Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Historian vs. Story-Teller

I listen to a podcast while I work out called "The Writing Show," which is immensely helpful. The moderator reads aloud first chapters that listeners send in -- first chapters of their own unpublished work -- and then she comments (glowingly) on what works and (gently) on what does not. The first of these today was the first chapter to a very creepy, disturbing story, with exceptional world-building. It was a fantasy thing, so we were truly entering a new world This writer knew what s/he was doing -- just enough detail to set you where you needed to be, to paint a picture and to engage your senses -- but not too much to overwhelm. This was in contrast to the next offering, which deluged us in too much detail all at once.

Now, I'm a historian by training. Devotion to picky detail is in the blood. And since I am setting my story in a lost place -- 17th-century England -- I am "world-building." I am currently immersing myself in books about Stuart England, and in fact will be paying cold cash soon to get borrowing privileges at Northwestern University so I can get at their tomes.

And I can see myself just never coming up for air and doing research til I die. Or, if I do at last set pen to paper, I can easily see myself deluging my readers with everything I know about Stuart England. But instead, I have to tell a story. My subject is a true event, and I am determined to make it as historically accurate as I can. But the story has to take precedence to the masses of information that I'm storing up. When I write, I will have to have the whole scene accurately displayed in my imagination, and give to the reader just enough to get his bearings, paint the picture, engage the senses -- and that's it, let's get on with the story.

To be honest, I'm not sure that I have the capability of striking that balance.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Miss Colonial America, or Inner Beauty Only?

I have the fun job of deciding what Anne Bradstreet looked like. We have no likenesses of her. What do you think -- should I make her a beauty, or not -- and if not, what should characterize her appearance?

The only immediate family member of whom a portrait has survived is her father, Thomas Dudley, pictured here. He was a rigid and doctrinaire man, but that doesn't come out in this picture -- what do you think?

Nice hair on this fellow, hmm? It's hard to tell, but I think he's wearing it long and past his shoulders. Wigs for men had not come into fashion yet, so this was the real thing. I think Anne will definitely get his thick hair.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Feminist" Anne Bradstreet

This blog is called “Carping Tongues”, in recognition of one of Anne Bradstreet’s most memorable lines, quoted at the top of this blog:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

Who says my hand a needle better fits . . .

Anne got flak from her community for pursuing poetry, both because of the it might be taking that should be spent in her household duties, and in her presumption of pursuing a “male” calling.

If what I do prove well, it won't advance,

They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance.

Occasionally in her poetry, she “called out” her detractors in heart-warming defiance to the male dominance of her time. She also chose topics that frequently had a pro-female spin to them. So was Anne a seventeenth-century feminist? Let’s explore that idea.

First off, you must understand that historians get very cranky over expressions like “seventeenth-century feminist.” Feminism was a 20th-century movement, and it is unfair (and unprofessional) to project backwards our own advances and demand to know why, for instance, George Washington didn’t come out against driving while drunk. And it tempts us to divide the history of the world into two categories: Good and Bad. So women’s history might run something like this: “Women were always repressed and not allowed to vote or own property. Then the Civil Rights movement happened and everything got to be the way it was supposed to be from the start. Now women are free. The end.” There is truth in this statement, but it is such a vast oversimplification and hugely unhistorical proposition, that – well, my head is exploding, can you tell?

Let’s start over. In Europe and America, women have gotten the shorter end of the stick in many areas: education, civil rights, professional opportunities, health care, and others, many others. But if you imagine the women of 400 years ago as ignorant drudges or caged canaries – be careful. Women’s history has much more texture to it than that. Remember that the male-dominated society of 16th century England came to accept a powerful female leader in Queen Elizabeth.

Or here’s another example, a more humble one from our own history in which Puritan women used their influence to get their way after legal means failed. As New England towns grew, they would divide – or rather, those who lived furthest from the church (one church per town in that time and place) would want to divide. These would petition the selectmen to form their own church and town. The selectmen would inevitably say, “No, no, you can’t afford to support a church and we can’t afford to let you go.” On at least one occasion, the womenfolk of those families who wanted to split off took matters in their own hands, requisitioned the building supplies for the meeting house, and began the work themselves. Guess what? The selectmen reconsidered, and they got their town.

Why did the women especially want to split off? Probably because they were tired of missing church. Church might be miles off, and to walk that far carrying an infant while Dad carried the toddler, or the two of them on horseback somehow balancing the kids between them, or even everybody in a cart or wagon in January – we had enough trouble remembering to restock the wipes in the diaper bag when we went out with the little ones. It’s not like Puritan families were less busy and distracted. So usually Mom stayed home and missed church. And then one day when she was sewing with her friends: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a church right here . . . " And then they started working on the husbands.

Women’s history is often a grim, sad story, but it is not monochromatic. A couple of excellent books on the subject of women in early America are Good Wives by Laura Thatcher Ulrich and Founding Mothers & Fathers by Mary Beth Norton. We’ll get back to “feminist” Anne next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who is Anne Bradstreet?

Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan woman, an English woman, who emigrated to New England in the 1630s. She was a poet -- the first published poet from the New World, and the first female poet in the English language who took on subjects that were considered at the time to be the purview of men -- subjects like politics and science. She wrote long epics in the grand style of the time -- again, the first woman to do so in the English language. We respect her for her pioneering spirit, even if we don't think much of those epics. Her personal poetry, written in response to events in her life, is easier on the modern ear and closer to the heart.

She was born around 1612 in Lincolnshire, England, to a family that today we could call upper middle class. Her father was the steward for the Earl of Lincoln for many years of her childhood -- which means that he managed the Earl's property, first at Sempringham, later in Boston (the English Boston). Living in the earl's mansion meant that Anne had access to the tutors for his younger siblings and to his extensive library. Anne was very well educated for a woman of her time, and it shows in her poetry.

Anne and all her family were Nonconformists -- or Puritans, as their detractors called them. They believed that the Anglican Church was off track in its form of worship, and that it needed to be purified of all Catholic influences. To escape persecution, 20,000 of them came across the ocean in the 1630s and into the 1640s. Anne was in the first boat of the "Winthrop fleet." Her father and husband were both leaders in the Massachusetts Bay colony, and after a few hard years, she had a relatively comfortable life on the frontier, raising seven of her eight children and living in what was probably one of the finest homes in the colony.

And she wrote poetry. It is an interesting question, one I'd like to kick around on this blog, as to why she chose as she did for her formal topics. And then the menfolk in her life REPRESSED HER! -- ha ha, just kidding, I know you're waiting for that -- actually, the menfolk in her life, her brother-in-law and her husband and probably her father, conspired to send her poetry to England to be published without her knowledge. She was initially chagrined at this, but she also must have been proud, because she reworked some of her stuff for a second edition, and she continued to grow in her craft. But bad health plagued her for her whole life, and she died at the age of 60, in 1672.

If you want to read the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, I would like to make a couple of suggestions. First, avoid the epics on your first time out. Maybe avoid them altogether. Second, take a tour guide. Four-hundred-year-old poetry does not read like the front page. Biographies such as those by White or Stanford are helpful in moving us past our perceptions -- of what we think a poem must be saying -- and help us arrived at a nuanced understanding of what it actually is saying. Annie Ole Girl is full of surprises, for a respectable wife and mother in Puritan America. But more on that later.


Welcome to All Things Anne Bradstreet! This is my journey through researching the life and poetry of Anne Bradstreet and writing a historical novel about her life. I am in the very early stages of my project. I began seriously working on it in April 2011, and currently (May, 2011) am deep into the research stage. When some aspect of her life or poetry hits me -- when I can see her vividly in a situation, or when I get one of those (lovely) flashes of insight, then I try writing a scene for a book. One of these scenes has been quite successful; the rest, learning experiences.

Two things go into writing a historical novel: researching the thing, and writing the thing. I want to use this blog as a sounding board for both of those processes. I want to talk to you about what I learn about Anne and how I decide I want her to act and to be in my book. I hope you'll talk back and give me your insights and opinions on what I am on about.

I thought about using my Facebook friends as my sounding board and endlessly posting historical glory there. But that would not be fair to my FB friends who just don't like history, and maybe even too much for those who do. My family is already a sounding board of sorts, but peace in the home demands that I limit my Anne observations to far fewer than what actually occurs to me. Spouses don't always want to hear about a long-dead Puritan woman when they walk in the door at the end of the day, and teen-aged sons are even less tolerant. So my dear family, see how much I love you? I'm starting a blog.

Thanks for taking this journey with me.