Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Vanished Ship

This is the story of fate of the good ship, Arbella.  

The Arbella began her life as the Eagle.  She was a 400-ton ship, good sized  for that era, over twice as big as her much-more-famous predecessor, the Mayflower.  The Mayflower carted over 100 English settlers in 1620 who founded Plymouth, a modest-sized settlement.  The Arbella, sailing 10 years later, was the lead ship of a flotilla of 11, and began an influx of Puritans that continued for a decade and totaled around 10,000 individuals.

The later history of the Mayflower is documented.  But the Arbella disappears.  The last we hear of her -- as far as I can tell -- is in late August of 1630, some two months after she arrives in America.  She plays host to the August meeting of the "Court," the governing body of Massachusetts.  Then she simply drops off  the records.

Her namesake, Lady Arbella Johnson, died right about that time, in the wave of disease that took the lives of about two out of every seven that arrived that summer.  But her ship is simply never mentioned again.  Other ships who were part of the flotilla, some of them, are in the records -- they come and go, shuttle supplies back and forth.  Few if any of those are owned by the Massachusetts Bay Company.  But the Arbella was owned by the Company.  What did they do with her?

This calls for some imagination.  What can happen to a ship?

She can be wrecked on shoals.  She can burn, spectacularly.  I suppose she might be stolen, though I think that would be tricky, and then what would you do with a hot 400-ton ship?

I don't think any of these things happened.  There were several chroniclers of the early years in Massachusetts, and some of them had a taste for the spectacular.  They don't tell any dramatic story concerning the fate of the Arbella.  The people who freeze to death while boating that December -- everyone talks about.  The semi-respectable Englishman who turns pirate gets play.  The fellow with the three wives -- we hear about him.  None of them mention anything about the Arbella ablaze, or wrecked, or even damaged.

I think she was sold.  Dull, but most likely.

The first few months in Massachusetts were disastrous.  As a result, Company stock tumbled, investors pulled out, and potential colonists suddenly got cold feet.  The colonists needed money to buy food because farming in New England was trickier than they thought.  The Arbella was a Company asset, a valuable one, I suppose.

But even that should be mentioned in the Company records, right? Disposal of an asset like that?  Unless there was some controversy around it.  I have found that sometimes the Records don't mention certain things, certain controversies, because they didn't like to go on record that they disagreed.  Sometimes-Governor John Winthrop detailed many of those arguments in his diary, but we don't really know, of course, how much he left out.

Maybe sale of the Arbella was slightly under the table, but not interesting enough for Winthrop (or anybody) to note.

But the great ship burning spectacularly in the night, while Lady Arbella is drawing her last breath, is a much more compelling image, is it not?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Half a boat

. . . coming to an anchor about nine of the clock the same day, within a league of the shore, we hoised out the one halfe of our shallop and . . . [we] went ashore . . . 

Hang on a minute.  Half a shallop?  They got to shore in half a boat?
"They" are an early exploration crew of New England in 1602.  A shallop is a rowboat affair (though it would have sails, too) that you would use to get from your sailing ship to shore.  Otherwise your ship's large keel would hit sand and get stuck, and you'd still have to swim or wade to make it to land.  Shallops were also used to explore rivers and shallow waters near shore.

I was sure I'd read that wrong.  I may not know much, but I know you can't sail in half a boat.  I gave it a couple more go's -- it still seemed to say they got to shore in half a boat.  So I moved on.  It was one more mystery, one more disconnect between the centuries, one more copying error perhaps.

Then a few lines later:
. . . so returning (towards evening) to our shallop (for by that time, the other part was brought ashore and set together) . . . 

OK, so we have a cool piece of technology here.  A boat that not only divides in two, but both halves are seaworthy!  What did it look like?  How did it fasten together?

Come to find out, a shipbuilding firm in Maryland has made a working reproduction of one of these shallops and it looked like this:

See the seam?  On each side of that seam was a watertight wall, so the two halves were truly independent.  The keel -- the long board or log on the very bottom of the boat that has so much to do with a ship's internal integrity -- is actually in three parts, with a removable middle part that then went into place and kept the whole thing steady.  The purpose of dividing the shallop was for better, more space-efficient storage on board the ship. 

Sultana Projects reconstructed one of these for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007.  Here's what it looked like when they were still building it.  See the dividing wall?

Once reconstructed, this shallop was sailed all over Chesapeake Bay in 2007.  They even launched it in the traditional way:  in two parts.

So there you go:  boating in half a boat.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Roger Williams, Painful Saint

They called Roger Williams a "painful saint" in his happier days in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.   I bet when he heard that he blushed and said, "Aw, fellas, thanks."

For you see, this was a great compliment.

How do you reconstruct a world that has vanished, like that of 17th-century Massachusetts?  Its remnants are a little art (Non-Conformists were never big on art), some relics of their material culture (their pans and their hinges and a few lucky textiles), and thousands and thousands of words.  English words, and we know English.  We figure we can read what they wrote and by that path find our way into their world.

But language is an ebullient thing, a living thing, bursting its bounds and changing course as its speakers choose.  Definitions change.  The slight nuances of meaning that the speakers took for granted have to be teased out of their context by readers in this day.  We will never know how successful at understanding we are, or are not.  The only ones who could tell us are long gone.

But it's not just definitions that change.  Since the world that those words referred to has transformed and transformed again, the things that those words referred to have also changed.  Sure, a horse is still a horse.  But what about a concept like "democracy" in a world that placed no great value on participatory government, and little on individual choice itself?  How do we understand that?  We enshrine individual choice.  We can't get over how awesome it is.  Not being able to choose is "being forced," and "choosing for myself" is equal to finding truth.  (Good luck with understanding all that, future generations.)

The "painful" in "painful saint" does not refer to ouchy-ness.  It is closer to our "taking pains":  to do something well; diligence, attention to detail, keeping to the spirit as well as the letter.

And "saint" is the Protestant understanding of that biblical word:  a sincere, practicing Christian is by definition a saint.  It refers to the inner reality of that person, his soul, which Christ has made perfect even in this life.  The rest of his being, body and mind, is deeply flawed.  So he may make sincere mistakes.  At times he willfully chooses to do wrong.  But the dynamo in each true Christian's core is a perfected soul, and that should be evident in a person's life if it is actually there.

So a "painful saint" is an extra-sincere Christian, one who is extra-diligent in practicing her faith.

Part of the problem with the word "saint" is that in our time it always has a negative connotation on some level if it is used toward a living person.  If we say, "That woman is a saint!" then we mean she must be doing something really good, really worthwhile -- but there is still a lingering meaning that she is doing too much, working too hard, being too understanding -- possibly not being quite real -- possibly showing the rest of us up.

Non-Conformists called fellow believers "saints" the way we say "Christians," and every time I run into that usage in one of their letters or whatever, I recoil inside.  Woo-hoo to you, you're a saint . . . so I am not as far into that world as I could be.

A "painful saint" -- does that seem attractive?  Even now that you know what it means?  Would you want to be trapped on a stranded cruise ship with a painful saint?  A super zealous Christian?  How does a super zealous Christian behave?

What if that Christian was zealous in the Christian values of love and humbleness?  Invisible service, random acts of kindness, Mother Theresa -- that sort of thing?  What if love and kindness marked a painful saint?

Ah, but along with things like strict morality and orthodoxy?  But first, love and kindness?

Roger Williams was a genuine painful saint.  He was a superior character, I think -- an exceptional human being.  His character was shot through with love and kindness, even while he was being doctrinaire and inflexible, even as he let you know how wrong you were.  And if you can't figure how all that fits in one package, you've got it.  You are up against the central dilemma in history, all history.  We probably can't know just how it all fits together.

Oh, we can get a close enough idea, or at least we can put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to us.  People are people, after all; in all centuries, we understand why the lord falls in love with the bar maid.  But sainthood as a matter of course, as a fact in daily life, is another matter.  And for this writer, portraying Williams' painful sainthood is quite a challenge.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Obnoxious (adj.)

Go ahead, Anne, choose the words that
will screw up my big plans.

"I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits . . . "

Wonderful!  Can't you see Anne Bradstreet at her writing table, slyly taking revenge on her nitty neighbors who all think she should be cooking and canning rather than composing poetry?  It's perfect for us, too, four hundred years removed from Anne's world.  It gives us a heady dose of her spirit.  We get a glimpse of the subtle rebellion that is (apparently) simmering away under her staid garb of a magistrate's wife.

Except . . .

Curse you, Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED is a multi-volume dictionary that contains -- not only (purportedly) every word in the language -- but how each word has been used over time.  So if (for instance) one wanted to find out what the word, "obnoxious" meant in the early seventeenth century, this would be one's first stop.  It's a wonderful tool for historical writers.

Except when it screws up my plans.

Definition 1; "Exposed to (actual or possible) harm; subject or liable to injury or evil of any kind."
Definition 1a:  "With to: Liable, subject, exposed, open . . . "

"Formerly the prevailing use," intones the OED, "now less frequent than 6."

Definition #6 (almost a column later) is our more familiar usage of the word:  "object of aversion or dislike; offensive, objectionable, odious . . . " Used as early as 1675, to be sure.  But philologically, a mistake:  a mixing-up of "obnoxious" with "noxious."

So if I bite the bullet and assume she was using the word as it was usually used in her time -- that makes it:
"I am wounded by each carping tongue"
"I am injured by each carping tongue"
"I am left open to criticism by each carping tongue"

Or some such.

Sure, still pretty good, still workable, still spirited but different than what I thought . . . and frankly (since the discovery is still in its first hour), a bummer.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Writing Pains #4

Well, I've been neglecting this blog shockingly, but for good reason:  I've been writing madly, doing little research for a change, learning to write, finding out where the walls are by walking into them, scratching my head, alternating between glory and shame . . . and it takes up time.

My ole buddy Clio, muse of history, whom I'm
keeping locked in a closet most days right now.
Looks like she's behind on her reading list, to
judge from all those books tossed around.  I
can relate.
I've been thinking about the old story of the nine muses lately as I learn about the writing process.  Time was when they said that creativity did not have its source inside of a person.  Rather, it came from the influence of a goddess, a muse.  Which muse you got at your shoulder depended on what kind of creative work you were doing.  If you were writing a song, then Euterpe might be humming to you; if you were creating a dance, Terpsichore might invisibly shadow you, showing you how to combine spirit and motion.  A writer may be listening to one of several muses, depending on the nature of the work.  And it's not just artists; scientists and and even historians get their own muses as well.

I think I see how this idea became popular, for often the creative process has a life of its own.  The writer sits down in front of the same laptop screen as yesterday, and -- magic occurs.  A character walks out of the shadows, fully formed and speaking.  It feels like magic, though surely it is some intersection -- some mere intersection -- between the conscious and subconscious minds.  But it feels like something outside of yourself, that you are recording rather than creating.  Very strange.

Anne Bradstreet's family entitled her work The Tenth Muse, meaning she herself, a new American master of poetry.  I wonder if that seemed ironic to Bradstreet, if it seemed to her that the Inspirer and the Inspired were being confused.  But on that day in 1650, when they yelled, "Surprise!" and laid her published book of poetry in her hands, she was in no position, or, I daresay mood, to complain.