professorship in American Literature (the Chair formerly held by Perry Miller); he is now the Powell M. Cabot Research Professor at Harvard. Bercovitch has also been a visiting faculty member at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, the Bread Loaf School of English, Tel-Aviv University, the University of Rome, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, the Chinese Academy of Social Studies in Beijing, the Kyoto University Seminar in Japan, and the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He has received the Distinguished Scholar Award for Extraordinary Lifetime Achievement in Early American Literature (2002), the Jay B. Hubbell Prize for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies (2004), and the Bode-Pearson Prize for Lifetime Achievement in American Studies ((2007).


Early work

Sacvan Bercovitch's early books, "The Puritan Origins of the American Self" and "The American Jeremiad" (along with his edited collections on typology and "The American Puritan Imagination") presented a new interpretation of the structures of expression and feeling that composed the writing of Puritan New England. They proposed (1) the importance of scriptural typology in Puritan New England thought; (2) the centrality of the imagination in the New England Puritans' writings; (3) the relation between the imagination, religious belief, and cultural-historical context; (4) the centrality of the text in the process of communal self-definition, from the Puritan view of scripture through the Declaration of Independence; and, from all four perspectives, and (5) an understanding of the origins in New England Puritanism of a distinctive mode of expression and belief that eventuated in the "American" identity. The result was a model of cultural continuity. Bercovitch saw the Puritan "errand" as a proto-capitalist venture that offered a singularly compelling rationale for an expanding modern community. What made it compelling was not just its religious emphasis; it was the crucial reversal, or inversion, this effected in the Puritans' "secular" concept of mission. Whereas other colonists -- in New France, New Spain, New Amsterdam -- understood themselves to be emissaries of European empire, the New England Puritans repudiated the "Old World." Instead, they centered their imperial enterprise on the meaning that they read into their "New World": "America" as the new promised land -- which is to say, the promised land of the new modern world. Over the next two centuries their vision opened into a sacred-secular symbology, one that (in changing forms, to accommodate changing times) nourished the rhetoric of a new identity, the United States "as" "America." A leading literary theorist, commenting on "The American Jeremiad", noted that Bercovitch's work "should make it impossible for anyone to use easily the word "America"." [ Jonathan Arac, quoted in Paul Bove, "In the Wake of Theory," Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1992, p. 52 ]

Later work

Through his exploration of the expressive culture of Puritan New England, Bercovitch moved forward, into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, toward a description of a distinctive nationalist ideology, involving the distinctive strategies of liberal culture. That ambition yielded his major books of the nineties, "The Office of "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Rites of Assent" (as well as his edited collections on literary history and "Ideology and Classic American Literature"), which in effect "complete the writing of the history of American liberal-capitalist culture begun in the earlier work--a history that provocatively specifies how, in the United States, acts of withering dissent are put to the service of a vision of consensus." [ Richard Millington, "Hubbell Award Citation," "] More largely, Bercovitch has argued that the strategy of American pluralism is precisely to elicit dissent -- political, intellectual, aesthetic, and academic, both utopian (progressivist) and dystopian (catastrophic) -- in order to redirect it into an affirmation of American ideals. However, Bercovitch has qualified that analysis in a series of essays on individual authors, from Melville to Twain, acknowledging, on the one hand, the "modes of basic resistance to ideology" within democratic liberalism [ Bercovitch,
* "Pierre", or the Ambiguities of American Literary History," in "The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America", New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 246-307
* "Deadpan Huck, or What's Funny about Interpretation," "Kenyon Review", Summer/Fall 2002, Vol. 24 Issue 3/4, pp. 90-145
] and, on the other hand, pointing out the energizing utopian qualities in American ideals: [ Bercovitch, "The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History," "Critical Inquiry", vol. 12, No. 4 (Summer, 1986), pp. 631-653; p. 646 ] In 2004, Bercovitch completed a 20-year project as General Editor of the multi-volume "Cambridge History of American Literature", which has been called "without a doubt, and without a serious rival, "the" scholarly history of our generation." [ Gray, Richard. "Writing American Literary History," "Journal of American Studies", vol. 40, no. 2 (2006), pp. 399-411; p. 411 ]

Criticism and Controversy

Bercovitch's first writings competed with Perry Miller's foundational synthesis of "the New England Mind," and Bercovitch was charged with having failed to see "in Puritan books . . . their capacity to instruct, their power 'to open the heart and educate the soul.'" [ Harlan, David. "'A People Blinded from Birth': American History According to Sacvan Bercovitch," "Journal of American History", vol. 78, No. 3 (Dec., 1991), pp. 949-971; p. 970 ] His following work, connecting aesthetics and religious typology with historical-cultural issues, competed with the formalist theories of the then-regant New Criticism and Bercovitch was reproached for his "indictments of American imaginative power." [ New, Elisa. "The Line's Eye: Poetic Experience, American Sight", Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 7 ] Furthermore, Bercovitch's view of the consensus-making powers of "the myth of America" (the visionary "America" as a source of social cohesion) was attacked politically from both the right and the left. From the right, he was decried as the central figure of an upstart generation of "New Americanists." [ Crews, Frederick. "Whose American Renaissance?," "The New York Review of Books", vol. 35 no.16 (1988). pp. 68-81 ] From the left, he was criticized for analyzing the culture from within and so "replicating its dominant forms," rather than offering a "new politics." [ Paul A. Bove, "Notes Towrds a Politics of 'American Literature," "Critical Conditions: Regarding the Historical Moment", ed. Michael Hays, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1992, p. 5 ] Bercovitch never replied directly to these critics. But he has celebrated Perry Miller's "towering achievement" ; [ Bercovitch, "The American Jeremiad", Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978, p. xv ] he has edited numerous Puritan texts [ Bercovitch, "American Puritanism: The Seventeenth Century", New York, AMS Press, 1983, 27 volumes; and "The Millennium in America, from the Puritan Migration to the Civil War", New York: AMS Press. 1983, 43 volumes ] and taught Puritan thought and theology to several generations of students; and he has repeatedly emphasized the aesthetic dimension of cultural inquiry. [ For example, in Bercovitch's: "Games of Chess: A Model of Literary and Cultural Studies," "Centuries' Ends, Narrative Means", ed. Robert Newman, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 15-58 ; "'America' as Canon and Context: Literary History in a Time of Dissensus," "American Literature", Vol. 58, Issue 1 (1986), pp. 99-107; "The Function of the Literary in a Time of Cultural Studies," "Culture" and the Problem of the Disciplines", ed. John Carlos Rowe, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, pp. 69-87 ] And while he has explored the liberal dissent in terms of "the paradox of containment" -- -- meaning both "containing" the power of radical dissent and "contained" within the culture's liberal norms [ Bercovitch, "The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America," Routledge: New York, 1993, pp. 307-352 ] -- he has also insisted that such dissent can issue in a fundamental challenges to the system. [ Bercovitch,"The Office of "The Scarlet Letter"," 1991: Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 113-154; "Investigations oif an Americanist," "The Journal of American History", Vol. 78, No. 3 (Dec., 1991), pp. 972-987 ] With the growth of multi-cultural studies, Bercovitch has been criticized as the author of a "powerful version of American exceptionalism." [ Michael Denning, "Culture in the Age of Three Worlds," Verso: London, 2004), p.183 ] Again, this charge is debatable. Bercovitch emphasizes that the United States as shaped by the growth of Western modernity -- the growth of modern capitalism -- and that its history is much like that of many major powers, modern and premodern: a history of injustice, oppression, imperial expansion, racial and ethnic discrimination, and excessive violence in all these aspects. [Bercovitch, "Rites of Assent:, pp.1-28 ] What remains distinctive for him nonetheless -- distinctive, not unique -- is the national belief in its own exceptionalism, the rhetoric of the American dream, the utopian hope inscribed in the vision of "America." [ Bercovitch, "Rites of Assent," pp. 29-67]


Bercovitch's work, which has been translated into many languages, redirected the study of Early American Literature and marked a new, historicist turn in American literary and cultural criticism. It is characterized by large historical claims and bold intellectual syntheses; it is intensely scholarly in certain traditional ways; it is often focused on close textual reading; and it is broadly theoretical in its implications, from his early essays on typology to his later essays on ideology and on questions related to interdisciplinarity. His contribution may be summarized as follows: (1) he has helped restructure American literary criticism by tracing literary continuity beyond the Revolution back to the New England Puritans; (2) he has called attention to the complex religious dimensions of what had been seen as the secular American Way; (3) he has led in the inquiry into the rhetorical and social constructedness of the American identity; (4) he has helped formulate the connections between ideology and imaginative expression, emphasizing not only the cultural pressures on aesthetic expression but the explosive aesthetic force of literary texts; and (5) he has been influential in exploring the limits and radical potential of dissent in America. In the assessment of a recent literary historian, Bercovitch's "audacious writings signaled an important shift in the understanding of culture.... After Bercovitch, culture no longer seems . . . the disinterested location for abstract reflection, but rather the place in which American power pervasively resides. . . . Animated by this insight, Bercovitch transformed [the standard views of] the 'classic' writers . . . enshrined by American Studies" -- a transformation "suggestive of new interpretive energies" and "compelling revisions of [traditional] categories and assumptions." [ Randall Fuller,"Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists," Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 123-125 ] In one of his citations for lifetime achievement, " Bercovitch has been the foremost interpreter of early American literature for his generation and probably of several generations." [ Looby, Christopher. "Scholar and Exegete," "Early American Literature," Vol. 39, No.1 (2004), p. 2 ] The Hubbell Prize Committee commended Bercovitch for his "transformative effect on the practice of American literary scholarship." [ "Hubbell Award - 2004 [written by Richard Millington] , "] The citation for the Bode-Pearson Prize of the American Studies Association commended Bercovitch as "the key figure in the ideological turn of American literary study and the galvanizing source of its interdiscilpinary practice." [ Gordon Hutner, "Bode-Peason Prize, 2007," American Studies Assoiciation, Philadphia, Oct 12, 2007, reprinted in Congressional Record, Dec. 4, 2007, 110th Congress, First Edition.]

Fellowships and honors

Bercovitch has held fellowships in residence at the Yale Center for American Studies; the Center for Advanced Study in the Social and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the American Antiquarian Society, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Huntington Library; he has won fellowships and grants from the Ford Foundation, the John Carter Brown Library, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities; he has represented the Fulbright Scholar Program in Europe (Prague, Moscow, Warsaw, Coimbra. Portugal, and elsewhere) and has been been a distinguished lecturer and keynote speaker at countless universities, colleges, and conferences throughout the world; he has served on a wide array of professional advisory boards, editorial boards, fellowship panels and committees; and he has won awards for both teaching and scholarship, among them the Brandeis Award for Excellency in Teaching (1967), the Cabot Award for Achievement in the Humanities (1991), and the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Languages Association for the best scholarly book (1992). He has served as President of the American Studies Association (1982-1984), and in 1986 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Modern Languages Association (2002,2004) and from the American Studies Association (2007). In recent years he has returned to his early interests in Jewish Studies (he has translated Sholom Aleichem and other Yiddish writers) and received an Emeritus Professor Grant from the Mellon Foundation for a project on “The Ashkenazi Renaissance, 1880-1940."


Bercovitch has been a popular teacher on both the undergraduate and the graduate levels; his students now occupy prominent positions at universities and colleges from Yale to UCLA, and from Beijing to Oxford, Tel Aviv, and Rome. One former student, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written of his "enormous talents as a teacher" that Bercovitch conveyed the ways in which "the same resources of language that transmit ideology also carry the capacity to 'break free' from preexisting ideas and to open new thresholds of aesthetic experience and understanding" [ Nancy Bentley, Official Requested Letter to the Bode-Peason Prize Committee of the American Studies Association, 15 June, 2007] In a more general tribute, another former student, now professor at UCLA, stated:

"The example of scholarly rigor, searching curiosity, and untendentious inquiry that Bercovitch has presented has been widely influential, nowhere more clearly than in the work of the many graduate students he has supervised over the years. On the occasion of his retirement, Harvard University hosted a conference in his honor, featuring as speakers a selection of his doctoral students from Columbia and Harvard. “The Next Turn in American Literary and Cultural Studies,” as the conference was called, was notable for many reasons, but perhaps most conspicuously for the variety and distinction of the scholarly and critical work Bercovitch has sponsored: while there have been mechanically Bercovitchean essays and books published in the wake of his own, Bercovitch’s students have learned precisely not to mimic his work but to reproduce, as well as they can, his independence of mind and unpredictability of argument. It is this outcome that honors him most truly." [ Looby, "Scholar and Exegete," "Early American Literature", Vol. 39, No. 1 (2004), pp. 5-6 ]

elected bibliography


* "The Puritan Origins of the American Self", 1975: Yale University Press, New Haven and London; Second Printing, 1976; Paperback edition, 1977. ISBN 0300021178
* "The American Jeremiad", 1978: University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. Paperback edition, 1980; 2nd edition, 1989. ISBN 0299073548

* "The Office of "The Scarlet Letter", 1991: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Paperback edition, 1993. ISBN 080184584X

* "The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America", 1993: Routledge, New York and London, Paperback edition, 1993. Chinese translation, 2005. ISBN 0415900158


* "Typology and Early American Literature", 1972: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. Introduction, pp. 5-10; bibliography, pp. 124-246
* "The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation", 1974: Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge. Introduction and Bibliography, pp. 1-16, 212-216. Reprinted, 2004. ISBN 0521098416

* "Reconstructing American Literary History" (Harvard English Studies, vol. 13), 1986: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Introduction, pp. ix-xii ISBN 0735102287
* "Ideology and Classic American Literature" (with Myra Jehlen), 1986: Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge. Afterword, pp. 418-447.

* "Cambridge History of American Literature", 8 vols, 1986-2004: Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge; Chinese translation, 2007.

* "Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings", l997: Library of America, New York. Selection and Chronology, pp. 807-812. ISBN 1883011280

Chapters/sections of books

* "Romance and Anti Romance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," in "Critical Studies of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", ed. Donald R. Howard and C.K. Zoker, 1968: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, pp. 257-266.

* "The Ideological Context of the American Renaissance," in "Forms and Functions of History in American Literature", ed. Willi Paul Adams, Winfried Fluck, and Jorgen Peper, 1981: Berlin, pp. - 20.

* "The Biblical Basis of the American Myth," in "The Bible and American Arts and Letters", ed. Giles Gunn, 1983: Fortress Press, Philadelphia, pp. 219-229

* "A Literary Approach to Cultural Studies," in "Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies", ed. Marjorie Garber, Paul B. Franklin, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, 1996: Routledge, pp. 247-256.

* “Games of Chess: A Model of Literary and Cultural Studies,” in "Centuries Ends, Narrative Means", ed. Robert Newman, 1996: Stanford University Press, pp. 15-58, 319-329.

* “The Function of the Literary in a Time of Cultural Studies,” in "“Culture” and the Problem of the Disciplines", ed. John Carlos Rowe, 1998: Columbia University Press, pp. 69-87

elected articles

* "Dramatic Irony in Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground"," "Slavic and East European Journal", vol.8 (1964), pp. 284-291.
* "Thomas Mann's 'Heavenly Alchemy': The Politics of "The Holy Sinner"," "Symposium", vol. 20 (1966), pp. 29- 305.

* "Empedocles in the English Renaissance," "Studies in Philology", vol. 65 (1968), pp. 67-80.
* "Literature and the Repetition Compulsion," "College English", vol.29 (1968), pp. 60-615.

* "America as Canon and Context: Literary History in a Time of Dissensus," "American Literature", vol. 58 (1986), pp. 99-107.

* "Investigations of an Americanist," "Journal of American History", vol. 88 (1991), pp. 972-987.

* "The Question of Literary History," "Common Knowledge", vol. 4 (1995), pp. 1-8.

* “The Myth of America,” "Litteraria Pragensia" (Prague), vol. 25 (2003), pp. 1-20; reprinted in "After History", ed. Martin Prochazka, 2006, Litteraria Pragensia, pp,345-370

Translations from Yiddish

* Itzik Manger, "The Golden Peacock" (with commentary), "Hadassah Magazine", vol. 58 1966), pp. 6-7, 15.

* Yaacov Zipper, "The True Image," "Prism International", XII (1973), pp. 88 96; reprinted in Yiddish, I (1975), pp. 65-74; in "Canadian Yiddish Writings", ed. Abraham Boyarsky and Lazar Sarna, 1976: Harvest House, Montreal, pp. 11-20, and in "The Far Side of the River", ed. Mervin Butovsky and Ode Garfinkle, 1985: Mosaic Press, New York, 1985, pp. 15-24.

* Itzik Manger, "Eight Ballads" (with commentary), "Moment", vol. 3 (1978), pp. 44 52; reprinted in Russian, in Jewish Survey, I (1979), pp. 14-16.

* Sholom Aleichem, "The Pot" and "The Krushniker Delegation," in "Stories of Sholom Aleichem", ed. Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse, 1979: New Republic Books, Washington, DC, pp. 71-81, 232-244.

* Bryna Bercovitch, “Memories of a Russian Girlhood,” "PacknTreger", no. 47 (2005), pp. 29-33 (with Sylvia Ary); introduction, p. 28

* Bryna Bercovitch, “Becoming Revolutionary,” "Arguing with the Storm: Canadian Women Writers", ed. Rhea Tregebov (Sumach Press: Toronto, 2007), pp. 59-78 (with Sylvia Ary); second edition, Feminist Press, 2008, pp.33-49

Further reading


* Michael Schuldiner, ed. "Sacvan Bercovitch and the American Puritan Imagination", Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992
* Russell J.Reising, "The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Culture", New York: Methuen, 1986
* Carol Colatrella and Joseph Alkana, eds.. "Cohesion and Dissent in America", Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1994
* Rael Meyerowitz, "Transferring to America: Jewish Interpretations of American Dreams". Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1995
* Susanne Klingenstein," Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1998", Syracuse, New York: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1998


* Alan Trachtenberg, “The Writer as America,” "Partisan Review", vol. 46 (1977)
* Edmund Morgan, "The Chosen People," "New York Review of Books", vol. 26 (1979)
* James W. Tuttleton, “Rewriting the History of American Literature,” "The New Criterion" (1986)
* Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., “A New Context for a New American Studies?” "American Quarterly", vol. 24 (1989)
* Donald E. Pease, "The New Americanists," "boundary 2", No. 77 (1990)
* Emily Budick, “Sacvan Bercovitch, Stanley Cavell, and the Romance Theory of American Fiction, 'Pubilcations of the Modern Language Association", vol. 107 (1992)
* Sam B. Girgus, “’The New Covenant’ and the Dilemma of Dissensus: Bercovitch, Roth, and Doctorow,” in "Summoning: Ideas of the Covenant and Interpretative Theory", ed. Ellen Spolsky, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993
* Gura, Philip, "What Hathe Bercovitch Wrought?," "Reviews in American History", vol. 21 (1993)
* Arnold Delfs, "Anxieties of Influence: Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch," "New England Quarterly", vol. 70 (1997)

External Links

* [ Sacvan Bercovitch's Homepage]


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