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Saturday, November 25, 2006

 

Leftovers: Plymouth Rocked

by poputonian

Here is a link to an excellent essay about Mayflower historians, including the original one, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, the man who also discovered capitalism. New Yorker writer Jill Lepore begins with a sketch of Samuel Eliot Morison, who entered Harvard and never left, and then does a smooth takedown on Bradford, followed by one of journalist neo-historian Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the current best-seller Mayflower - A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Philbrick's book takes you from Bradford's voyage across the "vast and furious" ocean to that seminal event, King Phillip's War. The essay should be read in its entirety by those with an interest, but nonetheless, here is an excerpt:

THE NEW YORKER
Critic at Large

PLYMOUTH ROCKED
by JILL LEPORE
Of Pilgrims, Puritans, and professors.
Issue of 2006-04-24

Philbrick, a former all-American sailor and Sunfish-racing champion who lives on Nantucket, seems, at first glance, to be following in Morison’s wake. Waves slosh through all of his books, whose titles sound like the names of sea chanties: “Sea of Glory,” “Away Off Shore,” “Second Wind,” and “In the Heart of the Sea,” the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction. Like Morison, he finds most history books written by professors a chore to read. Trained as a journalist, Philbrick once explained his decision to include a bibliographic essay instead of footnotes or references to works of scholarship in his text: “I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history.”

Sam Morison never met a footnote he didn’t like, but his relationship to academic history was a complicated one. At Harvard, he was neither a natural teacher nor a beloved one. He never held office hours, he made his students come to class in coat and tie, and he refused to teach Radcliffe girls (he considered them frivolous). He liked to lecture in riding breeches and, in later years, in his Navy uniform. “Even before he became an admiral, you felt as though he were one and you were a midshipman,” a former student, the eminent Yale historian Edmund Morgan, recalled.

But Morison believed, ardently, that there was something about university life that mattered, that made people more honest, more accountable, and less likely to get things wrong. In a 1948 review in the Atlantic Monthly of a book by the historian Charles Beard, who had left Columbia thirty years earlier to live on a dairy farm, Morison suggested (pretty cruelly, since Beard was on his deathbed at the time) that Beard’s work had suffered from his isolation: “You get more back talk even from freshmen than from milch cows.”

Maybe if Nathaniel Philbrick had had to answer to freshmen he might have learned to be a bit more skeptical of his sources. The first half of his book stars William Bradford, and relies, appropriately, on Bradford’s history, or, rather, on Samuel Eliot Morison’s invaluable edition of Bradford’s history. So much did Morison admire Bradford, so much did he despise the myth of the Puritans, so much did he want Americans to read better history, that he spent five years meticulously preparing an edition of Bradford’s history “that the ordinary reader might peruse with pleasure as well as profit.” Working closely with his faithful secretary, Antha Card, to whom he read Bradford’s every word aloud, Morison altered the original’s antiquated spelling and cleared the text of notes and scribbles made by everyone from Bradford’s biographers to his descendants, material that had been injudiciously included, and mistakenly attributed to Bradford himself, in earlier printed editions. Morison applied his magnifying glass to every trace of ink on the manuscript’s pages. Where earlier copyists had Bradford concluding that “the light here kindled hath shone to many,” Morison pointed out that the light actually shone “unto” many; a splotch that looked as though Bradford had crossed out the “un” turned out, on closer inspection, to be “merely an inadvertent blot from the Governor’s quill pen.” Published in 1952 as “Of Plymouth Plantation,” Morison’s definitive edition of Bradford is now in its twenty-third printing.

I very much related this next part to current times:

In proportion to population, King Philip’s War was one of the deadliest wars in American history. More than half of all English settlements in New England were either destroyed or abandoned. Hundreds of colonists were killed. Thousands of Indians died; those who survived, including Philip’s nine-year-old son, Massasoit’s grandson, were loaded on ships and sold into slavery. Because the conflict was, for both sides, a holy war, it was waged with staggering brutality. New England’s Indians fought to take their land back from the Christians, mocking their praying victims: “Where is Your O God?” One, having killed a colonist, stuffed a Bible into his victim’s gutted belly. Puritans interpreted such acts as a sign of God’s wrath, as punishment for their descent into sinfulness. Not only had they become, over the years, less pious than the first generation of settlers; they had also failed to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Boston minister Increase Mather asked, “Why should we suppose that God is not offended with us, when his displeasure is written, in such visible and bloody Characters?”

Reading those scarlet letters, Puritans concluded that God was commanding them to defeat their “heathen” enemies by any means necessary. For the English, all restraint in war, all notions of “just conduct,” applied only to secular warfare; in a holy war, anything goes. Ministers urged their congregations to “take, kill, burn, sink, destroy all sin and Corruption, &C which are professed enemies to Christ Jesus, and not to pity or spare any of them.” Such a policy, then as now, breeds nothing if not merciless retaliation. As a Boston merchant reported to London, the Indians, in town after town, tortured and mutilated their victims, “either cutting off the Head, ripping open the Belly, or skulping the Head of Skin and Hair, and hanging them up as Trophies; wearing Men’s Fingers as Bracelets about their Necks, and Stripes of their Skins which they dresse for Belts."

Brutal.



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