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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Utopian

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Activities: Author Activities

William Bradford - Teaching Tips

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  • Bradford wrote Book I of Of Plymouth Plantation in 1630 and Book II from about 1644 to 1650. The dates of composition are significant because they mark periods of crisis in the Plymouth settlement's sense of its own purpose and worth. In 1630, the non-separating Puritans led by John Winthrop arrived in nearby Massachusetts Bay. Not only did this group represent a competing strain of Puritanism, but it also was better funded than the Plymouth colony and in possession of a more legitimate charter to the New England territory (in fact, it would absorb the Plymouth group in 1691). In the late 1640s, Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell transformed the political and religious situation in Old England, making the American Puritans' project seem somewhat redundant and certainly less novel. Once you alert students to the historical contexts that inform the two parts of Bradford's text, you might ask them to consider how these events color Bradford's account. To some extent, his decision to recount the Plymouth group's voyage and landing seems to be a way of defending their primacy among New England settlers. How might his account of the hardships the group faced upon landing affirm their claim both to the land and to spiritual purity? You might also examine how Bradford's tone and outlook changed in the fourteen years that elapsed between the writing of Book I and Book II.

  • It is useful to point out that Bradford differs from most early American writers in portraying Native Americans as immediately hostile: in Of Plymouth Plantation the natives first run from the Puritans and then attack them with arrows before any other kind of contact can be established. Bradford's low estimation of the Indians is evident in his brutal, graphic account of the Plymouth group's genocidal war against the Pequots in Chapter XXVIII. For Bradford, the bloodiness and horror of the war seemed "a sweet sacrifice, and they [the Puritans] gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands...." You might ask students to analyze what assumptions lay behind Bradford's hatred of the Native Americans (he describes them as animals in Chapter IV) and how those assumptions were used to justify the colonization of Native American land.

  • Bradford's account of the Plymouth group's conflict with Thomas Morton and Morton's "consorts" at Merrymount is worth careful analysis and discussion, both because it provides insight into how the Puritans dealt with people who did not share their values and beliefs (both Native Americans and the English, in this case) and because it will serve as useful background when students read Morton's version of events in New English Canaan. You might ask students to consider whether Bradford is more outraged by what he perceives as Morton's "licentiousness" in matters of drink and sex or by Morton's decision to sell guns to Indians in exchange for fur pelts.

  • In 1994, Sophie Cabot Black composed "Arguments," a series of poems in which she dramatizes the Mayflower landing from the perspective of Dorothy Bradford (William's wife), who died soon after the Separatist Puritans' arrival in the New World. Ask students to compare William Bradford's narrative of the Mayflower landing in Of Plymouth Plantation with Cabot Black's version of Dorothy Bradford's feelings about reaching America in "Landfall. 20th of November." How does Cabot Black revise William Bradford's narrative? Why did she choose Dorothy Bradford as the subject for her poems? See Sophie Cabot Black, The Misunderstanding of Nature (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1994).

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