In which we meet a (very) early American poet, and glimpse her (Puritan) new world
She really didn’t want to come here, kids. And who could blame her? She was eighteen at the time—young and flexible, but old enough to have known a life she loved. It must have been crushing to leave it all behind, believing (as would indeed be the case) that she’d never go back. But it’s what her father wanted, and her new husband. She had go.
—Who are we talking about?
—Shhh, Jonah! Just listen. You’ll figure it out.
—It’s that woman Mr. K mentioned the other day. Ann something.
—Sadie’s right. Ann Bradley. Bradstone. Bradsomething.
—Whatever. Keep going, Mr. K.
Today we fly over the ocean in hours; back then it took weeks, if not months. A terrifying, uncomfortable trip, even when the accommodations were relatively good, which they were for her. All this was bad enough. But then there was the question of what you would—and wouldn’t—find when you arrived. Writing 375 years later, her biographer described what she would have seen: “a rocky uneven-looking land, remarkable more for what was missing than what was present.” No windmills or castles, no wheat fields or cities. No cottages, carts, or roads: “this was true emptiness.”
It got worse. The advance party that had travelled on ahead the previous year was ragged and ravaged. Many members were sick. The woods were filled with strange animals and menacing Indians. The new arrivals seemed to have literally sailed toward their destruction. And yet this—this!—was to be her new home.
Decades later, Anne Bradstreet—
—I knew it!
—We’ll have the medal shipped to your house, Ethan.
Many years later Anne Bradstreet wrote a letter to her children in which she described what she was feeling during that searing summer of 1630. She had recently recovered from smallpox, a common scourge that almost killed her, as it had so many others. “After a short time,” she explained, “I changed my condition and was married, and came to this country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose.”
—You mean it got better?
No, Sadie. She didn’t mean her spirits were lifted. Quite the contrary: her heart rose in rebellion. “But after I was convinced it was the way of God, “ she explained, “I submitted to it and joined to the church of Boston.”
Submitted: an act of will to bend to the (divine) will of another. A woman’s way; a pilgrim’s way. These are things that are hard for us to understand, much less approve. It wasn’t easy for Bradstreet, either. There’s a world of difference between accepting one’s lot—initially a piece of land in what is now Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts—and loving it as one’s home. That journey took a good deal longer than a few weeks.
—Her house was in Harvard Square? I’ve been there. It’s a pretty cool place.
—Jeez, Jonah. Will you just let him tell the story?
The Bradstreets were Puritans. A century before they came to Massachusetts, the King of England, Henry VIII, broke with the Catholic Church. You all studied the Reformation, yes?
—Yeah. Last year. Martin Luther, the 95 theses. 1517.
Excellent, Ethan. Luther triggered a religious revolution that started in the middle of Europe and spread quickly. By the 1530s, it had reached England, whose king Henry VIII, had been dubbed “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope. But some of you surely know—
Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII sought to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon in what might be termed a divorce of convenience. Besides considerations of love (and a male heir), there was money involved: if Henry VIII made a break with Catholicism, a lot of real estate and rents that had once gone to Rome could be diverted to a new Church of England that was headed by, well, Henry himself.
—Jonah! Shut up!
It’s OK, Em. Indeed, Jonah, it was convenient. But for that very reason, a lot of people were very unhappy about Henry VIII and his successors. In the decades that followed, the nation roiled as Catholics sought to reassert control and a series of splinter groups jostled for independence while the Church of England wobbled, but stabilized, under Queen Elizabeth, who seized the crown in 1558 and held onto it for the next 45 years. She did so by walking a long, fine line: England would remain Protestant, and dissidents would be tolerated as long as they stayed in line. Put up and shut up.
By the time of Elizabeth’s successor, her cousin, James I, came to power in 1603, this became harder to do. He and his three Stuart successors were rumored (with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy) to be closet Catholics. King James took a harder line toward nonconformists: “I will harry them out of the land!” he famously said. And they took a harder line toward accepting a government and a people so willing to countenance self-evident corruption. So they broke with the Church of England—and England itself. They first went to the Dutch city of Leiden in 1607. The Dutch, they figured, would understand: they had waged a multi-decade against Spanish and papal oppression. But these Separatists decided that Dutch freedom was simply another way of saying “I don’t give a damn.” That world would not be their home. And so the Pilgrims looked abroad—far, far abroad. Through a series of maneuvers, these they arrived on the shores of Cape Cod in 1620 and founded a colony they named Plymouth for the hometown they left behind. It wasn’t easy, but the settlement took root, thanks in part to the help of natives with whom they generally got along better than most other English settlements in North America.
Among those impressed by what the Pilgrims were doing was Anne Bradstreet’s father, Thomas Dudley. Like the Pilgrims, Dudley, who had grown up an orphan in the dissident bastion of southeastern England, was deeply disenchanted with the Anglican Church. But he and his fellow religionists didn’t go as far as the Pilgrims did. They tried to work within the system, not reject it. They drew up plans for a corporation to be called the Massachusetts Bay Company. Company documents conveniently neglected to list the location for its board meetings (presumably London), an oversight royal authorities failed to notice. Those meetings would take place in America, effectively placing the colony beyond government control. They hoped the government wouldn’t notice. The government didn’t.
—Pretty devious for a bunch of Jesus freaks.
Yes, Em. Such maneuvers were typical of the Puritans—who were, like many people before and after them, a collection of paradoxes. Like this: yes, they were extremists. But they were extremists of a curiously pragmatic and methodical kind. Dudley, who did not have an elite background, was nevertheless a shrewd financial manager who successfully rehabilitated the finances of a wealthy English nobleman. He and the collaborators who founded Massachusetts Bay executed an extraordinarily complicated logistical undertaking. A man named Winthrop was named the first governor of the colony; Dudley was the first lieutenant governor. They were dreamers and doers.
They were also exceptionally well-educated people. This was not incidental. Protestantism generally focused on the need to close the gap between God and his people. Roman Catholic priests stood between the Lord and his flock with their backs to their congregations; reading of the Bible by ordinary laypeople was discouraged if not downright forbidden. The Puritans would do it better. They were fiercely committed to improving talent and morality of their ministers, founding a college named Harvard in 1636, named for a man who donated his library, and a building the printing press in the Americas two years later. The Puritans were also among the first people on the face of the earth to tax themselves to create public schools. They even provided a basic education to girls.
—Oh my God! Girls!
That’s the general idea, Sadie. Education was especially important to Dudley. A voracious reader, he saw to it that his children—including his eldest daughter, Anne, learned to read.
The Puritan obsession with literacy fed another paradox. Reading is a solitary activity, and the pursuit of a personal relationship with God fostered a sense of individualism, one that shaded into a tendency to question any form of official authority. (Puritans who stayed behind in England would be at the forefront of those challenging the monarchy in the Civil War of the 1640s.) And yet—perhaps for that very reason—there was also a strongly communitarian quality to Puritan life. Unlike the sprawling settlements dominated by single men that characterized Virginia, New England communities were close-knit, characterized by families who clustered in village settings. These tendencies were reflected in their cultural practices from the start. There’s some debate when—or even if—John Winthrop delivered the lay sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” reputedly recited when the Puritans were in transit to Massachusetts. But the rhetoric of the speech as later transcribed is quintessentially Puritanical in its communitarian spirit: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together.” Of course, one reason for the insistent quality of such rhetoric is the strong series of tendencies pulling against it: after all, you don’t have to tell people to stick together unless you have some reason to believe they won’t. The Puritans dispersed from the moment they arrived, sprawling into what is now Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. Anne herself would drift and her family would scatter. But in these early days, at least, this new world was not her home.
—Did it ever become her home?
You’ll have to stream a future episode to find out, Kylie.
—You mean you don’t upload the whole season at once?
—I want my money back!
Sorry, kiddo. No refunds or exchanges. None for Anne; none for you. See you tomorrow.
Next: Rebelling against the dissidents