Notes on The American
Bercovitch (1978) uses John Winthrop's Model of Christian Charity to describe the
American Jeremiad - a sermon that seeks to unify a people by creating
tension between ideal social life and its real manifestation. The
"jeremiad" is named after the biblical lamentations of Jeremiah ("I had
planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou
turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?" (chapter
2, verse 21). Of course, we don't seek to understand the jeremiad
strictly for its religious significance. We seek to understand the
jeremiad because of its role in the construction and critique of public
Bercovitch contrasts the American jeremiad with its European
predecessor. The European jeremiad depicted a static society condemned
to fall perpetually from its mythic roots; it wailed from the pulpit
and unleashed a torrent of guilt upon its audience. In contrast, the
American jeremiad added the dimension of progress - the hope that
public life can improve. The invocation of the American jeremiad
involves three steps:
(1) provide a
biblical or spiritual standard for individual activity and public life
(2) outline the
manners in which a people has fallen from that standard,
(3) envision an
ideal public life - with its concurrent individual benefits - that
follows a return to the religious standard.
With this ideal, the American jeremiad sustains a paradoxical rhetoric
of hope and fear - a tension between the ideal and the real. This
tension is designed to generate the requisite energy to improve public
life: "It posits a movement from promise to experience - from the ideal
of community to the shortcomings of community life - and thence
forward, with prophetic assurance, toward the resolution that
incorporates (as it transforms) both the promise and the condemnation"
(Bercovitch, p. 16). The key to the American jeremiad is its blurring
of individual and communal pursuits.
The jeremiad works when an audience recognizes the tension between the
public ideal and their individual efforts - and seeks to purify
themselves in order to improve the community. As many critics have
noted, the irony of the American jeremiad is its conservatism. This
rhetorical appeal that calls for its audience to build a new world
demands that participants affirm rather than question the foundations
of their present problems. John M. Murphy notes:
jeremiad deflects attention away from the possible institutional or
systemic flaws and toward considerations of individual sin. Redemption
is achieved through the efforts of the American people, not through a
change in the system itself . . . . The jeremiad, then, serves as a
rhetoric of social control" (pp. 271, 283).
The direct relationship between self and society emerges in various
rhetorical forms throughout history. John Winthrop spoke of "ligaments"
that unite the body politic - as they connect the human body. After the
assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy spoke of the
"national fabric" that ties personal efforts to national character. And
more recently, presidential candidates from both major U.S. parties
have employed similar themes. Despite the many changes in technology,
politics, and religion over the last four centuries, the American
jeremiad remains a central component to the rhetoric of public life.
(1978). The American jeremiad.
Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
(1990). "A time of shame and sorrow": Robert F. Kennedy and the
American jeremiad. Quarterly Journal
of Speech, 76 401-414. Reprinted in S. K. Foss' Rhetorical criticism: Exploration &
Practice (pp. 269-290). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
[Citations are from the Foss reprint.]