(Regular readers of this space know that my Core Humanities professor ardently believes that I'm wasting my talents in accounting and that I should be a writer. This is the most recent paper I wrote for his class---I got an A on it. I share it here so you may make up your own mind about whether my writing is any good. Comments are welcomed---I'd like to know what my own readership thinks!)
On Bradford: Instead of Landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would Land on Them
March 10, 2010
A long time ago, on a continent far, far away, a bunch of guys in silly hats with their belts notched way too tight got their sorry hides chased out of England and were so bothersome and onerous that even the famously tolerant Dutch told them to get lost. Thus began the journey across the ocean of these schmucks to found a colony in a place that would not become interesting until a bunch of potato-munching, hard-drinking Irishmen showed up two and a quarter centuries later and finally made the place worth a damn. The schmucks were the Pilgrims. Their leader, one William Bradford, decided in his infinite wisdom to chronicle the journey for the edification and to the consternation of everyone who would grow up in New England forevermore, and the friendly neighborhood Indians decided to take pity on them, knowing they would get their revenge on the white man in the form of school kids bored to tears by the historical re-enactment society field trips in grade schools centuries later.
If all this sounds a bit glib, it is only because I am not keen on tired recitation of tired old tropes that have been beaten to death. Any American who does not know this story backwards and forwards “would seem to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” Just for completeness sake, guys in funny hats show up on boat called Mayflower, damn near starve to death because they are long on religious piety and short on survival instinct, get bailed out by natives, thank the natives for their trouble by killing them wholesale with guns and smallpox, get into a shooting war over some guy named Phil, survive a few winters on their own, then their chronicler runs the joint for a few years as governor before calling it a life in 1657.
Of particular interest is that Bradford was a very religious man; the man cannot go two sentences without throwing his god into things. Bradford's history reads like a chronicle of divine intervention rather than the work of mankind, a tendency that marked the cultural history of Massachusetts for most of its first two and a half centuries before baseball was invented and became Boston's unofficial religion with the creation of the Boston Red Stockings Base Ball Club in 1871.
Some things are good when they are dry. A white wine, Nevada's climate in the summertime, and a basement come to mind. Not so with Bradford's prose. The Puritans were notorious for being humorless, stick-up-the-butt, prim, uninteresting people, and nothing captures this zeitgeist quite like Bradford's writing. The man was clearly up on his Scripture, in writing style as well as religious value. Genesis, chapter five, leaps immediately to mind. What jumps out at the reader is the lack of imagination. Bradford was a journalist and as such took pains to record facts that, while useful to historical re-enactment societies, tends to lull the casual reader to sleep.
Consider the passage from Book I about a braggart of questionable constitution which has gained a measure of renown: “...But it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.” Schadenfreude? Without doubt. Clever? Only to the extent that the aforementioned Biblical chapter is clever. It is a Jack Webb stab at a joke if indeed Bradford's sense of irony extended beyond an irony so blatantly obvious that even a Puritan minister with a tree branch in his rectum could see it.
Bradford goes on like this for decades. Every meticulous detail is sorted, categorized, and cataloged in a manner one would normally expect from a meth addict at three in the morning. Bradford is, as a leader, reflective in many ways of the people he leads, all of them as humorless and religiously inclined as he.
Except Morton of Merrymount. Even Bradford broke character when the subject of “a kind of pettifogger” in possession of “more craft than honesty” came up. Speaking of Bible verses, if the chronicle of the history is Genesis 5, the chapter on Morton is reminiscent of Mark 13:6: “For many shall come in my name, and shall deceive many.” Bradford cannot contain his distaste for this opportunistic swine and takes every opportunity to throw pot shots at him.
On the whole, however, it is likely for the best that Bradford was so thorough and consistent, for in his history we find the roots of knowledge about ourselves as Americans. The work bears the mark of a man concerned with the quality of his efforts, surely a commentary on the fabled New England work ethic which persists three and a half centuries after William Bradford's death. Attention to detail, commentary with moral purpose in its words, and a profound distaste for those who would disrupt the order? A better statement of the New England weltanschauung can hardly be conceived.
This is not to say I wasn't bored out of my skull reading it. Bradford's style is historically interesting, to be certain. However, his command of literary devices leaves a lot to be desired. As I read, I found myself thinking “I could rewrite this and make it funny, but then I'm not a Puritan in a silly hat.” At the same time, reverence for the form aside, the work does display a lot of elements that are instantly familiar to even the modern New England mind. Had Bradford come along three centuries later, well what you have there is John Kerry at a Red Sox game. Still humorless, prim, and with a bat in his posterior, but in step with the culture of his time and place.
The problem with reading about the first Thanksgiving when one has grown up going on childhood field trip after childhood field trip to historical re-enactment sites is that to read the actual history is to picture underpaid people in period costumes acting like living anachronisms. The real thing almost seems anti-climactic, like my mind pictured guys in Indian suits looking like Chief Wahoo who couldn't get jobs at casinos rather than living, breathing, on-the-reservation natives.
Then again, a surefire way to be branded a heretic is to show a sense of originality in a place so devoted to order that even those who value order are like “Dude, switch away from decaf.” Had Bradford thrown a few jokes in there, someone would likely think “Yea, verily, I doth laugheth, and surely this be signs of the influence of the Devil.” There's a good reason Bradford doesn't read like George Carlin. If he did, they'd burn him at the stake.
Not to belabor the point (except to the extent that 1500-word papers don't magically write themselves like the Sorceror's Apprentice scene in Fantasia), but this prim and proper attitude still persists in Massachusetts to this very day. Liquor stores aren't open on Sunday. Before 1985 it was illegal for any business at all to be open on Sunday, and even now any hourly workers working on the back end of the weekend get paid time and a half, which has the net effect of closing any business that doesn't rely heavily on weekend customer traffic. Most of the old “blue laws” (as they are now known) are repealed piecemeal where they are repealed at all. Massachusetts did not even ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939! In the 1790s there was so much opposition to the notion of dismantling the state religion set up by the Puritans that the state could not get a convention together to approve it. It took the action of eleven other states to force the hand of the Bay State and by dint of Constitutional procedure force Massachusetts to accept the First Amendment.
All of the above is by way of explaining just how deep those Puritan roots run through the culture and politics of New England to this very day. In Bradford we see the roots of Ye Olde New England cooperation and civic and state pride. Not for nothing is America's six-state northeastern corner often regarded as if the United States ended at the Hudson River. The cultural stereotype is true, and every effort made by national corporations to alter the zeitgeist of the Bostonian has run into about the same level of open-mindedness as Roger Williams' suggestion in the 17th century that perhaps the doctrine of the Puritan church needed a bit of a rewrite. Said Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe: “Nobody test-markets a product in Boston. The data they would gain would be useless in any other market.”
Suffice to say that it may be as dull and dry as the instructions packaged with a piece of IKEA furniture, but On Plymouth is nonetheless a read worth the while for anyone trying to wrap his brain around why all those guys with funny accents and Red Sox caps are the way we are. To understand Plymouth Plantation is to understand New England, and to understand New England is to understand a twentieth of the US population.
Footnotes, Annotations, and Stuff That Didn't Quite Fit:
1. Title is a lyric from Cole Porter, “Anything Goes”.
2. Star Wars, of course.
3. Quote from the New York Times' infamous editorial suggesting Robert Goddard was an imbecile for his work in rocketry. The Times retracted the editorial in 1969 when we landed on the moon.
4. King Philip's War, that is. The mental image of yelling “Hey Phil” at an Indian chief is funny.
5. Member of the National Association of Base Ball Clubs, the first attempt made at a major professional baseball league. The club would, through time, evolve into the Boston Red Sox.
6. Why the choice of words? Because I figure the reader's right sick and tired of flat, uninteresting prose. You're welcome.
7. “And ____ begat _____, who lived _____ years and bore ______ sons and _______ daughters, blah blah blah, yada yada yada.”
8. Joe Friday from Dragnet. “Just the facts, ma'am.”
9. Well, besides “Yankees suck, go Sox”.
10. Any joke worth doing is worth overdoing.
11. Mascot for the Cleveland Indians and convenient racial stereotype for the sorts of people who get offended by stuff like that.
12. Not least of which is because Carlin only needed seven words to make his point. If he'd lived in 17th-century Massachusetts, his act would've been “The 15,000 Words You Can't Say in Plymouth Plantation” and the joke would've taken all day to tell.
13. And then only because someone pointed out that they hadn't and it finally came time to give up the ghost.
14. Prologue, Curse of the Bambino.
15. According to 2000 US Census data. New England population: 14.2 million. US population in 2000: 283.6 million.
(The teacher commented: "Quite enjoyable. As usual fine comic writing. May the spirit of New England carry on!")