Neal Stephenson on Puritans and Victorians
July 22, 2010, 05:21 PM
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I finally finished the 17th Century historical novel Quicksilver the first volume of The Baroque Cycle by science fiction heavyweight Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is the author of 1992's Snow Crash, which libertarians usually celebrate as a utopian novel, but, considering the obvious borrowing of The Raft from Jean Raspail's Camp of the Saints, strikes me as dystopian.

Quicksilver involves, besides much else, the origin of the dispute between Newton and Leibniz over credit for the calculus. It's a sort of WASP Nerd's History of the World, the male equivalent of all those historical novels about princesses and duchesses that sell so well these days.

From a 2004 Salon interview by Laura Miller with Stephenson:

You're remarkably sympathetic to the Puritans, too, which is unusual these days.

I have a perverse weakness for past generations that are universally reviled today. The Victorians have a real bad name, and the word "Puritan" is never used except in a highly pejorative way, despite the fact that there are very strong Victorian and Puritan threads in our society today, and despite the fact that the Victorians and Puritans built the countries that we live in. The other one, by the way, is the '50s. Someday I'll have to write a '50s novel.

The reason why people are so vituperative about those generations is not because they know anything about the history, but because they're really talking about splits within our culture today that they're worried about. In the same spirit that I wrote a Victorian novel earlier in my career [The Diamond Age], I figured it might be a kick to see what to do with some Puritans. Not hip, jaded, cool Puritans, but honest-to-god, fire-breathing Puritans. Drake [Waterhouse, Daniel's father] is an arch-Puritan, but by no means exaggerated. There were a million guys like this running around England in those days. He became the patriarch of this family of people who have to respond to his larger-than-life status and extreme commitment to religion.

What do you admire about the Puritans?

They were tremendously effective people. They completely took over the country and they created an army pretty much from scratch that kicked everyone's ass. This is not always a good thing. They were guilty of some very bad behavior in Ireland, for example. But any way you slice it they were very effective. Cromwell was a tremendous military leader. A lot of that effectiveness was rooted in the fact that they had money, in part because persecuted religious minorities, if they're not persecuted out of existence, often manage to achieve disproportionate wealth. It happened with Jews, Armenians, Huguenots. Earlier in this project, I could have rattled off five more. They have to form private trading networks and lend each other money. They're unusually education conscious. Puritans — and when we say Puritans, we're talking about a whole grab bag of religious groups — tended to prize literacy and education. I'm sure they had a higher literacy rate than the general English population. Literacy and education make people more effective.
Another answer is that they very early on adopted a set of views on social topics that everyone now takes for granted as being basic tenets of Western civilization. They were heavily for free enterprise. They didn't want the state interfering in private property. Now our whole system is built on that. We tend to forget that someone had to come up with that idea and fight for it. And those people did.

In Jacques Barzun's big history From Dawn to Decadence, he calls attention to the Puritan political agitator John Lilburne (1614?-1657) as exemplary of the creativity of the English Civil War generation. I had never heard of Lilburne, but I see now that Supreme Court justice Hugo Black frequently cited his many arrests by Royalists and Cromwellian Puritans and his surprisingly large number of successful defenses at trials by appeals to the "freeborn rights" of Englishmen as fundamental to the tradition of rights that Americans wrote into the Constitution in the late 18th Century.

Barzun writes:

What Lilburne carried whole in his mind, dozens of his fellow Puritan pamphleteers advocated piecemeal. Many called for a republic; the vote for all; the abolition of rank and privilege; equality before the law; free trade and a better distribution of poverty. Few urged tolerance. Again, because these goals were justified out of Scripture, the substance of Puritan political thought has been eclipsed. Later historians' secular minds prefer to read about free trade in Adam Smith than in Liblburne and his parable of the talents.

These 17th Century Puritans tended to be prickly, annoying people (Newton, for example, was insufferable, although he was suffered, because he was Newton), while the big names of the 18th Century, such as Franklin, Hume, Gibbon, Johnson, Burke, Voltaire, Diderot, and so forth (with the exception of Rousseau) tended to be charming men.

As for Quicksilver, well, I tend to like The Idea of Stephenson more than I quite like Stephenson's books. He chooses a point on the Quantity - Quality trade-off continuum that works better for him as a professional author than for me as an occasional reader. As he acknowledges in his Acknowledgments right upfront:

Of particular note is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill's six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh.