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.

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