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Mapping the hieroglyphic self: spiritual geometry in the letters of John Winthrop, Jr, and Edward Howes (1627–1640)

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This paper examines letters written by Edward Howes, a London mathematician and clerk, to his friend John Winthrop, Jr, an early American colonist with an interest in natural philosophy. In this transatlantic correspondence, Howes uses alchemical transformation as a controlling metaphor for ‘perfection’ that is both private and public, personal and global. These letters envision Winthrop and Howes as participants in a unique historical moment, with the capacity to attain a divine ‘Centre of Truth’ within their own perfected souls, to forge a uniquely intimate friendship that transcends geographic boundaries, and to aid in the creation of a godly community in New England. This paper argues for an equation between Howes's notion of the perfected self and Protestant election, in which spiritually elite American colonists and ‘elect’ readers of alchemical texts experience a similarly special relationship with the divine. Moreover, Howes's rhetoric suggests a connection between the hope for individual and societal perfection and Winthrop's quest to find the Northwest Passage, envisioned as a channel facilitating a diffusion of Christ's spirit throughout the world and a transcendent union of East and West.
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Keywords: Edward Howes; John Winthrop Jr; Northwest Passage; alchemy; letters

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Publication date: 2011-04-01

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