Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Monday, June 6, 2011

Anne's "Feminism," Part III

Last time, I talked about statements of gender equality that are sprinkled in Anne Bradstreet's poetry and ended with the (I hope) riveting question of: how was she disciplined for her unorthodox comments by the patriarchal community in which she lived?

Answer: She was not disciplined at all. Instead, she was roundly praised for her poetry by puritan ministers and community leaders.

Because it was so unusual for a woman to publish a book of poetry, her work was prefaced by about a dozen recommendations and poems by others, affirming that first of all, she did write them (all by herself), and second, that they're really good. The purpose was the same as today's back-cover praises: to get potential readers to reach into their wallets and buy her book. They were also there to overcome potential buyers' hesitations over buying a woman's work; remember, women were considered to be weaker in the head than men, so one would expect their poetry to be subpar. All of the glittering recommendations that prefaced Anne's work were written by men, and several of them were Massachusetts ministers -- a conservative bunch, one would think, if there ever was one.

And it gets better. Anne never sought publication of her work; the men in her life snuck her manuscripts to London and had them published. Or let me say: she and everyone around her swear she did not seek publication for her work. It is possible that she (and everyone else) was being careful about her reputation, wanting to make it clear that she was first and foremost a diligent wife and mother, and that she would never put herself forward in such a way . . . when in fact (goes the theory) she knew perfectly well that her poems were going to be published. All but one of the historians and literary critics that I've read disagree with that interpretation; they feel that the received story, that Anne's poems were published without her knowledge or consent, is probably the true one. Certainly, her mortified comments in "The Author to Her Book" (included in the second edition) have a ring of truth to them:

"Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Til snatched from thence by friends less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view . . . "

In any case, it appears we have to discard the image of rebel Anne, bravely flaunting the mores of her day in the very teeth of the puritan high guard in order to have her voice heard. Oh, she flaunted -- but it was a group effort; it was she and a surprising supporting cast. That cast included Thomas Dudley, her father, longtime community leader, and by many reports an acerbic and inflexible individual, whose one piece of surviving poetry (he too was a poet) railed against heretics. It included her husband, Simon Bradstreet, governor during the Salem witch trials years after Anne's death. (And I have to add, he strenuously opposed those trials.) But it did not include any of the radicals or rebels that occasionally hung around Massachusetts Bay.

This suggests some interesting points. But I'm trying to keep these posts short, so you can finish them over a cup of coffee, so I'll take up the tale from here next time.


  1. keep 'em coming! what a great story, what an unexpected turn.

  2. Could be, but I don't see it that way. I think it suggests more complex gender relationships than we typically think, or are aware of, among them New England puritans.

  3. I like your take, that she may have been inwardly elated but demurred for society, as would be the expected reaction of the day.