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  • Writer's pictureBen Schafer

My Journey through 100 Books: Of Plymouth Plantation


Today we will be looking at something a bit different from the iconic epic poetry of Greece and Rome. Of Plymouth Plantation is the first work of non-fiction to be examined in this series, though it is by no means the last. However, I thought that it was an appropriate choice to complement our look at Virgil's Aeneid, though I will dive more into the distinctions in not only style and form but intent and mindset toward the end of today's post. For now, let's get started as we have with our previous examinations by taking a look at the contents of the book itself.

Let me get this out of the way at the outset. No, Of Plymouth Plantation is not a book focused on the origins of our modern Thanksgiving holiday. In fact, the most iconic elements of the Pilgrim story appear very briefly at the beginning of the work and are almost passed over as incidental to the larger story of the foundation, survival, and growth of the Plymouth colony in New England. The book was written by William Bradford, one of the leaders of the Pilgrims and an early governor of the Plymouth colony. The story he tells begins in England where the Pilgrims (who belonged to a subset of Christian belief that was persecuted by the established Church of England) are enduring many trials and are prompted to leave their homes for a more tolerant land. Their first stop is in the Netherlands, but the devoutly pious Pilgrims soon find themselves concerned at the relaxed morality they found among their new neighbors. Concerned that their children would choose to follow the more worldly lifestyle promoted by the Dutch rather than the faith tradition of their families, the Pilgrims begin to make preparations to travel to the New World. Allying themselves with an adventuring company in England, the Pilgrims are able to secure a patent to establish a colony under the English flag. The first wave of Pilgrims cross the Atlantic Ocean in the ship Mayflower and the more familiar part of the story begins. After a fearful crossing, a storm blows the ship off its original course and they eventually land at a spot far from their original patent. As the legal jurisdiction established by the patent does not apply in this new land, the passengers of the Mayflower form their own charter in what would become a historically significant work of self-government: the Mayflower Compact. The colonists land and begin building a settlement, but lack of provisions, poor shelter from the cold, and rampant disease result in the death of half of the passengers of the Mayflower in their first winter in the New World. Things take a turn for the better, however, when a native man entered Plymouth colony and greeted the colonists in English. This man was Samoset, a sagamore (sub-chief) of the Abenaki tribe. Samoset introduced the colonists to Squanto (whose proper name was Tisquantum) who would serve as a guide, diplomat, and advisor to the colonists for the rest of his life. It is here that the traditional Thanksgiving story leaves off as the colonists enjoy their first harvest with the help of Squanto and the native tribes, but the story of Plymouth colony goes far beyond that one inspirational story (one that, over time, has developed into its own myth with elements not found in Of Plymouth Plantation or other contemporary accounts of the time). For the sake of space, I will not provide an exhaustive recounting of the details of the colony's history here. Over the course of the ensuing years, the colonists endure manipulative financial partners, growing tensions with both native tribes and colonists from other nations (particularly the French), political and spiritual disputes in the community, and a host of other issues. But, critically, these colonists are able to navigate these trials without relying on imposed order from royal officials or appeals for some powerful outside force to come in to fix their problems. They are paragons of self-government, negotiating fruitful contracts with their neighbors, producing profitable economic output through agriculture and hunting, and maintaining both internal order and protection against external threats through the use of prudential government and a well-regulated militia. The Plymouth colony did not become the spiritual birthplace of America because it was the first colony nor would it become the strongest or most dominant colonial region by the time of independence. Instead, it holds is place in history for showing that a free people could manage their own affairs without relying on appeals to royal authority. It is an example we should still seek to emulate today.

I chose this as the companion work for The Aeneid this week because it showcases a fascinating distinction between the origins of ancient Rome and the origins of America. More specifically, it shows us different visions of how to approach such an important topic as a society. Rome, having already fallen from republic to empire, found its sense of meaning from a myth that connected them not only to a once-great civilization (the Trojans) but also to the strong cultural tradition of the Greeks by emulating Homeric poems. The story of the Pilgrims, while it has become mythologized over the years, is a grueling and exact record that risks undercutting the sheer miracle of the survival and flourishing of the Plymouth colony with its dry and often legalistic language. That is not to say that Of Plymouth Plantation is less worthy to be read than The Aeneid, but I do believe it is indicative of the different natures of each founding story. Like The Aeneid, Of Plymouth Plantation is not a story of the whole creation of the state that would rise to dominate the world but of the arrival of some of the first colonists whose beliefs and actions would go on to shape the foundations of the powerful nations which followed. The Aeneid is a story of blood and guts and military glory, while the story of the Pilgrims and the larger Plymouth Plantation is one of legal contract disputes, survival in a harsh new land, and costly trial and error. The Pilgrims were not epic heroes but simple people whose profound belief in a righteous God compelled them to seek a place where they could worship Him freely. Aeneas reflected Virgil's patron Caesar Augustus by forging his new home with strength, blood, and the focused will of one great leader. The Pilgrims, with their Mayflower Compact, carefully constructed a system of self-government that provided a blueprint for how free people could be trusted to rule themselves. There are political leaders like Bradford and military leaders like Myles Standish, but it is noteworthy that the only figure who receives any form of true reverence in the text is William Brewster, an elder in the Pilgrim community and spiritual leader who provided an example of selfless sacrifice and endurance to his fellow Pilgrims. There are some fascinating parallels, however, which rose to my notice as I read the story of the Pilgrims. Most notably, Holland played a very similar role for the Pilgrims as Carthage did for the Trojans. It was a place of apparent safety and luxurious living, but to remain there would have meant the end of both the Pilgrims and the Trojans as unique peoples. Of course, there was nothing as dramatic as the death of Dido when the first wave of Pilgrims left for America, but again the story of the Pilgrims is one that grounds us in reality rather than sending us soaring into myth. And it is ultimately the more mundane reality that is the more engaging story as it is simple to imagine yourself among the cold, starving, terrified Pilgrims who forged a life on a hostile continent through grit and faith. The fact that these were normal people who faced such odds is more humbling to the reader than any fictional account of a mythic hero. The trials endured by the Pilgrims and the earnestness of their faith also challenges any Christian who reads this account to examine their own religious and civic life. These were not people who took the easy path and they did not sit around waiting for someone else to solve their problems. Their example still shines as an inspiration for anyone who wants to act out their faith in an often unwelcoming world.

This is definitely a tougher read than the three epic poems we have covered thus far. Project Gutenberg has a free edition of the text, including an exchange of letters and speeches regarding the history of the document that are almost as engaging as the narrative itself. Be warned, however, that the text used is the original 17th-century English with many contractions and spelling variations that can make it very difficult to read for modern audiences. There are multiple editions of the work available for sale that have updated the language to modern standards, so if you find the original text indecipherable I strongly recommend this option. As perhaps the earliest work of American history written by someone who played an active role in the community, it is a unique experience. Unlike the poems of Homer and Virgil, however, Of Plymouth Plantation did not lay the groundwork for centuries of literary development (indeed, it did not return to American hands until the 1800s). Give it a read if it interests you, but it is fine for you to pick up just a general understanding and move along.

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