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The Pilgrim's Progress: A Dream That Endures
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den; and I layed me down in the place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.
This great and simple opening of The Pilgrim’s Progress may remind us that in 1678 Bunyan’s dream was delivered to a reading public ready to receive it. For not only the British but Europeans generally had become all too familiar with the moral complexity of the natural world and the hardness of its going; their every path was a perplexity, their wandering footsteps stumbled in a maze, a labyrinth, a wilderness. Already John Amos Comenius, that great educational reformer of international renown, had published his Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (1631), in which he hoped to show “both the vanity of the world and the glory, happiness and pleasure of the chosen hearts that are united with God,” while a host of other hortatory works in English with titles suggestive of Bunyan’s were in widespread circulation during the first half of the seventeenth century.
It is consequently hardly surprising that The Pilgrim’s Progress should have met so early with “good acceptation among the people,” as publisher Nathaniel Ponder happily observed in an appendix to the fourth edition of 1680. Furnishing as it did much counsel, caution and consolation amid the toilsome traffic of daily life, it bore a message that was at once both useful and agreeable. What is more remarkable is the degree of its success as a best-seller. Bunyan’s first editor, Charles Doe, noted in 1692 that about one hundred thousand copies were at that time in print in England alone and that the book had already appeared “in France, Holland, New England and in Welch”, a phenomenon suggesting to Doe how Bunyan’s fame might yet “be the cause of spreading his other Gospel-Books over the European and American world, and in process of time may be so to the whole Universe.” So overwhelming indeed was the continuing popularity of the book that even learned critics of the eighteenth century, like Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift, could not forbear to cheer.
Nevertheless, the Age of Reason generally found Bunyan lacking in finesse, and it was left to the Romantics to uphold this very absence of refinement as a peculiar virtue. If Bunyan was an unlettered tinker out of Bedford, his allegory must be the untutored work of one who was truly a “natural” genius; his pilgrim, after all, had power enough to affect the businesses and bosoms of all sorts and conditions of men. William Blake was sufficiently moved by Christian’s adventures to create his twenty-nine incomparable water-color illustrations, while Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought the allegory “the best Summa Theologiae Evangelicae ever produced by a writer not miraculously inspired.” Adulation continued unabated throughout the nineteenth century and reached a peak in the evangelical fervor of the Victorian era.
American interest in The Pilgrim’s Progress was initially fostered and later sustained by the prevalence of an apocalyptic view which anticipated the establishment of the New Jerusalem in the new world as the climactic event of history. The parallel between the vision of Christian’s journey through a harsh and hostile world to a shining city on a hill and their own utopian dream and millenarian hope was too sharp for most Americans to miss. Accordingly, the influence of Bunyan’s allegory in America was pervasive; it is indicated not only by the astonishing number of American adaptations produced in the nineteenth century, of which Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad is no doubt the best known, but also by the inspiration the allegory provided for authors as disparate as Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and E. E. Cummings.
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