The Good Book
Everybody used to read 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Now you should, too.
Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By BARTON SWAIM
The Pilgrim's Progress
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?"