Puritans At Play: Leisure And Recreation In Colonial New England, by Bruce C. Daniels
It is an often-repeated canard that the Puritans were no fun at all and this book does a good job at demonstrating how that is simply not the case. Admittedly, this argument is made a bit easier by the fact that the author looks at the evidence from colonial New England as being evidence that the Puritans weren’t hostile to pleasure. Now, this certainly does help matters, as New England got more fun throughout the period of New England, but the fact that the Puritans were not hostile to leisure or recreation from the beginning is sufficient to prove the author’s point that the Puritans have been unfairly slandered even if the expansion of the focus into the period long after the Puritan legacy was being undermined during the late colonial period was likely done to make the material enough for a book. Difficult tradeoffs are required when one writes books about the past, especially where documentation is limited as it is when it comes to the leisure and amusements of among the most serious peoples known to European history. Even so, this book does its purpose and is easy to recommend to those who study the Puritans and their culture.
This particular book is a bit more than 200 pages long and is divided into six sections and eleven chapters. The author opens with acknowledgements and a discussion of the sometimes complex relationship between Puritanism, play, and American culture. After that the author explores the question of whether Puritans liked fun (I) by examining their views of sober mirth and pleasant poisons and Puritan ambivalence to recreation in early New England history (1). After that the author discusses intellectual and cultural entertainment (II) by looking at Puritan views about reading for fun (2) and the struggle for legitimacy that music and theater faced up to the Revolutionary War (3). Then comes a look at gathering together (III), where the author discusses fellowship at church (4) as well as civic socializing where parties were undertaken for the common good (5). This leads to a discussion of the frolic that men and women had together (IV), which included dances, weddings, and dinner parties (6), sex and courtship (7), and drinking and socializing in places like taverns and alehouses (8). After that the author looks at special opportunities and barriers to fun (V), such as sport and games in a male-dominated public culture (9) and the fragmentation of social experience by age, sex, location, and class (10). Finally, the author discusses the Puritan legacy within the national experience of fun (VI, 11), after which there are abbreviations, endnotes, and an index.
It is interesting to ponder the question of what counts as play. While we live in a contemporary culture where playing games is common, this book reminds us that there are plenty of leisure and recreation activities that are wholeheartedly enjoyed even by those who are not very fond of games at all. One can take, for example, the reflection on reading for pleasure or the enjoyment of good music, or the enjoyment of congregational fellowship or dinner parties. Most of these activities would be found as fun by even the most serious of people. If one cannot enjoy good religious music, or good books, or the opportunity to fellowship with others of like beliefs and practices or enjoy good conversation or good food, there really is no hope for someone to be a good member of any kind of society at all. We might not even consider such things to be recreation because we take them for granted so much, but for those of us who live fairly serious lives, they are the sources of amusement and recreation that are the easiest to find and among the most lasting of pleasures.