Sacvan Bercovitch, a distinguished literary scholar who traced America’s self-image of “exceptionalism” to the rhetoric of the colonial Puritans of New England, died on Dec. 9 at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Susan Mizruchi.
In perhaps his most influential work, “The Puritan Origins of the American Self” (1975), Dr. Bercovitch argued that unlike colonists in New Spain, New France or New Amsterdam, who saw their outposts as an extension of European societies, the Puritans saw New England as something new — “a city upon the hill,” as John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, described it — which would be a shining example for the rest of the world.
Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan echoed the phrase in their speeches, and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, in his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, played off the reference, accusing Reagan of overlooking the hardships of the poor. “Mr. President,” he said, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’ ”
Werner Sollors, a professor of English literature and African-American studies at Harvard, where Dr. Bercovitch taught from 1983 until he retired in 2001, called him “the last of the great American studies scholars.”
“The rhetorical basis of so much American political rhetoric, religious rhetoric and also articulations in writing, he located very convincingly in the Puritan sermon tradition,” Dr. Sollors said.
Dr. Bercovitch’s 1978 book, “The American Jeremiad,” expanded on his thesis. Here he discerned an American version of the jeremiad, a harangue about society’s declining morals named after the biblical prophet Jeremiah. In this version, however, after berating an audience for its failings, the speaker would end up extolling the country as the world’s best hope for redemption.
“He thought there was something particular about the U.S. sense of its exceptionalism that had propelled the United States to become this hugely successful, powerful, dominant nation,” said Christopher Looby, an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “That’s the kind of thing I think you see carrying through even to the last presidential election. Mitt Romney was challenging Obama: ‘Do you or don’t you think America is an exceptional country?’ ”
Dr. Bercovitch took a circuitous route to becoming an expert on Puritans and American literature.
He was born on Oct. 4, 1933, into a Yiddish-speaking left-wing family in a Jewish ghetto in Montreal. His first name is a combination of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who many thought had been wrongly executed in 1927 for murder and armed robbery. His unsettled childhood included stays in foster homes. He studied briefly at the New School for Social Research in New York and Reed College in Oregon, before moving to Israel to live as a dairy farmer on a kibbutz.
After returning to Montreal, he worked at a grocery store and obtained a night-school education at Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University, graduating in 1961. He obtained master’s and doctoral degrees from Claremont Graduate School in California.
In preparing for the oral examination for his Ph.D. in American studies, Dr. Bercovitch read the works of the Puritans, who were known for their unadorned way of life.
“It came as a shock to find that Puritan literature was anything but plain,” Dr. Bercovitch wrote in the preface to the 2011 edition of “The Puritan Origins of the American Self.” “It abounded in images, analogies, symbols, tropes and allusions; it had recourse to every kind of rhetorical device.”
After academic positions at Columbia, Brandeis and the University of California, San Diego, he returned to Columbia as a professor in 1970. He moved to Harvard in 1983.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Bercovitch is survived by two sons, Eytan and Sascha, and two sisters, Sylvia Ary and Ninel Segal. He and his first wife,Hanna M. Bercovitch, were divorced.
Dr. Sollors recalled Dr. Bercovitch as having a free-ranging mind and a somewhat bemused sensibility about American society. He noted that before his first meeting with Dr. Bercovitch, he prepared for the occasion by reading his colleague’s writings, expecting a serious discussion about them.
“We did it for about five minutes, and then he started talking about the movie ‘The Stepford Wives,’ ” Dr. Sollors said, referring to the 1974 satire in which American suburban men replace their wives with robots. “One could have a wonderful argument over a weird movie.”
He added: “He would put himself out there as an ordinary Canadian immigrant who was startled by things in America and tried to make sense of it. That’s how he looked at himself — as a hero in a Kafka story.”