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In 1620, Bradford crossed what he called “the vast and furious ocean” on board the Mayflower, a hundred-and-eighty-ton, three-masted, square-rigged merchant vessel, its cramped berths filled with forty other religious dissenters who wanted to separate from the Church of England, and some sixty rather less pious passengers who were in search of nothing so much as adventure.Bradford called these “profane” passengers “Strangers,” but to modern sensibilities they can feel more familiar than, say, William Brewster, who brought along a son named Wrestling, short for “wrestling with God.”The colony that William Bradford helped plant on the windswept western shore of Cape Cod Bay was tiny, and it shrank before it grew; by 1650, its population had not yet reached a thousand. Between 16, he was elected governor every year but five.
And, unfortunately, by the time the Pilgrims go ashore, readers have learned more about things like the Mayflower’s sounding leads (“the deep-sea or ‘dipsy’ lead, which weighed between forty and one hundred pounds and was equipped with 600 feet of line, and the smaller ‘hand-lead,’ just seven to fourteen pounds with 120 feet of line”) than about its passengers’ religious convictions (“A Puritan believed that everything happened for a reason”). But with every sway and pitch of its decks readers are lulled into believing that the people on board, swaying and pitching in winds we can feel, clutching at ropes we can touch, were just like us. Philbrick, a former all-American sailor and Sunfish-racing champion who lives on Nantucket, seems, at first glance, to be following in Morison’s wake.
Waves slosh through all of his books, whose titles sound like the names of sea chanties: “Sea of Glory,” “Away Off Shore,” “Second Wind,” and “In the Heart of the Sea,” the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Roughly half of it covers Plymouth’s history up until about the time of Bradford’s death; the other half tells the story of King Philip’s War.
Of the Pilgrims’ perilous voyage in 1620, Philbrick writes beautifully: “For sixty-five days, the had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water onto her passengers’ devoted heads.” But the voyage is nearly over by the end of Chapter 1, if not soon enough for Bradford’s distressed wife, Dorothy, who had left her three-year-old son behind in Holland and who, in sight of land, fell—or more likely threw herself—over the gunwales, and drowned.
“They were, broadly speaking, the Englishmen who had accepted the Reformation without the Renaissance.”Reading Morison, you can almost hear yourself agree with him, even when you don’t. In a twenty-five-cent pamphlet, “History as a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians,” printed in 1946, Morison complained, “American historians, in their eagerness to present facts and their laudable concern to tell the truth, have neglected the literary aspects of their craft.
They have forgotten that there is an art of writing history.”They had forgotten, that is, an American literary tradition begun by “the earliest colonial historians” and, above all, by William Bradford, the governor and first chronicler of the Plymouth plantation.Cotton Mather wrote of him, “He was a person for study as well as action,” something that might equally be said of Samuel Eliot Morison, who once, interrupted at his desk by the incessant barking of a neighbor’s dog, went outside and shot it.Bradford began writing his history in 1630, the year the Englishman John Winthrop founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony.He spent nearly all his career at Harvard; he entered as a freshman in 1904, and retired, an endowed professor, in 1955.Summers he spent sailing: he loved nothing so much as the ocean.Like Morison, he finds most history books written by professors a chore to read.Trained as a journalist, Philbrick once explained his decision to include a bibliographic essay instead of footnotes or references to works of scholarship in his text: “I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history.”Sam Morison never met a footnote he didn’t like, but his relationship to academic history was a complicated one.Besides the sea, Morison wrote about two things especially well: Colonial New England and historical writing.In a 1931 essay called “Those Misunderstood Puritans,” he fought hard against the notion that “the fathers of New England” were “somber kill-joys.” Morison blamed this myth on the Victorians, who cast the Puritans as prudes in order that they might feel, by comparison, broad-minded.The bloody carnage known as King Philip’s War nearly put an end to the Puritan experiment.Nathaniel Philbrick, in his new book, “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” (Viking; .95), calls William Bradford’s history “the greatest book written in seventeenth-century America.” (With that, as these things go, not everyone agrees, but in this case most do.) Despite its title, Philbrick’s book isn’t really about the Mayflower.