Bradford’s books (fourth and final part)
Although I mentioned the peregrinations of Bradford’s journal over a week ago, I have not spoken of the work itself beyond giving lengthy quotations in previous posts. Bradford recorded the events of the first thirty years of the Plymouth Colony in a work that has been hailed as the first work of American literature. In a real sense, however, those phrases require heavy qualification.
Bradford began the work with the Pilgrims’ departure for Holland in 1608, and ended the first half with the arrival in New England. The first part thus predates the foundation of the colony, and is the story of triumph over overwhelming odds -- political, cultural, and natural. It is also surprisingly upbeat and thankful: far more than simply a record of events, this is certainly a work of faith.
The second part, which begins with the Mayflower Compact and ends with a list of the original settlers, what has become of them, and their increasings, goes to 1647 (with the list of settlers added in 1651), and it is markedly different. Bradford, who maintained a confident disposition despite his wife’s death in Provincetown harbour in 1620, paints a dark picture indeed of the Plymouth Colony’s fall from its original ideal, a long, long series of compromises and subservience to forces that were beyond the colony’s control. I am always touched by Bradford’s words in chapter 33: “And thus was this poor church left, like an ancient mother, grown old, and forsaken of her children, (though not in their affections,) yet in regard of their bodily presence and personal helpfulness. Her ancient members being most of them worn away by death; and these of later time being like children translated into other families, and she like a widow left only to trust in God [1 Tim 5.5]. Thus she that had made many rich became herself poor [2 Cor 6.10].”
There are numerous editions of this work available, and I find Samuel Eliot Morison’s 1952 edition to be the most accessible to modern readers: the spelling and punctuation are modernised (and, 400 years later, that is important), the abbreviations are expanded, and the notes are few, necessary, and judicious. Copies published before that time either have no or few notes, or give only selections of the whole work. Copies published since are typically revisions of Morison’s work. It is still readily available, having been through more than twenty printings.
It would take more time and space than I have to critique fully the much trumpeted “400th anniversary edition” published last year. It is a woefully inadequate display of 21st century politics, and while parts of the essays are useful presentations of the sixteenth and seventeenth century religious context, far too much of it is a heavy handed rewriting of Bradford’s story. It tells us quite a bit about the writers and their ideas about what Bradford should have said, and precious little about Bradford, but that was undoubtedly its purpose. Pillorying the Pilgrims in the introductory essays, the work cries out for balance; the footnotes are helpful, but long and rambling. There are also more errors than an early Mets game: p. 202 n. 4 states “This was the marriage of Edward Winslow to Susannah White, whose husband had died in February 1621. Her daughter was Peregrine White.” As I am sure the readers of this post will by now realise, Peregrine White was nobody’s daughter; he was the son of William and Susannah (Barker) White.