The Magazine

The Good Book

Everybody used to read 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Now you should, too.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By BARTON SWAIM
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The Pilgrim's Progress

by John Bunyan, edited by Roger Pooley

Penguin, 384 pp., $11

There was a time, now just beyond living memory, when everyone had read Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan's great work was, as Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, "the one book everybody knew."

Because Dante has never really been domesticated in Protestant England, when an English sensibility looks for traditional waste and horror and loss and fear, it turns not to the Inferno but to Pilgrim's Progress. It would be impossible to count the number of times "the Slough of Despond" is invoked as the only adequate designation for churned-up mud morasses pummeled by icy rain and heavy shells.

Bunyan's book isn't altogether forgotten; it's perpetually in print, and scholars are still attracted to Bunyan generally and to Pilgrim's Progress particularly. But it hasn't been a book read by "everybody," or even most people, for nearly a century. This new Penguin Classics edition won't change that, unfortunately, but it is an outstanding work of scholarship and deserves attention.

The task of annotating Pilgrim's Progress is a complicated one. To begin with, the text is saturated with biblical allusions, many of them subtle and unreferenced in Bunyan's text. ("Prick him anywhere," said the Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon of Bunyan, "and you will find that his blood is Bibline.") Then there are the theological concepts and the myriad works of "controversial divinity" with which Bunyan was in constant interaction. Roger Pooley has done a splendid job of noting relevant material without burdening the reader with useless data or irrelevant speculation. If you haven't read Pilgrim's Progress, (a) you should be ashamed of yourself, and (b) this edition is an excellent introduction.

John Bunyan was born in 1628 in Elstow, near Bedford. He had a few years of schooling, but was for the most part self-educated. He was a thinker, as his father had been. In 1644 he was conscripted into Cromwell's New Model Army, in which he may have had some contact with radical ideas but in which the religious disputes then vexing the nation seem to have made no impression on him.

At some point in the early 1650s he began to worry about the state of his soul. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a spiritual autobiography of extraordinary emotional intensity, relays the series of events by which he became a Christian writer and preacher. The encounter with the poor women of Bedford is the book's key moment:

And me thought they spake as if joy did make them speak: they spake with such pleasantness of Scripture language, and with such appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me as if they had found a new world, as if they were people that dwelt alone, and were not to be reckoned amongst their Neighbors.

(There's an allusion there, to Numbers 23:9: "Behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations.")

Soon he was an energetic member of the separatist Bedford Baptists, a writer of anti-Quaker pamphlets, and a lay preacher. In November 1660, just after the Restoration of Charles II, Bunyan was arrested during a service he was conducting in a barn. He was offered freedom on the condition that he promise not to preach any more, which was a promise he would not make. He remained in jail for the next 12 years, and he supported his family by making shoelaces and writing books and pamphlets.

He was imprisoned again, briefly, in 1676 and 1677. It was during this latter imprisonment that he finished the first part of Pilgrim's Progress. The story's point of departure is the prison cell: "As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept I dreamed a dream."

He goes on:

I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled: and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, "What shall I do?"

Pilgrim's Progress is among the most powerful arguments ever made for the primacy of the individual conscience. The story's villains don't want to kill Christian so much as persuade him to abandon his pursuit. Apollyon himself offers to spare Christian's life, "if now thou wilt turn again, and go back." In that respect, at least, Pilgrim's Progress is as essential to the American character as the Declaration. No book had greater influence over the development of American piety. And the evidence of that influence is all around us: There is no higher virtue in our politics than "staying true to your principles, regardless of the cost."

What makes the book so special? How is it that an allegory told by an unlettered latter-day Puritan--a Baptist whose intellectual interests extended to the Bible and a few other books--can hold so much power for believers of every Christian tradition--and, indeed, for agnostics and unbelievers as well?

Part of the answer lies in the sheer simplicity of its idiom. It is surely the least self-consciously literary book in English literature. Bunyan's story isn't quite an allegory in the usual sense, for the word allegory--a story intended to illustrate something else--implies an element of artifice that's plainly absent from Pilgrim's Progress.

An allegory is the thing signified, not the thing itself, but Bunyan constantly threads between the two. Sometimes Christian is a pilgrim traveling to the Celestial City; sometimes he is a Christian believer laboring to maintain his belief in a world of doubt and cynicism; somehow he is both simultaneously. The effect is magical: The reader sits poised between the real and the unreal, with the result that "suspension of disbelief," as Coleridge had it, seems weirdly unnecessary.

But what really makes Pilgrim's Progress a great book is what makes all great books great: its author's insight into what makes people behave as they do. Bunyan had a marvelous gift for presenting human propensities in the abstract, but doing so in ways that strike one as deeply--indeed uncomfortably--familiar. Everyone has a favorite passage; my own appears in part two when Christiana (Christian's wife, who makes the journey in part two) visits the house of Interpreter.

Interpreter shows Christiana and her fellow pilgrims a room where there was

a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand. There stood also one over his head with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered to give him that crown for his muck-rake; but the man did neither look up, nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, the dust of the floor.

Interpreter--this is an allegory within an allegory--explains that the spectacle "lets thee know that earthly things when they are with power upon men's minds quite carry their hearts away from God." He continues: " 'Give me not riches' is scarce the prayer of one of ten thousand. Straws and sticks and dust with most are the great things now looked after."

With its archaic diction and its severe, sometimes terrifying vision of religious life, Pilgrim's Progress isn't an easy read. But it has the power to lift one's gaze, if just for a moment, from straws and sticks and dust. It's worth the effort.

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.