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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise William Bradford (1590-1657)

[6324] Sarony and Major, The Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, Dec. 11th, 1620 (1846), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4311].

Born in 1590 in Yorkshire, England, William Bradford was orphaned at a young age and reared by his grandparents and uncles to be a farmer. Bradford broke with his family in early adolescence, affiliating himself with the Separatist Puritans and thereby making a religious commitment that would profoundly influence the course of his life. The Separatists dreamed of creating a purified religious community, free of the hierarchies and worldly rituals that they felt contaminated the Church of England. The sect was known as “Separatist” because, unlike most Puritan congregations, it rejected the Church of England entirely instead of attempting to reform it from within. Bradford and his fellow Separatists paid a high price for their controversial beliefs: religious persecution led them to flee England for safer harbors in Holland and eventually in America.

In 1620, Bradford and part of the congregation to which he belonged set sail for America on the Mayflower, bringing with them a patent granting them land in the territory of Virginia, where they hoped to set up their ideal church. Bad weather pushed them off course, and they landed well north of Virginia on the coast of what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. There they began the difficult work of establishing a community in unfamiliar, and sometimes hostile, territory. Bradford was elected governor in 1621 and occupied that office, with only brief intermissions, until his death in 1657. In 1630 he began writing Of Plymouth Plantation, the history of his “Pilgrims'” religious and civil settlement in the New World.

Bradford’s literary reputation depends, as scholar David Levin puts it, “as much on the quality of his historical intelligence as on the virtues of his style.” Indeed, Bradford’s text has long been celebrated for the “plain style” he endorses in its first paragraph. His simple yet artful prose, characterized by finely tuned sentences based upon the language and cadences of the Geneva Bible, is often regarded as a model of a specifically American style of writing. But, as Levin points out, Bradford’s text is no less notable for its historiographic project, a complex balance of religious exhortation and unvarnished reportage. Clearly, Of Plymouth Plantation is meant to serve as an account of God’s design in planting the Plymouth colony, interpreting events that might seem random or even commonplace to modern readers as evidence of God’s hand at work on earth. Bradford’s history extols the purity and strength of the first settlers in order to inspire subsequent generations to greater sanctity, combating what he perceived to be the spiritual decline of the community in the years following the initial settlement. While Bradford’s desire to read God’s will in the history of Plymouth colors his text — and frequently skews his understanding of non-Puritan people — his tendency toward exhortation is often balanced by an unflinching commitment to historical accuracy. He is surprisingly blunt in relating some of the troubles that plagued the Plymouth community, from rancorous differences between leaders to upsetting cases of sexual deviance among congregants. The result is a complicated, engaging document that has become an integral part of the mythology concerning the foundation of America.

Teaching Tips

  • 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).

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In Chapter IV, Bradford refers to America as a “vast and unpeopled” country, but his subsequent account of the Plymouth settlement attests to the fact that the land was far from uninhabited. What other kinds of people do the Plymouth settlers encounter on their voyage and in the New World? How does the presence of “strangers” work both to challenge and to solidify the Puritan community?
  2. Comprehension: Why is Bradford so outraged by Thomas Morton? What is the nature of the conflict between Morton’s Merrymount community and Bradford’s Pilgrims? What kinds of values did each group espouse?
  3. Context: What does Bradford mean when he refers to “plain style” in the introduction to Of Plymouth Plantation? What values and beliefs are reflected in his prose style? How does it compare to the prose styles of other writers discussed in this unit (Morton or Penn, for example)?
  4. Exploration: Compare Bradford’s account of the Puritans’ “Arrival at Cape Cod” and “First Thanksgiving” with contemporary ideas about the landing at Plymouth Rock and the holiday. Why have these invented traditions and myths become so central to ideas about America’s national beginnings? Why are the Puritans considered such an important starting point for America’s national culture?

 

Selected Archive Items

[6324] Sarony and Major, The Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, Dec. 11th, 1620 (1846),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4311].
Although no evidence directly links the Mayflower’s 1620 landing to Plymouth Rock, this location has come to represent the birthplace of English settlement in New England.

[6326] Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621 (1932),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15915].
The Thanksgiving holiday has gained mythic status through representations of the event as a critical occasion of the Plymouth colony.

[6726] A. W. Anderson, Plymouth Rock, in Front of Pilgrim Hall, 1834 (1909),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-97130].
Although no evidence directly links the Mayflower’s 1620 landing to Plymouth Rock, for many this location represents the birthplace of English settlement in New England.

[6940] Anonymous, Contemporary Model/Recreation of the Mayflower (2000-2001),
courtesy of Plimoth Plantation, Inc.
Thousands of tourists visit this model of the Mayflower each year, contributing to the Puritans’ mythic status as the original American settlers.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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