A Nation Wrongs Itself: On American Pain and the Puritan Ethic

By David StrombergAugust 19, 2020

A Nation Wrongs Itself: On American Pain and the Puritan Ethic
FOR WEEKS, America burned again. For some of us, who grew up in urban Los Angeles, the memory of fires down the block, or buildings on the way to school still smoking, remained exceedingly fresh. I remember that, during the L.A. Riots, people who’d lived through the Watts Riots recalling their earlier experiences and lamenting that America had not sufficiently changed. Later, I remember going to the 1998 ArtSpeaks festival against police brutality, where people from all over the city came to experience the Black art scene around Leimert Park, and where the intensity of the cause was so strong that if felt like the L.A. Riots had taken place a week or two earlier. The September 11 attacks did a lot to change the nation’s discourse. Public concern turned to draconian laws, invasions of privacy, and, a little later, the use of torture. I remember police presence being more ubiquitous not only in Los Angeles and New York but across all of Europe. The American public, focused on finding terrorists among itself, was no longer thinking of actions taken by police on a daily basis against its own citizens. Then came the Great Recession, the opioid crisis, the resurgence of white power, and Trump’s eventual election, which overtook one news cycle after another, until the COVID-19 crisis brought so much of social reality to a screeching halt — but not police brutality.

The unjust reality of abuse by police officers against nonwhites is a social ill that has plagued the country for centuries. It’s not the only one. Access to health care is another major social ill cutting to the core of America’s identity as a nation. It’s no coincidence that Steven Spielberg portrayed Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery, delineating his use of taxes as a practical tactic to achieving civil rights, in the same period that Barack Obama was using the same tactic to bring health care to more of the nation’s populace. Both of these events are perceived as victories in American democracy, but the reality that followed in their wake is not ideal. Targeting by police is as much of a legacy of the 13th Amendment as is personal freedom. Higher copays and deductibles are as much of a legacy of the Affordable Care Act as is the increase in insured individuals. There’s a slippage that occurs, over and over, in these major historical shifts that somehow brings American society back to the same issues, again and again. It’s as if the country keeps trying to keep up with much-needed civil reforms, while repeatedly setting aside any emotional reckoning with its past. Looking intently to a just future, it rarely considers its historical wounds, missing its chance to examine the scars left on its soul as a nation. It disregards history’s residual pain.

Recognizing and talking about pain involves the experience of an adverse emotion. Pain hurts, it makes us angry, and it drives us to stop its source. The last thing we want is to experience the pain again, so we push for punishing those who have caused us pain, and for instituting a reality that no longer inflicts that pain. We call this the pursuit of social justice and reform. But during this pursuit, as we set out boundaries for what’s acceptable and what’s not, we sometimes also introduce a rhetoric that insists on clear-cut distinctions, leading to an environment that eerily echoes Bush’s “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This has raised some concern among certain creative communities, and a hot debate has ensued about what the message says, what it leaves out, as well as its timing. The language of this debate, and the cultural imagery it invokes, fosters certain associations that go beyond its message. A concern about “dogma or coercion” recalls the McCarthy era, which inspired Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), while talk of “public shaming and ostracism” recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). Political positioning aside, the debate aims to convey a multitude of concerns about this significant cultural moment. Yet I find that the way the debate is conducted, particularly its rhetoric, perpetuates a dynamic accentuating divisions and ultimately prolonging the suffering inherent in America’s everyday reality. Something keeps us from effecting genuine healing, and instead presses people from all sides into greater indignation and less mutual understanding. This something, I believe, is an ethos rooted so deep in American culture that it blindsides all spectra of society — every attempt to bring our different perspectives together. It is something I call the puritan ethic.


When I speak of the puritan ethic, I don’t mean any historical or contemporary movement that would identify itself religiously — neither the religious group that found its most radical expression in Plymouth Bay, nor its seemingly moderate version in Massachusetts Bay, nor any other group that would identify itself as Puritan today. The influence of this group on American society has long been debated by scholars of American history, with early modern critics — like Thomas J. Wertenbaker, James Truslow Adams, and Vernon Louis Parrington — pitting its legacy against the principles of tolerance and liberalism. A little later, scholars such as Samuel Eliot Morison and Kenneth Murdock worked to rehabilitate this group’s image as an intellectually sensitive community, a project that reached its peak in the lifework of Perry Miller — a founder of the field of American Studies whose scholarship and personality have themselves been debated. These approaches to American Puritanism deal with the historical group, while I aim to discuss a cultural legacy that reflects on American society as a whole. Because this legacy, I believe, has twisted the significance of pain in a way that blocks a reckoning with many painful elements within America’s history as a nation, especially its legacy of slavery.

The term puritan ethic takes its cue from Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which deals specifically with the application of religious ideas to economic activity. When Weber differentiates Calvinists from Puritans, he notes that “the English, Dutch, and American Puritans were characterized by the exact opposite of the joy of living” — that is, pain. The main actual use of the word “pain” in Weber’s book appears in an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748), in which Franklin urges readers to “take the pains” to record expenses so that they can “discover how wonderfully small, trifling expenses mount up to large sums.” This ethos was later popularized by Franklin in his essay “The Way to Wealth” (1758), with the phrase, apparently lifted from English poet Robert Herrick, “There are no gains, without pains.” The idea has been shown to go as far back as Pirkei Avot, a second-century Talmudic text, where it appears in Aramaic as lefum tsa'ara agra — which may be translated to read “as the suffering, so is the reward.” In its Jewish context, it relates to the difficulty of fulfilling certain religious laws, and their links to spiritual gains — with no material link between pain and gain. And though Franklin is cited by Weber as applying the Protestant ethic to a professional calling, Franklin’s own transposition of the idea into an economic creed created a shift in meaning. It placed the “no pain, no gain” formula squarely in the realm of the material.

As American society entered modernity, some of its founding ideas entered new contexts, and while they were no longer directly tied to the influence of historical Puritanism, its legacy trickled into many aspects of American culture. Few modern intellectuals were as critical of this legacy as H. L. Mencken, whose “The American: His New Puritanism” (1914) presents a scathing digest of the colonial roots of puritanism and its later cultural manifestations. Mencken was a controversial and fiery essayist, and his posthumously published Diary revealed some extremely unbecoming sentiments about Blacks, Jews, and Anglo-Saxons. Yet those who have spent time considering his writing in detail — including Ralph Ellison and Arthur Miller — have called him “a tremendous liberating force in American culture,” and found a strong commitment to the First Amendment and civil rights. In my opinion, his observations warrant consideration — not only because of their insights, which I believe still open our perspective onto American history, but also because erasing his voice from America’s cultural landscape would obscure the complexity of our society’s past. It is no accident that Charles A. Beard, in his own critique of the Puritans, went out of his way to single out Mencken for giving “a cry of rage and pain” in his harangue against the new puritanism. Because it is Mencken’s emotionality, and not only his intellect, that make his writing still relevant — even if not always comfortable — in this day.

Mencken’s project is cultural rather than historical, and he lays out a typology of puritanism in which an early radical form that existed during the colonial period gave way to a milder form prevalent from the American Revolution through the Civil War — but which then returned in early modern times as a “neo-Puritanism” devoid of its historical or religious context. Mencken’s main grievance is with its attempts to stifle sex and alcohol, yet he lays out his distinctions, and builds up to his later point, by referring to the period of Abolitionism. “The thing that worried the more ecstatic Abolitionists,” he writes, “was their sneaking sense of responsibility, the fear that they themselves were flouting the fire by letting slavery go on,” upending the motivation behind their crusade by exposing it as a self-serving cause. The real hypocrisy, he suggests, is that Emancipation was not meant to actually address the injustice done to Black Americans, but to clear the conscience of those who felt, in principle, that slavery was wrong. This does not detract from the fact that slavery is wrong, or that ending it was totally necessary. Neither does it minimize the tragic reality that a million human beings died on both sides of the Civil War. But it does explain, to some degree, how the fallout of Emancipation nevertheless left Black Americans disenfranchised — as well as the eventual sacrifice of Reconstruction in 1877 that put gains in national politics for the North above the civil rights of Blacks in the South.

The Civil War left some Americans patting themselves on the back, proud of new freedoms achieved, and others resenting their defeat, resisting it with legal loopholes like Black Codes or labor contracts that exploited former slaves. Yet it left Black Americans in the midst of an ongoing crisis, with little chance to recover not only from the deep wounds of the war, but the very circumstances leading to its outbreak. Meanwhile, in the country at large, the puritan ethic prevailed, and rather than take the time to reckon with the ramifications of slavery, or the premature end of Reconstruction, American society developed a renewed focus on temperance and modesty laws. Modern America was in the midst of developing what Mencken calls a form of new puritanism which harked back to the “Puritan of the bleak New England,” whom he calls “less the masochist than the sadist.” Unlike the “milder Puritan of the period between the Revolution and the Civil War,” Mencken suggests, this more radical form of puritanism is “not ascetic but militant.” In this cultural neo-puritanism, the “no pain, no gain” formula adapted as well. The credo of spiritual action which Franklin turned into a pithy phrase about material success now became a secular principle — implying that the pain of suffering contributed to gains in virtue.

Yet the puritan formula of pain and gain did not play out for Black Americans. As James Baldwin wrote in his “Letter from a Region in My Mind” (1962), “In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians.” For all the goodwill and hard work that the Freedmen’s Bureau invested in Black Americans, and for all the pain slaves had suffered before, during, and after Emancipation, the descendants of slavery were left to fend for themselves. It took another hundred years before the severity of their plight was recognized enough to enact a new set of civil rights — and, even then, the accomplishment was ultimately their own. And still, to this day, we acknowledge their achievement more often than we mourn the pains and sacrifices they continue to endure.


God helps those who help themselves. Though commonly believed to be a saying from the Bible, this is another formula popularized by Benjamin Franklin, falling in line with the “no pain, no gain” economy. But it’s hard to think of a modern population oppressed under slavery for over 200 years being told to go figure things out for themselves — in the name of God. A cursory internet search shows one of the ancient sources of this phrase to be Sophocles, who uses it in a play about the Peloponnesian Wars, and its first English usage appearing in Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government (1698), in a section titled “That is the best Government, which best provides for War.” As before, the shift from militarism to economy is made by Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack (1736), as well as in his essay “The Way to Wealth,” where it makes a second appearance alongside his version of the “no pain, no gain” formula. The ease with which the violent context of war slips into the cutthroat context of self-making economy only begins to reveal the levels of aggression embedded within the puritan ethic. It also raises questions about what happens when this same puritan ethic comes into contact with a reality like slavery, which was never meant to fit neatly into an annual digest of witty sayings. The result, it seems, is an extreme dissonance on several levels — cognitive, emotional, moral — wherein the legacy of slavery and the legacy of puritanism continue to clash.

In “Leroy’s Journal,” the last section to be cut from the final draft of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), the narrator reads the following passage: “To designate one as evil is to place oneself in his power. Especially is this dangerous for puritans, for puritans are fascinated by evil, obsessed by it. They have unwittingly obsessed themselves with us. They cannot really destroy us but that they destroy themselves.” In this way, Ellison seems to both echo and flip Mencken’s sentiment of nearly 40 years earlier: the puritan ethic which, for Mencken, created an obsession with the need to abolish slavery is now expressed as an obsession with Black Americans as an evil for being different. In Ellison’s terms, we might say that this secular neo-puritanism seeks to abolish not slavery, but the difference of Blacks from the landscape of America.

Ellison’s awareness of this radical puritanism appears to have remained with him for decades. In the aftermath of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, including pushback against its achievements and such equivocating policies as “benign neglect,” Ellison cut straight to the core of the matter by asking “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” (1970). Appearing to continue from the earlier premise that puritans “cannot really destroy us but that they destroy themselves,” Ellison argues for an America that exists as it does only because of its Black population. His opening statement — “The fantasy of an America free of blacks is at least as old as the dream of creating a truly democratic society” — also acknowledges the deeply paradoxical nature of America’s cultural development. This way, he brings the two streams of puritanism, the milder one and the radical one, together into a single seemingly contradictory social force: first abolishing the reality of slavery in America, and then abolishing the traces of that slavery, of which Black Americans are a constant reminder. If slavery is wrong, this logic goes, then purifying America’s democracy of slavery means purifying America of everything having ever to do with its history and repercussions. If Blacks want to live in America, this logic continues, they should forget their past as slaves and live as if they had always been free people, or else move elsewhere. Ellison notes that Abraham Lincoln, too, fantasized about resettling Blacks elsewhere in “an attempt to relieve an inevitable suffering that marked the growing pains of the youthful body politic by an operation which would have amounted to the severing of a healthy and indispensable member.” The idea of a growing pain does not fit neatly into the pain-gain economy. We don’t “gain” anything when we grow — except more of ourselves. In growth, we expand our potentialities as living beings, which leads into Ellison’s conviction that “the true subject of democracy is not simply material well-being, but the extension of the democratic process in the direction of perfecting itself.” And the question we are left with is who within American society gets included in the democratic self that constantly grows.

In “Leroy’s Journal,” Ellison says openly that the “puritans” who seek to perfect themselves by ridding their society of evil have marked out Black Americans as their target. In his later essay, he takes a more tacit approach, likening the fantasy of an America without Blacks to “a boil bursting forth from impurities in the bloodstream of democracy.” He turns the idea of what is pure and what is impure on its head: a true democracy, he implies, expunges not Blacks, but racism. Yet the method that he puts forth is different from the usual discourse of incorporating the outlier into the greater mass. He talks about admitting the other into the self, recognizing different groups within American society as making up a single history, a single culture, a single body politic. He writes that “most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it” and singles out “the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as ‘soul’” as an “expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness.” He goes so far as to reappropriate the notion of “purity” to suggest that it is the Black American “who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a closer correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, between our assertions and our actions.” This way, he pushes against the puritan ethic, looking for creative paths to counter the obsession that turns Black people into an evil that needs to be eradicated.

There is another way Ellison pushes back against the puritan ethic and the pain-gain economy: he turns the achievement of democracy into a tragic vision. This theme within the essay forces readers to cope with the pain of American history: “there is something inescapably tragic,” he writes, “about the cost of achieving our democratic ideals.” He develops this idea in relation to William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942), which, he says, “resonates certain abiding, indeed tragic themes of American history […] which are causing great turbulence in the social atmosphere today.” The tragic theme also frames the essay’s conclusion, wherein Blacks “had to suffer the fate of being allowed no easy escape from experiencing the harsh realities of the human condition” while white society had “the possibility of escaping such tragic knowledge by taking sanctuary in moral equivocation, racial chauvinism, or the advantage of superior social status.” This way, Ellison frames an escape from tragic knowledge as an anti-democratic move. It is not enough to experience pain and suffering. It is just as necessary to incorporate that pain into the nation’s conscience and consciousness.


At the root of the mass hemorrhaging of anger in America is an extreme and unaddressed sense of pain — a powerful reaction, motivated by historical consciousness and channeled into political resistance, to the lack of tragic knowledge among the great majority of American society. In a nation built on an ethic of “no pain, no gain,” the historical, cultural, and social suffering of each Black American remains an unappreciated and uninternalized aspect of reality. As Ellison notes, the test of American democracy is “inclusion — not assimilation.” This means shifting from the puritan ethic of “no pain, no gain” to a complex vision in which reaching our goal is a tragic end, acknowledging the injustice, inutility, and irredeemability of the pains involved in its achievement. Yes, Blacks were freed from slavery. But the pain of this achievement goes far beyond the lives that were lost in the battle for freedom. And the greatest pain sits not in the sacrifices made to end this injustice, but in the collective memory of human beings having been enslaved in the first place.

America has so deeply internalized the puritan ethic that its society functions according to this guiding principle even when its ideology is opposed to the historical legacy of Puritanism. Any pain that does not lead to gain is uncounted, setting tragic knowledge aside for economic well-being. The result is a loop into which American society keeps falling, turning the experience of pain into a demand for ever-greater justice, but also repeatedly missing the chance to reckon with the pain’s deeper sources — or to acknowledge the scars left after the wounds heal. And while this process leads to civil gains, we never take the time to go back and address the emotional pains at the root of the anger. Because the answer to these social ills is not just rights, respect, and responsibility. It is also social, economic, and especially emotional reparation.

The emotional layers of reparation are less often discussed in racial terms. Talk of race and emotion has largely been usurped these days by Robin DiAngelo’s concept of White Fragility (2018). But as John McWhorter has written, the book is condescending to Black people, perverting an awareness of racism to such a degree that, in the end, “the whole point is the suffering.” And though it references Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” (2014) twice, White Fragility never engages in a direct discussion of reparations. A more complex approach to race and emotion was laid out by Isaac D. Balbus, whose “The Psychodynamics of Racial Reparations” (2004) uses the theory of Melanie Klein to suggest that “any discussion of financial restitution should take place within an emotional context that encourages whites to confront their guilt […] and to respond reparatively to that guilt.” As Balbus notes, the purpose of such a confrontation is not to make anyone suffer, but to help people realize “what Ralph Ellison pointed out three decades ago: namely that an America without blacks would be entirely unrecognizable and thus would not be a country with which they could identify.” In this sense, white fragility is yet another iteration of the puritan ethic, demanding very little emotional work where the other is concerned, and undermining our ability to forge and sustain a reality of inclusion. It fuels an obsession with evil, now located in the self, while making the crime of slavery so terrible, it turns conveniently irreparable — ending all talk of reparations before it has even begun.

The America of today — the America to which I immigrated as a child, from which I emigrated 20 years later, and where I still spend long periods — is a nation infinitely more nuanced, complex, and multifaceted than the founding puritan ethic suggests. Yet this ethos is emblematic of what I believe keeps American society stuck in a recursive loop, inflicting more pain on itself rather than seeking paths to reparation, which involve a self-examination of the extent to which this ethic has been internalized and expressed by us all, as well as the pain that it has left unaccounted. When Mencken wrote that the prototypical Puritan was more a sadist than a masochist, he was suggesting that the modern American was actually both. America’s way out of the loop of sadomasochist pain-infliction runs through acknowledging the pain that it has both caused and experienced as one nation made up of different kinds of people — who are also not as different as they feel.

Ellison was no purist. He was acutely aware of the gaps that exist between democratic ideals and their realization. He saw that Black Americans were a constant reminder to all of American society that it had failed in one of its greatest challenges: acknowledging the pain it had caused, and was still causing, to its own body politic. We can only set out on the path to reparation when we accept the damage we cause to ourselves and those closest to us. As America keeps wronging Blacks, it is actually continuing to wrong itself.


David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.

LARB Contributor

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem. His essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Literary Matters, and Speculative Nonfiction. He has published fiction in Call Me Brackets, Atticus Review, and the UK’s Ambit, scholarly articles in Prooftexts, Journal of Narrative Theory, and The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, and translations in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Conjunctions. He is the author of four cartoon collections, including Baddies (2009), and two critical studies, including IDIOT LOVE and the Elements of Intimacy (2020). His edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.


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