In a powerful chronicle, spanning three centuries of the Winthrop family in New England and New York, Louis Auchincloss portrays the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic. Through a richly diverse gallery of men and women, both real and fictional, he illuminates the personal and social conflicts that the Puritan sense of mission has generated—under changing guises—in American life.
The Winthrop heritage begins in the stern confines of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—Governor John Winthrop's covenant with God versus Anne Hutchinson's compulsion to martyrdom. The burden of conscience falls in varying ways to the Governor's descendants. To his grandson, a judge in the Salem witch trials, it means dying in torment. To Rebecca Bayard, wife of a Hudson Valley patroon, it becomes an obsessive sense of duty leading to ironic consequences. It persuades an American diplomat, negotiating in Paris with the canny Talleyrand, to reject the easy gain of private power.
On the eve of the Civil War, Winthrop Ward, pillar of rectitude in New York society, finds himself playing God at the price of his own humanity. At the century's turn, there is Adam Winthrop, wealthy clubman and cultural arbiter, and his protEgEe Ada Guest—the passionate bluestocking novelist who opts to escape his stifling patronage. In a New England boarding school in the 1920s, the headmaster's bedeviled Winthrop soul becomes a strange challenge to the chaplain. On the current scene, young and fashionable Natica Seligmann yearns for salvation from an empty life. And finally, there is John Winthrop Gardiner, staunch State Department hawk, whose son is an Army deserter—and whose alcoholic ex-wife perceives only too clearly the latterday perversions of the Puritan spirit.
A compassionate, searching and wholly arresting view of a moral strain that, for better or worse, has marked our national character, The Winthrop Covenant is one of Louis Auchincloss' highest fictional achievements.