Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

World's Longest Camping Trip

I was camping all last week at an especially rustic Boy Scout camp and inevitably I was thinking about Anne Bradstreet's experience in the New World.

We figure most American pioneers must have known a little something about farming and animals before they left home. But this group of Puritans were different. They were from the solid middle class, most of them -- professional people, not farmers. A few were even from the upper class, like the Lady Arbella, a daughter and sister of earls, who was on the boat there with Anne Bradstreet. Anne's father was the steward to one of those earls, which meant he was a high-level manager. He and his family lived in the earl's mansion and were taken care of by servants. Anne was educated with the earl's siblings and spent much of her time reading, and from there her poetry was born.

But could she boil water? I honestly don't know. Did she know how to cook when she got on board the one-way trip to the wilderness? The house cooks had done all of that back home. Did she know how to milk a cow? It seems unlikely, unless she and her mother and sisters took milking lessons from the earl's (no doubt) sniggering milk maids.

How did they build their houses, these middle-class businessmen and gentlemen? Historians say blithely, "So and so built a house on the river," but of course he didn't, if he was a lawyer from London. Sure, they must have brought along the appropriate sort of people to build the houses. Or did they go all "Pa Ingalls" and do it themselves? Maybe they did. Anne's father's house turned out rather drafty -- perhaps the sign of a beginner carpenter. He was accused of being overly fancy-shmancy when he added wainscoting to his rooms, but he claimed it was just to keep out the wind.

Well, my reading list for this project includes the diary of John Winthrop, longtime governor of Massachusetts colony, and I will probably tease out the answer from there. But I often imagine that moment on the beach, when these gently-raised men and women gazed up at the marches of trees (beautiful and pristine we'd call them, as we never had the need to farm where they stand) and dug down deep to that faith in God that had led them there in the first place.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blame it on the Record

I’ve been thinking recently about how annoying it is to write history. All of our understanding of the past is based on whatever happens to have survived on paper or fabric, or on the walls -- and it’s amazing what has not survived. We have to piece a lot together from little scraps and made a picture. “And that’s the fun of history!” we say bravely. But it’s also a really good way to get a situation completely wrong.

Let’s take Thomas Jefferson, who lived relatively recently (from the perspective of thousands of years of recorded history) and who was a literate man living in a literate culture. He wrote about his times, and people who knew him wrote about him. We should know everything there is to know about him, yes? Well, ole Tom was a little reticent on the subject of his love life. An oral tradition survived that Jefferson had taken a slave mistress, Sally Hemings, and had several children with her. Some of Jefferson’s political enemies made the same charges during elections.

For years his historians denied that he had kanoodled in Sally, and not simply because they wanted to protect their hero (though there was that). Jefferson had written on the subject of blacks and whites copulating, and his opinion was – don’t do it. It is against nature for the two races to mingle. It was disgusting. So historians have had to decide who to believe: Jefferson’s dispassionate written opinion, or a family story and some political mudslinging? Most chose the former.

You know the story: along comes DNA evidence, and we learn Sally’s children had a Jefferson father. We were led astray by the historical record. We got lucky this time; science was able to give a definitive answer (though theoretically Sally could have been kanoodling with someone else with a Jefferson Y chromosome, and not Tom, though that is less likely).

Most of the time, we’re not so lucky. We have to extrapolate. Maybe we know that John Smith from New Hampshire fought in the Civil War. Did he fight for the North or the South? Maybe we don’t have a record that tells us for sure. But since we know that the vast majority of New Hampshire men fought for the North, we make an educated guess (a syllogism, actually) and say that John Smith did, too. C’mon, what are the odds of a New Hampshire boy fighting for the South?

C’mon, what are the odds of Jefferson overcoming his disgust of black women and having a long-term affair with one? Welllll – when the black woman in question was the half-sister of Jefferson’s much loved, dead wife . . . “it’s complicated,” as we say over on Facebook. Maybe Sally (who was only one-quarter black and very light skinned) looked like Jefferson’s late wife. Maybe she talked like her. And the children of that union passed for white to such a degree that Jefferson apparently helped them leave slavery and to blend into white society. They married white and never told a soul the truth about themselves – not to their spouses, not to their children. It’s complicated. Isn’t that the human experience – complication? Maybe it’s complicated for our hypothetical New Hampshire soldier, too. We just don’t know.

The historical writer stands on that shore where solid evidence ends and inference begins. The things that drive professional historians crazy are truly the fun parts for the writer. I am writing about a seventeenth-century woman. We have a better understanding of her life than we do for almost all other seventeenth-century women yet I do not know her birthday for sure. I have committed myself to be true to the historical record and even (mostly) to the historical syllogisms of “the best guess.” But you see how much wiggle room that gives me, for surely it was complicated at times for Anne Bradstreet, too.