A Lifeless Account of the Pilgrims

For many Americans, Plymouth and the Pilgrims exist somewhere in the realm of American mythology. It happened somewhere off the eastern coastline of the United States, and it involved people from some distant time coming to some remote place in the pursuit of religious liberty. They also wore black, had funny hats, and were somewhat grim. They would have been no fun at dinner parties. With the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival to the so-called New World, a host of scholars had produced works to mark the occasion, many of which are aimed precisely at correcting the errors concerning the Pilgrims as well as debunking the traditions surrounding them. One can wonder what a non-COVID-19 remembrance of the Mayflower landing would have looked like, but other activities have marked the occasion, most notably the renaming of Plymouth Plantation to Plimouth Patuxet Museums in June of this year, as well as the launching of the 1620 project, a response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Also entering into this crowded space is UCLA’s Carla Gardina Pestana with The World of Plymouth Plantation.

While many cultural thinkers, politicians, and historians have pointed to Plymouth and other colonial settlements as part of the United States’ origin (in both complimentary and negative ways), Pestana’s The World of Plymouth Plantation positions itself almost as the anti-origin story. According to Pestana, at the heart of this origin story fixation is how Plymouth has come to be understood only as a “symbol of large, abstract concepts” which only serves to lay the foundation of a forthcoming American democracy. This backward-looking and ongoing preoccupation for most Americans, while understandable, is not healthy in Pestana’s view and has been the source of all kinds of historical anachronisms. Fundamental to The World of Plymouth Plantation is the fact that the Pilgrims did not want “to begin the world over again” but rather recreate and improve upon the world they already knew.

Because of this, rather than looking deeply into the lives of the pilgrims, Pestana presents readers with their world. From what they ate, to what they wore, to what tools they used to hunt, what songs they sang, and what kind of houses they lived in, the book is rich in detail. Beyond their materials and means, Pestana also conveys the settlers’ customs and beliefs, concerning themselves, the land they found themselves in, and those with whom they shared it. All of this is by design, in the hope of breaking away from the symbolic value of Plymouth Plantation to the American founding mythology and psychology and restoring it to “a real place in which people lived, worked, and died.” As she puts it, her goal is to depict “the reality of the lives of its inhabitants”.

Far from the paintings that depict a unified community, what emerges from Pestana’s depiction is a Plymouth colony of a more transient nature, a community almost always in flux.

Given the mythology that has developed around the pilgrims as separatists hellbent on breaking away from England and laying the groundwork for the future American identity, Pestana emphasizes the “English” quality and character to the world Plymouth made. By doing so, Pestana reveals the great deal of continuity that existed for the settlers, as well as their desire to transport and recreate their English lifestyle on this new soil. Beyond the desire for English foods and goods, Plymouth sought to establish English gender norms and class hierarchies. Thus, they were “planters” in numerous senses, interested in “transplanting the society they knew as well as well as the household work regimens that made it possible.”

Akin to John G. Turner’s They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, Pestana pushes back against the idea that Plymouth was an ignored backwater or isolated outpost. Whereas Turner highlights the networks Plymouth colony developed among the other English settlements and to the happenings back in the mother country, Pestana emphasizes the immigration to and from, as well as the trade with, Plymouth from the rest of Europe. Much of this interconnectedness was driven out of survival and economic interest, but with the movement of goods and people (as well as people being sold as goods) came competing ideas and faiths. Far from the paintings that depict a unified community, what emerges is a Plymouth colony of a more transient nature, a community almost always in flux. But while the people might come and go, the real subject of Pestana’s work, the world they attempted to make, is far more fixed.

The book is organized around some of Plymouth Plantation’s most important objects, things, and roles, such as “Wives,” “Guns,” “God,” “Tobacco,” “Furs,” and “Books” to name a few. Almost all of these chapters and their related sections are both incredibly short and thorough. All of this makes for easy but instructive reading. But the lack of focus on human agents and historical actors brings out one of the core problems with The World of Plymouth Plantation. For all the wonderful detail on what clothing settlers donned and how they cooked their meals, the book, sadly, is incredibly lifeless. As there is no narrative to the study, the flow of the book cannot help but feel off and leave the reader wondering who such descriptions might have applied to.

Material histories certainly have their place and they have been growing in popularity and influence, both inside and outside the academy. But such studies require the “thick description” championed by Clifford Geertz in order to understand more fully the world being studied. I found this to be particularly true of Pestanta’s all too brief handling of the notorious Thomas Morton. Given her interest in materials, I expected Morton and his Maypole would be the perfect figure for her to study, bringing forth the intersection of ideas, objects, and people. But this was not to be, and much like the rest of the figures in the book, Morton the man was already in the distance. Because so many of the other books written about Plymouth have focused on the individuals within and around the colony, Pestana’s contribution is best consumed as additional reading. It will certainly enhance the knowledge of those familiar with the people of Plymouth Plantation, but I cannot recommend it for the uninitiated.

The World of Plymouth Plantation is admirable in its myth-busting qualities and unquestionably insightful but is limited by its lack of human focus.

Reader Discussion

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on February 08, 2021 at 11:21:31 am

This book seems a worthy project, and I doubt that it's truly as "lifeless" as the reviewer maintains, since knowing the details of Pilgrim lives lived (which the book apparently provides abundantly) surely enhances one's historical understanding of the human agency of those lives. Edmond Morgan showed us that in teaching us so much about the Puritans.

Yet, I fail to see how The World of Plymouth Plantation correctly "positions itself... as the anti-origin story" (and, thus, I doubt Mr. Gullotta's assertion that the book contains "myth-busting qualities") in arguing that the Pilgrims must not be viewed "as separatists hellbent on breaking away from England and laying the groundwork for the future American identity." To the contrary, so the new book's allegedly new argument goes, the Pilgrims did not intend “to begin the world over again” but rather to continue their old lives in a new place, as Gullotta says, "to transport and recreate their English lifestyle on this new soil...and improve upon the world they already knew."

Was that not the "pilgrim soul" of every pioneer? I fail to see how William Bradford's Pilgrims were different in that regard from John Winthrop's Puritans or Roger Williams' Providence Plantations or the Jamestown Settlement. They all intended to recreate on new soil and, in so doing, to improve upon their old lives.

Novus ordo seclorum is a phrase derived, ultimately, from Virgil's Eclogues: "Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo."
"The great order of the ages is born afresh;
now justice returns, honored rules return;
now a new lineage is sent down from high heaven."

For an old order to be born afresh in "deo favente" (or annuit cœptis on the Great Seal) constitute apt expressions of their intention, for a new succession, and of their faith, that it would be favored by God.

To intend to begin a new succession, a new era, blessed by God, as the Pilgrims sought to do, does not mean that they intended to start a new world order, "to begin the world over again."

Surely, even if they did so, those who did so did not intend to do so while they were doing it.

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on February 09, 2021 at 00:22:40 am

There is an implicit, presumptive and highly leveraged meta-narrative afoot here. Given historicist, purely legal positivist conceptions of societal/historical developments, relativist accounts in general, all reflecting virtual doctrine in academe - likewise given such belittleing and doubtful descriptors as "fixation," "backward-looking," "ongoing preoccupation," "historical anachronisms" (such as that quirky desire "to establish English gender norms"?) directed at the unwashed - likewise again given such a dubious program as "... the hope of breaking away from the symbolic value of Plymouth Plantation to the American founding mythology and psychology and restoring it to 'a real place in which people lived, worked, and died'" (emphasis added) - given all this presumptive language and interest what exactly is that underlying interest, of the author and work under review?

Firstly, while a critic can variously refine the symbolic and mythic value attached to the earliest English settlements, one cannot blithely strip such a mythos of meaning and therein imagine that only the true reality is, eo ipso, laid bare. That too is a "myth," of a self-flattering and modern, reductionist kind. Apperceiving and apprehending reality, of a historical or of any kind, is a problem dating to Plato's cave and prior to that point. What, for example, meaning would result from stripping Homer's Illiad of myth? Little to nothing would remain. So does this suggest the Illiad, as mythos, gives us no insight into an earlier culture, e.g., Mycenaean or Minoan? Doubtful. One can make too much or too little of it from various perspectives, and one cannot be certain in attaching too narrow a meaning to it all or aspects thereof - but one cannot strip it bare, presuming to leave only the quotidian and physical artifacts, and therein declare: voila, only the true and the real remain. Heart, mind, imagination, spirit, volition in its wider arc - all this is reflected in the mythic and symbolic in the only way it can - apprehending the past is necessarily art as much as or more than it is any simple and reductive "science".

So what is afoot here, the meta-narrative secreted in here. It is the erasure, the cancellation via diktat, the proscription of the normative. No argument for doing so is given, instead it's all dogmatically and tacitly assumed as a given, essentially and ironically as the newly christened normative. If a formal argument were to be given it would be readily recognized as self-defeating, for what would a normative non-normativity be other than self-contradictory?

There is much weariness under the sun. Academics, not at all unlike our black robed benefactors, are our betters, hence at certain key and critical points deem it to be below themselves to have to explain themselves. Same with their epigones among the blustering, hustling, flim-flamming media-tech-political class. Boorish and declasse (viz. Jake Tapper as archtype) in any more more substantive, more appreciable sense, but ever - and ever and ever - wont to insist, to demand on pain of some form of censure and punishment, it is not so.

Yet tens of millions fall for it.

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Michael Bond
on February 09, 2021 at 01:33:56 am

It is lamentable that this 400 year anniversary is being passed over with little recognition. What there is in the way of celebration, comes from the conservative side of the political spectrum, while the Left is inclined to dismiss it as just another tale in the narrative of "white supremacy". Our current political divisions are preventing an sound examination of what took place, and how the anniversary might offer us a lesson in overcoming these divisions.

The Mayflower Compact was an agreement between the Separatists (the Pilgrims) and the Strangers (the traders and others who were not members of the sect) to form a rudimentary government for the body politic in the absence (or the remoteness) of the sovereign's natural body. In short, it was an agreement to "get along" - to set aside disagreements (for the Strangers had their own ideas) in order to survive. Survival of course meant getting along with the indigenous who themselves were fighting to survive -they had recently been devastated by microbial "invasion"- and so a treaty was soon made, and goods and services exchanged. It was a relatively peaceful coexistence for a generation.

The English wanted to set themselves apart from the kind of colonization that the Spaniards had done over the previous century. The estimate at the time was that the "papists" had killed over 15 million natives in the Americas, with little actual interest in Christianizing, but only in conquering and taking the gold. While the English did wish to convert, they did not want to do so by coercion. Of course, they did not always live up to those better intentions, and in the end the British Empire became just about as bad as the Spanish, particularly as they had fully joined in the slave trade by the mid 17th century, having only "dabbled" in it before then. The English Americans found themselves mired in this trade, and many wished to get out of it by the time of the Revolution -see Thomas Jefferson's grievance on that matter in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

The better intentions is what the Pilgrims represent. I would suggest that we may better regain our own moorings if only we reexamine them.

(From a descendant of Thomas Rogers, a signatory of the Compact, who unfortunately died 400 years ago, in January, probably still aboard the Mayflower.)

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Ron Orovitz
on February 08, 2021 at 11:05:36 am

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