Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Progressive Pilgrims

Nick Bunker  paints a vivid -- and notably broad -- portrait of the Pilgrims in Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World

The following review was posted last night on the Books page of the History News Network.

The Pilgrims are firmly ensconced --  well, maybe not firmly ensconced, but  ensconced nonetheless -- in the collective American imagination. But their status in the academy, after peaking mid-century in the work of historians like Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan, has been a good deal more wobbly. For starters, the multicultural turn in academe has made the study of relatively privileged white people problematic. Even among those who have embarked on such studies, there has been a long-term effort to argue that they either typified the larger pattern of imperial conquest or, alternatively, that their atypical qualities (demographic, ideological, or the like) make them a misleading template compared with colonial projects on mid- or southern Atlantic seaboard or elsewhere.

There has been a range of important work in the last decade, however, that suggests the protean ability of the Pilgrims to advance varied historiographic agendas. In 1999, John Seelye looked at their role in collective memory in The Place of Plymouth Rock. The following year, James and Patricia Deetz took a more anthropological approach in The Times of Their Lives. Meanwhile, in popular history, Nathaniel Philbrick hitched the narrative of the Pilgrims' progress to a wider arc that culminated in King Philip's War a half century later in Mayflower (2006). They figure peripherally in entertaining recent books by Tony Horwitz and the always lively Sarah Vowell, whose The Wordy Shipmates (2008) is as notable for its analytic sophistication as its wit.

Nick Bunker's Making Haste from Babylon is a major new work that both rides this wave and raises it considerably higher. There are two core reasons for this. The first is that Bunker, a former banker and financial journalist, rests his case on the most fundamental element of historical craft: excavating significant caches of previously unknown or overlooked documents that amplify the traditional 17th century primary sources (notably William Bradford's famous Of Plymouth Plantation). The second is that Bunker simultaneously partakes of the most au courant trends in the contemporary historical profession, notably the current rage for an internationalist approach (which, it should be said, has long been a staple in the study of what has often been called "The Atlantic World"), as well as an environmentalist accent. This accent is marked by a literally bird's eye view that opens and closes the book, a whimsical touch that both defies interdisciplinary orthodoxy and alludes to epistemological questions of perspective that have hovered over the profession in the last two decades.

These tactical decisions in approaching the Pilgrims converge on a series of interpretive points. Perhaps the most novel finding in the book is Bunker's emphasis on the development of the role of the beaver trade in Maine in the 1620s as the key turning point in the success of Plymouth colony. Previous historians of early New England have noted, usually in passing, on the role of the beaver as a source of revenue for the wandering settlers of Plymouth, but in reconstructing a transatlantic trail of trade, Bunker sees this particular economic activity as the prerequisite for the Pilgrims' growing capacity to pay their creditors as well as to procure the supplies (among them livestock) to establish a durable presence in America.

This economic development was a direct result of geopolitical ones. And those geopolitical ones, in turn, have their roots in Elizabethan politics. As anyone vaguely familiar with the story knows, the most obvious truth about the Pilgrims' relationship to the English government is its ambiguity. Bunker considers it important to look beyond the immediate reasons for the Pilgrim migration first to Leiden and then to Plymouth during the reign of  the Stuart king James I to consider the role of Puritan dissent generally in the latter years of Tudor rule under Elizabeth I. The lingering pull of the Roman Catholic Church at home, combined with the Spanish threat abroad, meant that even the most insistent Protestant critiques of the Church of England would be viewed relatively indulgently by the government unless it crossed the line into an overt threat to secular authority.

Bunker devotes considerable space to the career of the late sixteenth century Puritan dissident Robert Browne, some of whose most radical followers were executed (Browne himself was exiled and later jailed for his views). James I labeled the ensuing generation of Pilgrims as "Brownists," a moniker that some observers have viewed as inaccurate but which Bunker considers trenchant. (He paraphrases the monarch's shrewd comparison of Puritans with addicted tobacco smokers, "devoted to their own obsession regardless of the cost that fell on themselves or others.") James I and his son Charles I made life much more difficult for religious dissidents, principally by promoting their ideological opponents. But such were the military and political exigencies of their time that it sometimes made sense to overlook Brownist excess in the name of good relations with the Dutch or national solidarity against the French, both of which had influential Protestant populations who viewed the Pilgrims favorably. Interpretively speaking, the upshot of all this is that Bunker is eager to portray the Pilgrims not as a marginal splinter group -- a tendency particularly pronounced when juxtaposing them with the Puritans who founded Massachusetts a decade later -- but rather a surprisingly well-connected group of proto-gentry who navigated the swiftest currents of European power politics.

 But the core impetus for all this history -- the base, as it were, for a superstructure of politics and economics -- is religion. As Bunker says flatly toward the end of the book, "The truth is that Calvinist zeal was far more important than any other factor in bringing about the creation of New England." The religious intensity of the Pilgrims was the source of a disenchantment that increasingly brought them into conflict with English society, and it was also the source of the disenchantment that drove them from Holland, notwithstanding other factors. But even more important, that intensity helped fuel the morale that forged them into a cohesive body -- Bunker considers the Mayflower Compact important because he sees clear evidence that they saw it as important -- and sustained them through years of adversity and despair. Moreover, Plymouth was not just another imperial colony. Yes, the Pilgrims experienced conflict with Indians, but one reason why they enjoyed relative peace with them is that they policed their own. William Bradford was not John Smith. And Miles Standish was not just hired help. Nor were Puritans mindless fanatics, particularly when one considers the simultaneous sectarian violence of Thirty Years War on the European continent. The Pilgrims' belief was not important simply in how it allowed them to justify what they did, but also in terms of what they chose not to do. They were, in short, remarkably disciplined people.

Making Haste from Babylon has a distinctly peripatetic quality. The storyline wanders, in intentionally non-chronological episodes, across a series of landscapes in England, America, Holland, France and the Atlantic Ocean. For all his immersion in dusty archives, Bunker has a keenly observant eye for nature, and indeed  notes that "Historians often write about the early English settlers of America in a cerebral way, or with a sentimentality that the Pilgrims would have found very odd. In fact, they came from feral old England, as it was before railways, and as it still exists in vestiges today." This pedestrian quality can make for real enjoyment, though it does engender impatience after a while. There's only so many times one can cheerfully hear that we can't really understand X until we first make a journey to Y, or that we have to work through a series of Z's contemporaries to fully appreciate who he is. After about 300 pages of this 400+ book, the temptation to skip passages and pages may become irresistible.

One may also plausibly wonder how decisively new a portrait of the Pilgrims this really is. For all Bunker's emphasis on the importance of new sources, there's little here that actually overturns previously established facts. The value of the book is less a matter of advancing the state of knowledge than it is in gaining a granular appreciation for the lives the Pilgrims lived and what it took for them to achieve it. Which, of course, is no small thing. Making Haste from Babylon is a cutting-edge book whose satisfactions rest in old-fashioned writing. It makes for a satisfying reading experience.