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Since the heyday of an insurgent "new" social history, now over two decades ago, intellectual historians have scrambled to keep the history of ideas relevant to the history of social change. Attesting to their success are the new cultural historians who explore the relationship between mass behavior and popular thought, especially where the two most obviously intersected, in reading, writing, and publishing. Studies by Richard D. Brown, David D. Hall, and Jane Tompkins, to name but a few, have given special attention to popular books, newspapers, and the circulation of information. The two volumes reviewed here join this important and exciting body of scholarship. However, like so many studies of popular culture, Pillars of Salt and A Fictive People betray the predilections of their authors for either intellectual history or social history. The joining of the two approaches to the past, in other words, remains incomplete.
Daniel A. Cohen approaches early American culture from the perspective of intellectual history, attempting to trace popular perceptions of criminal behavior presented in several succeeding genres of crime literature. Nevertheless, he does not ignore social behavior and context, especially where he uncovers the role of ministers, lawyers, publishers, even criminals themselves, in creating popular texts. Moreover, he situates the evolution of crime literature within the Puritan-to-Yankee transformation of New England society.
Sixteenth-century European crime literature told of prisoners' passing from doubt to conviction to assurance of grace. New England ministers added their own twist to the story, which they told in published execution sermons and conversion narratives. Initially, they tended to be less hopeful than European writers, giving greater emphasis to the horrible damnation of sinners. Criminals, they claimed, stood as examples of the wretchedness of all people, their fate as warnings--pillars of salt--to those who would, as did Lot's wife, disobey God. Over time, the theme of salvation became more predominant, as it was in European crime literature. Prisoners, successfully converted while on their way to the gallows, stood as monuments of a divine grace irresistible to the most depraved sinner. Still, the predominant influence of ministers distinguished New England crime literature before the Revolution.
Over the course of the …