Reading New England: Mayflower Discussion Part I

Posted December 11, 2016 by Lory in discussions / 20 Comments

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Welcome to Part I of the Reading New England/Nonfiction Book Club discussion of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower. I’m so pleased that Katie of Doing Dewey agreed to co-host this readalong with me! Please hop over to her blog to see her answers to the following questions, which were written by me after reading parts I and II of the book. Katie will create another set of questions about parts III and IV of the book, to be posted on December 23.

The questions are listed below by themselves, and then repeated with my own answers. A linkup follows for your own posts, or please feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

  • What was your previous understanding of the Pilgrims’ journey and landing in North America? Did Philbrick’s presentation change or amplify anything for you?
  • In his preface, Philbrick states that his initial impression of the period was “bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans,” but that he found that the reality was less predictable than that. Given that we’re only talking about the first half of the book so far, have you found him successful in conveying a more complex view?
  • Do you think that any characteristics or concerns of the Pilgrims still persist in our national character today? How do you see these manifesting?
  • The Pilgrims’ relationship with the Native Americans, and specifically with Massasoit, was crucial to their survival. What stood out for you in this aspect of the narrative? Were there any surprises, or anything particularly interesting or disturbing?
  • Do you think the title “Mayflower” fits the book so far? If not, would you have a different title to suggest?

 

pilgrimswinter
The Pilgrims’ First Winter – 19th century engraving

What was your previous understanding of the Pilgrims’ journey and landing in North America? Did Philbrick’s presentation change or amplify anything for you?

My knowledge of this period in history was scanty and vague. I knew some English Puritans went to America in order to be able to worship as they wished, and that they sailed on a ship called the Mayflower — it didn’t occur to me to inquire further into the details. I was surprised at how perilous a scheme it really was, with difficulties finding a seaworthy ship, delays resulting in a late start, arrival in an unexpectedly cold winter, and differences of opinion among the passengers and crew. I didn’t realize they didn’t even mean to land in present-day Massachusetts, or that they tried to sail south and couldn’t pass the treacherous shoals. I also didn’t know that the Puritans were backed by commercial interests, which expected them to make a profit rather than simply sustain themselves. These were just some of the new insights that I gained — so, yes, I’d say my understanding was greatly expanded and enriched.

In his preface, Philbrick states that his initial impression of the period was “bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans,” but that he found that the reality was less predictable than that. Given that we’re only talking about the first half of the book so far, have you found him successful in conveying a more complex view?

I did think Philbrick did a good job here, with the limitation (as he admits himself) that the historical record comes to us through the white settlers; we don’t have the first-hand Native accounts that would help to create a truly rounded view. The uneasy, fragile alliance between the Pilgrims and some of their Native neighbors was not a simple thing, and I’m curious to see in the second half what happens as it disintegrates.

Do you think that any characteristics or concerns of the Pilgrims still persist in our national character today? How do you see these manifesting?

I think the twin demons of fanatical separatism and commercial greed, both of which sped the Pilgrims on their way, are still with us today. A certain inability to work with and adjust to one’s neighbors, independence to the nth power, is showing itself in the ugliest and most divisive way in the political sphere, while our unsustainable consumer-driven lifestyle is driving us to the edge of environmental collapse.

On the other hand, the ability to imagine a different future, strike out against incredible odds, and create something new is also a very real part of our heritage, and one that we need to transform into a positive impulse that benefits all of humanity instead of just one group.

The Pilgrims’ relationship with the Native Americans, and specifically with Massasoit, was crucial to their survival. What stood out for you in this aspect of the narrative? Were there any surprises, or anything particularly interesting or disturbing?

profile_rock_assonet
Profile Rock in Assonet, MA, said to be an image of Massasoit.

I thought it was telling that almost the Pilgrims’ first act upon setting foot on New World soil was to steal a stash of Native corn, intending to pay for it later, but not doing so until confronted with their illicit action. That’s another national tendency, I’d say.

I’d heard (vaguely, again) of Squanto as a helper and interpreter for the Pilgrims, but I didn’t know about his bid to replace Massasoit as leader of the tribe, or about the rival warrior, Hobbamock. I though it was fascinating that both were named for the Native spirit of darkness and death, and that the self-righteous Pilgrims in a sense had to make a contract with the devil (according to their own worldview).

This culminated in the massacre of the rival Native faction at the end of this part of the book, which started with Miles Standish’s extremely dishonorable act of killing enemies he had invited for a meal. It made a rather sobering counterpoint to our Thanksgiving meal celebrations.

Do you think the title “Mayflower” fits the book so far? If not, would you have a different title to suggest?

I think “Mayflower” was a bit misleading as a title, as the journey on the ship was a relatively small part of the book. I think Philbrick meant it as a metaphor for the overall journey of the Pilgrims and their colony, and in that sense it might work. Perhaps the book could have been called “The Pilgrims” or “Plymouth”? “Mayflower” is more inviting, and carries connotations of spring growth and new life, but since the second part of the book is going to involve an incredibly bloody conflict I’m not sure that’s appropriate.

Have you read Mayflower? What did you think? Link up your posts below, or join the discussion in the comments!

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20 responses to “Reading New England: Mayflower Discussion Part I

  1. I haven’t read this, but reading your answers gave me a good idea about the contents of this book. It sounds like it was really educational and informative. I need to read Katie of Doing Dewey’s answers to the questions. Fun read-a-long idea!

  2. I wanted to join this readalong, but it’s not looking good. However, I’m hoping that following along will give me a good idea of the book, and teach me a few of the things I was hoping to learn. Interesting that they hadn’t meant to land where they did – were they purposely heading somewhere warmer, but couldn’t get there?
    I think a good companion book to this, for anyone who wants more, would be A Measure of Light by Beth Powning, which is a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Dyer.

    • They meant to go to the mouth of the Hudson River because that’s where they had permission to start a colony. But since they couldn’t get there it seems they took squatter’s rights over the place where they ended up.

  3. The misleading title put me off when I read this years ago. Interesting to call the pilgrims “fanatical separatists ” but I guess that’s sort of what they were. Still, they should have had a right to worship the way they wanted. So I guess that’s the two sides of one coin.

    • I should refine that comment a bit further – I found them a bit fanatical in their separatism not because they wanted to worship differently from the Church of England, but because though they had a home in Holland with more religious freedom, they didn’t like it that their children were getting too “Dutch.” So rather than assimilate any “foreign” customs they decided to leave and build their own colony, which as it turned out was an extremely perilous enterprise. I don’t think they quite realized how difficult it would be, but it still seems a rather drastic step.

  4. A very perceptive and thoughtful review, Lory! A year or two ago, I read a maritime history of New England that also looked at the complex relationship between the indigenous population and the European settlers. Like most history, it’s not as simple as they make it sound when you learn about the Pilgrims in elementary school, or even high school. It sounds like Philbrick is giving a much more nuanced and balanced picture of those early years. I will have to keep this one in mind!

  5. This is a great post. I want to read this book. The fact that I have not read it seems like an omission in my reading.

    I like the idea the name “Mayflower” is a metaphor for something bigger.

    • You are far more well read in American history than I am, Brian, but I still think you would appreciate this book. It’s interesting to go beyond the legend of the first couple of years of Plymouth colony into some of the troubled times after that.

  6. Kirk

    FYI – we happen to be direct ancestors of three Pilgrims Fathers – Richard Warren, William Mullins and John Alden.

    I’ve been trying to find out more about the Leiden separatists – does he cover that period extensively? I’m specifically looking for Edward Southworth, the 1st husband of Alice (Carpenter) Southworth. He d. c. 1622 in Leiden and she emigrated to Plymouth to marry Gov. William Bradford in 1623 so she’s usually mentioned in these histories, and her sons Constant* and Thomas Southworth were also early emigrants.

    * Constant’s da. Mary or “Mercy” was the wife of John Alden’s son David.

    • Hm, I guess I should look at our genealogy in more detail. I didn’t know that, so now I have to comb the book again for those names. In my recollection Philbrick doesn’t cover the Leiden period extensively, just mentioning it as the prelude to setting sail on the Mayflower. I vaguely remember something about someone marrying William Bradford but it also wasn’t emphasized. Why are you interested in Southworth?

  7. Kirk

    He’s supposedly a descendant of Edward III, although no one can prove his parents – his non-conformity prob. caused a spat with his family which was conformist after his supposed grandfather lost all their $ in fines for recusancy – the Southworth family had a witch, a martyred Catholic priest, and the pilgrim family.

    The Leiden period is not well covered by these histories – someone prob. said their kids were too “Dutch” but that is repeated often and seems a little to simplistic of a reason for emigration. Some of the pilgrim’s changed their names to Dutch ones and never left. I suspect many of the servants (e.g. George Soule) were probably Dutch, confusing later researchers.

    • Wow, sounds like Southworth would be a great subject for a historical novel. I wonder if anyone has ever done one?

      I agree, the “too Dutch” excuse seems too simplistic to me for the radical move to America. I suppose we can only speculate about it, though, if the historical record doesn’t show other reasons.

  8. I finally managed to catch up in my reading of this. I am finding it to be fascinating. I knew the history we are taught is too simplistic–religious persecution, pilgrims, Indians, Thanksgiving all wrapped up into a heartwarming story. I think Philbrick does a good job of conveying the nuances of the situation. They were just people, all of them, with the good and bad decisions that people make. I would have appreciated more information about the pre-Mayflower days and their decision to come to America. I felt that bit was skimmed over. I also am now feeling that I will need to find a book on the Jamestown colony.

    As for the title, I agree that Plymouth feels like it fits better. Am I missing some nuance of using Mayflower instead?

    • I suspect Mayflower just sounded better, and meant you could put a nice picture of a ship on the cover. “Plymouth” sounds a bit dry. I agree that it would have been good to have some more background about the pre-Mayflower period as well. Always more to learn!

  9. Kirk

    So I skimmed the book – the Leiden Pilgrim museum has an article, I assume it was written by the museum’s director Jeremy Bangs, (http://www.leidenamericanpilgrimmuseum.org/Page31J.htm) about why the Pilgrim’s left, prob. had more to do with the threat of Spanish invasion and the state church imposing its own version of ‘conformity’ – Philbrick does give a brief summary of these reasons.

    I was surprised how their defacto military leader Myles Standish was particularly brutal in attacking their ‘enemies’. The little tidbit of switching from communal plot of land in favor of each family growing its own food helped end their food shortages since everyone worked harder.

    Thomas Weston (another distant cousin) is my favorite character – a completely amoral merchant, he kept cheating the separatists at every turn, then complained how they weren’t helping him get rich! He tried and failed to establish his own colony to complete with the Pilgrims, was constantly pursued by the authorities for his various fraud schemes on both sides of the Atlantic yet lived a long life.

    Constant appears in the second half of the book but no answers for my questions above. I forgot to mention the many Walloon Huguenots who also lived in Leiden, a few who were associated with the Separatists Congregation and a handful prob. emigrated to New England (e.g. Phillipe de Lannoy, and the family later respelled their name as ‘Delano’).

    • Good thing it’s never too late to educate ourselves! My son just got to go to Plimoth Plantation for a school field trip and I’d like to go there now too. (Something I did not get to experience growing up 3000 miles away.)

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