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America’s national epic was not written in meter and verse. Nor, for that matter, was it written by an American. Yet The Pilgrim’s Progress is nonetheless the primal American story, the account of our mad flight from order and lonely quest for grace.

Hemmed in by civilization, resentful of kin, a man strikes out for the wild, hoping to shed his burden of guilt. He has gone by many names—Natty, Ishmael, Huck, Sal—but the name Bunyan gave him was his first: Christian. This book will make a Traveller of thee, Bunyan warned, and we have been on the road ever since.

Christian wants to run. Where to? Anywhere—as long as it’s away from duty. “I know not whither to go,” Christian says, but go he must. Along with Huck, he wants to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” away from “sivilization.” Like Herman Melville’s Ishmael, he wants to get away from that place where men are “tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks”—and bound to women and children. As Christian runs, his wife and sons and daughters cry after him, but he is deaf to their pleading: “The Man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on.” He is Kerouac’s Sal Paradise: “Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness—everything is behind him.”

Published in 1684, Bunyan’s classic was written in a time when old hierarchies were toppling, old ways of life were being uprooted. Protestantism had shattered Christendom, calling ecclesial authority into question, challenging the very status of the Mother of God. As nations divided against themselves, the Holy Family was split apart. Protestant divines put away the Madonna and insisted on the jealous primacy of God the Father, who no longer superintended over the many-tiered heavens, but instead ruled directly, unmediated by lesser sacred powers. Meanwhile, migration to the New World and rising commerce were making men more mobile than ever. Old networks of kinship frayed. Hearth and home—once a sign of comfort and strength—came to seem an intolerable restraint.

In this context, Bunyan dramatized the conflict between duty and desire. The specter of disinheritance and the need for fatherly approval set Bunyan’s Christian on his lonely flight. Bunyan himself had felt the terrible anxiety of standing alone before a cruel father. Wracked by doubts about whether God had predestined him to heaven or to hell, he withdrew into himself. “Others again could quietly talk of, and with gladness remember the word of God, while I only was in the storm or tempest. This much sunk me: I thought my condition was alone.” His depression became physically unbearable: “I felt also such a clogging and heat at my stomach, by reason of this my terror, that I was, especially at some times, as if my breast-bone would have split asunder.” He came to believe that he bore the mark of Cain, and so was condemned to wander the earth and die.

Bunyan’s Calvinist theology supported this forlorn view. The Christian stands naked before a God who has arbitrarily predestined him either to heaven or to hell, according to the principle of “unconditional election.” The Christian cannot expect any maternal intercession before this fierce father, for the Blessed Mother has been banished as an idolatrous distraction from God’s majesty. Although Calvinism can exhibit a powerful Christocentric vision that exults in God’s grace, Bunyan’s despair shows its darker side. When told that God predestines some to hell, Christians can feel like Huck Finn, that motherless child whose father was a violent, capricious drunk.

Bunyan’s book expressed these fears. The characters Christian meets—Giant Despair, Apollyon, Turn-away—embody the anxiety of a doubting soul. “Oh, the unthought-of imaginations, frights, fears, and terrors that are affected by a thorough application of guilt!” Bunyan wrote. Horrible as these nightmares were, Bunyan believed they kept “God and Christ continually before my face, though not in a way of comfort, but in a way of exceeding dread and terrour.” Bunyan’s art, for all its darkness, seeks to lead readers to the light of God’s unalloyed holiness.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a progressive narrative of liberation, the same tale we tell ourselves as we embark on therapeutic efforts to be freed of repressions and undertake political struggles against oppressors. At the foot of the cross or on the psychiatrist’s couch, we want to shed our burdens—guilt, convention, obligation. Bunyan’s book showed the way out of bondage, a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night for the pilgrims of progress. Those who have told the American story in its many keys since have followed in his steps.

Yet Bunyan’s story was not novel. Three hundred years earlier, Dante had told how Ulysses, rather than staying home as a noble ruler, journeyed out to sea beyond the pillars of Hercules, on to the great West:

Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
For my old father, nor the due affection
Which joyous should have made Penelope,

Could overcome within me the desire
I had to be experienced of the world,
And of the vice and virtue of mankind.

This “mad flight” leads to the first literary sighting of America, a great mountain that looms up out of the sea. The sailors’ excitement soon turns to terror. “Out of the new land a whirlwind rose,” smiting their ship and sending the damned crew to the depths.

Ulysses’ quest ends in damnation because it is not oriented to heaven. Bunyan’s tale takes the same spiritual longing and directs it above. He hopes thereby to reconcile father and son, though his theology makes it difficult. The lonely Father in heaven, damning some and saving others, unmediated by any feminine presence, cannot help but be a daunting figure. He is the Puritan patriarch who haunted Hawthorne, the “grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor . . . with his Bible and his sword.” Oh, what can you do with a father like that? How can you persuade his sons he loves them?

Bunyan would never have countenanced Marian devotion. Yet he seemed to recognize that the journey of a solitary man toward reconciliation with a solitary God put life in terms too stark to endure. When he wrote a second installment of The Pilgrim’s Progress, he told a less fierce and more feminine tale. Christian’s wife proceeds on her way, accompanied by her children, who marry and bear children in turn. In the original tale, even the dearest friends will not tarry for each other. Each man must run as quickly as he can in his flight from destruction. In the second tale, the motley group of pilgrims waits for the weak. It is no longer a matter of individual pilgrims, but of a family caravan, with all its relationships and dependencies. The second installment lacks the frightful power of the first, but it is a gentler and nobler story, one more worthy of Bunyan’s Christian hope and the savior he confessed.

Bunyan lived in a time when every man seemed an Ishmael without inheritance, a Ulysses incapable of feeling at home. He wished to provide a path toward a home in which we can rest, to reconcile father and son. This, his life’s work, was also his final task. One day, a young neighbor who had incurred his father’s displeasure and stood to lose his inheritance asked the old preacher to intervene. Bunyan rode out to the father, telling him of the son’s deep sorrow and eagerness to submit. His embassy was so successful, one chronicler tell us, that the father’s “bowels yearned over his son.” This work done, Bunyan rode back in the rain, from which he caught a cold that soon led to his death. After a lifelong struggle with doubt, John Bunyan died confident in a father’s love. Because our world lacks that confidence, his fearful tale continues to haunt us.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.