Friday, November 21, 2008
Morning Thanks--Plymouth Rock
Twelve years from now, it will be interesting if, on this day, someone other than the Massachusetts tourist industry celebrates the 400th anniversary of arrival of the Puritans. Some of us--Native Americans, for sure--would rather not commemorate that day--or our Puritan heritage and history. Imagine North America today without palefaces. Impossible. Were I Pontiac or Crazy Horse or Cochise or Manuelito, I'd likely spend the day in sackcloth and ashes myself.
But there's more. It was Mencken, I believe, who once wrote that Puritanism was the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere was having a good time. Or words to that effect. Hawthorne's famous short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" is a little more complex than it seems at first read, but John Endicott and his well-disciplined roundheads make short shrift of the party-ers next door when they whack down that maypole and thereby begin a movement known as Freudian criticism in American letters. Puritans, in the common mind, are nothing if not humorless.
Most stereotypes--good or bad--have their basis in some bit of truth, and that humorlessness is likely true of William Bradford's "Brownists," the paleface "pilgrims" who first stepped down on New England soil 388 years ago today. But not totally. Bradford's record of Plymouth plantation is a good read, quite frankly, and John Winthrop's diaries make him seem, for the most part, almost sweet. I'm not sure, however, that I would have jumped at the chance to go fishing with the likes of Cotton Mather, and Salem's witchcraft trials have left a scar forever on the American consciousness.
They lugged John Calvin along. They had been in Holland at the time of a endless, divisive Dutch Reformed synod at a city which has, oddly enough, lent the college where I teach its own name--the Synod of Dordtrecht, 1618-1619 (it took a year). I confess that, in more ways than one, I am, at least in part, something of their uptight patrimony.
For all of their excesses--their prying eyes and self-righteous souls--they left this culture far more than their caricature narrowness. They believed in education, their political history is shockingly free of corruption, and they left us with a stunning literary culture, even though most of those writers--Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson--were by no means apologists.
Look, let's be blunt about it--we're all mixed blessings, really, as is our American Puritan heritage. But this morning, 388 years after those seasick, bedraggled Plymouth pilgrims came ashore and were welcomed by a New England winter that, in just a few months, would leave half of them dead, I swear I'm not blind to the faults of my theological ancestors but I'm thankful for being a part of that story.