William Bradford (1590-1657)
Contributing Editor: Phillip Gould
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Bradford's history at once perpetuates and demystifies the mythic status that mainstream American culture has bestowed upon the "Pilgrims" of New England. This might be a useful place to start: the ways in which Bradford's narrative mythologizes first-generation heroism, and yet exposes the all-too-human squabbling, selfishness, and greed of the Plymouth settlers.
The tension between Bradford's desire to construct a place for Plymouth in a divine historical plan, and his eventual, implicit recognition of the diminution of Plymouth's status, lends itself to discussion of the nature of history-writing in general. This tension, which involves Bradford's painful negotiation of correctly reading providential design, shows students how the supposedly objective genre of "history," like all forms of narrative, is a construction of prevailing ideologies.
As in Winthrop's Journal, Of Plymouth Plantation's account of the quotidian realities of a frontier society dismantles the quasi-Victorian stereotypes that students bring to the concept of the "Puritan" (or, in this case, the Separatist). As a text composed, for all intents and purposes, on the frontier, students might consider how this historical reality also shapes Bradford's treatment of Amerindians.
The issue of Bradford's composition of his history may raise issues about the coherence of the text. Do students see distinctive subjects, thematic motifs, or narrative tones in each of the two parts?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The concept of community pervades the entire text of Bradford. The history demonstrates the problematic maintenance of the national covenant--the community's collective dedication to live by the purity of God's ordinances--as a parallel to the covenant of grace, by which each individual "saint" was redeemed (through Christ) by belief itself. Ironically enough, the logical extension of a "covenanted" people was a communitarian enterprise that at first simulated a kind of socialism, one which soon proved to be untenable. In Bradford's account of this minor crisis lies (as in a well crafted novel) a foreshadowing of the eventual dispersal and fragmentation that later beset the colony. In this context, Of Plymouth Plantation recounts both the internal (material greed, "wickedness") and external ( Thomas Morton, the Pequod--so far as Bradford perceives them) threats that constantly besieged the community.
The relationship between sacred and secular history, if theologically reconcilable, poses another thematic tension in the text. Bradford's insistence upon the "special providences" of God (those reserved for the elect in times of crisis) exists in counterpoise with the detailed catalogues of human negotiations, contrivances, and machinations that describe daily life in England and America.
Some scholars believe that Bradford's wife committed suicide while awaiting disembarkment from the Mayflower. This personal tragedy, along with the cycles of disappointment and success that Bradford underwent, and the constant struggle to maintain the communitarian ideal, all raise the issue of his narrative tone. The text modulates tenors of resolve, sadness, and humility.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Of Plymouth Plantation exemplifies, perhaps as well as any colonial New England text, the aesthetic virtues of the "plain style." The simplicity of its syntactic rhythms and the concreteness of its imagery and tropes demonstrate the rhetorical power of understatement. The plain style theoretically reflected the need to erase the self (which Bradford also achieves in referring to himself as "the governor") in the very act of creation, by having one's words stylistically approach the biblical Word of God. Bradford's history, however, shows students how the theological rigors of Puritan thought nonetheless allowed for distinctive "voices" to emerge, in this case, Bradford's uniquely compassionate, humble, and sometimes embittered one.
The issue of Puritan typology--which read the Old Testament not only as a prefiguring of the New Testament, but of contemporary history as well--is also somewhat problematic in Bradford's history. The correlation, in other words, between the Old Testament Hebrews and the Plymouth "saints" is not a stable one. For example, when Bradford alludes to Mount Pisgah in chapter IX, he, in effect, suggests a distinction between the Israelites' Promised Land and the wild terrors of New England.
The private nature of Bradford's history and its delayed publication in the nineteenth century complicate the issue of the text's reception. A close reading, however, suggests that Bradford appeared to have envisioned multiple audiences for the text. As certain scholars have noted, the narrative seems to be addressed to lukewarm Anglicans at home, the remaining Scrooby Congregation, members of the larger Massachusetts Bay colony, and, perhaps most visibly, to members of the second generation who had strayed from the founders' original vision.
Moreover, students might be reminded that, despite its delayed publication, the manuscript significantly influenced a number of later New England historians such as Nathaniel Morton, Cotton Mather, and Thomas Prince.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Although the latter sections of Winthrop's Journals were written retrospectively, Of Plymouth Plantation provides a useful distinction between a retrospective narrative and an ongoing chronicle of historical events.
Bradford's relatively austere prose style, as well as his problematic moments in interpreting providence--and thus the meaning of New England--contrasts strikingly with the productions of Cotton Mather. These distinctions help to prevent students' tendencies to see "Puritanism" as a monolith. There are parallels, however, between Bradford's mythologizing of first-generation founders like Brewster and John Robinson and the kind of biography Cotton Mather conducts in the Magnalia.
Bradford's history is an early instance of themes prevalent in American immigration and frontier literatures. The cycles of struggle, survival, and declension characterize, for example, a much later writer-- such as Willa Cather, who was far removed from Puritan New England. The instability of community in these genres make for a line of thematic continuity between Bradford and writers of frontier romance such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick and James Fenimore Cooper.
Cressy, David. Coming Over: Migration and Communication Between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Daly, Robert. "William Bradford's Vision of History." American Literature 44 (1973): 557-69.
Howard, Alan B. "Art and History in Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 28 (1971): 237-66.
Levin, David. "William Bradford: The Value of Puritan Historiography." Major Writers of Early American Literature, ed. Everett Emerson, 11-31. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.
Wenska, Walter P. "Bradford's Two Histories." Early American Literature 8 (1978): 151-64.