Wednesday, August 10, 2016

King's Survey: Anne's Work

In which we see a working woman mark time in verse

—So what great adventure do you have planned for us today, Mr. K?
Well, I thought I’d we’d pay another visit to our friend Anne Bradstreet, Kylie.
—Who is she, again?
—She’s that Puritan woman one who didn’t want to come Massachusetts. Whose father made her.
—And her husband. Great time to be a woman.
That’s right, Sadie and Emily. As I’ve tried to make clear in recent days, women in Puritan society were more assertive than just about anywhere on the face of the earth. But New England remained a patriarchal society. Still, while Bradstreet's father, Thomas Dudley, was notorious for his haughty severity, Bradstreet never wrote about him or her mother with anything but the deepest affection. He was clearly attentive to her welfare as a child from the time of her birth in 1612, procuring the very best schooling for her back in England. Her also hired the tutor, Simon Bradstreet, who became her husband shortly before their departure for Massachusetts.
As we talked about the other day, Anne Bradstreet faced formidable challenges in leaving her English home behind and establishing a new one on these shores. But in most respects, it had to have been easier for her than her approximately 750 fellow travelers, about 200 of whom died in the first year and another 200 of whom returned. She lived her days as a member of an important family that laid the foundations of our national history. Her father, husband, and son all served as major government officials over the course of her life, and as such she would have had a proverbial window seat for some major events. (She may well have also influenced them, though her fingerprints are invisible.) Of all the momentous events involving her migration and subsequent public events, however, she had virtually nothing to say. That’s not surprising; this was generally not a woman’s place.
And yet the reason why we know about Anne Bradstreet is that she did ultimately enter the public square. She did not do it the way Anne Hutchinson did, with a bold challenge to the authorities. Instead, she approached the matter artfully—in a number of senses of that term: she became a writer.
—What did she write?
Poetry, mostly. And some prose. It’s not clear how she did it. We know little of her everyday life. As a woman from a prominent family, she surely had resources most others in her community did not, whether as a matter of creature comforts or household help she could direct in running a family that included eight children. But the fact remains that she was living in a frontier society without many of the comforts of civilization. After serving a term as governor in 1634, her dad relocated his family to the remote town of Ipswich, some thirty miles away, and the Bradstreets followed. In subsequent decades, Simon Bradstreet was often traveling, and Anne frequently served as a deputy husband, managing family finances, disposing property, and supervising (male) laborers.
It was also in Ipswich that she seems to have begun her writing career in earnest. As a recent biographer has noted, in the decade between 1638 and 1648, she wrote over six thousand lines of poetry, more than most English writers on either side of the Atlantic produced in a lifetime. (Some of that productivity occurred in the nearby town of Andover, where the Bradstreets moved in the 1640s.) Most of that stretch she was pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or nursing. A 1967 edition of her works, reissued in 2010, runs over 300 pages.
We might never have known about her had not her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, taken a copy of her poems to England in 1647. Woodbridge was on a mission to help with negotiating tense relations between Parliament and the King during the English Civil War, but while he was there he shopped around her work. He teamed up with Bradstreet’s friend and former Ipswich neighbor, Nathaniel Ward, and made a deal with Ward’s English publisher. Woodbridge titled it The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (implying that his sister-in-law was the heir of the nine muses of Greek mythology). It was the first book of poetry to be published by an English colonist. By 1658 it was listed as “one of the most vendible books in England.”
Best-selling. By the strictly literary standards of its time—and in the estimation of most critics in the three and a half centuries since—The Tenth Muse (the first edition, that is—I’ll be getting to the second shortly) is not an especially arresting work. Bradstreet was clearly a fan of sixteenth century poets Philip Sydney and (especially) Frenchman Guillaume du Bartas, and her verse is generally derivative of theirs. She also expressed some garden-variety anti-Catholicism. Later in life, she would question the intensity of her vitriol. “Why may not the Popish religion be right? They have the same God, the same Christ, the same word. They only interpret it one way, we another.” But Bradstreet remained a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan.
Insofar as there was really anything unusual about the initial publication of The Tenth Muse back then—and really, the thing that most people who know about the book care about now—was the fact that it was written by a woman. This was both a problem and an opportunity. Woodbridge and his allies maintained, improbably, that Bradstreet and her family knew nothing about his efforts to get her published: it would be unseemly—and probably impossible—for a woman to engage in a campaign of self-promotion. She was promoted on the basis her freakish appeal: a great work of art, by a woman no less, is really worth a look.
In terms of its gender politics, The Tenth Muse exhibits a curious combination of modesty and self-assertion. Her dedication to her father speaks of “ragged lines” that can hardly do justice to all Dudley had done for her. Such language what makes the fifth stanza of “The Prologue” all the more startling: 
            I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
            Who says my hand a needle better fits
            A poet’s pen all scorn I thus should wrong,
            For such despite they cast on female wits:
            If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
            They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.

Wow is right.
—I mean that you memorized it. But wow also in what she says.
What’s so interesting in what she says, Sadie?
—She sounds so feminist.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that … she’s so strong. So powerful.
—So angry.
Is feminism about anger, Brianna?
—Sometimes. It’s about speaking out about what don't have.
Anne Bradstreet strikes me as a mighty privileged woman, Brianna. Not many of us, no matter when or where we are, get our poetry published.
—That’s not the point.
Oh no? Why not?
—Because even though she’s rich, she’s not treated fair. Men poets who are as good as she is don’t have to put up with what she does.
—Men have to put up with all kinds of things, Brianna.
—It’s different, Paolo.
Paolo, I’m glad to hear from you. Do you think that men and women are mistreated equally?
—Yes. I mean no. I mean they don’t necessarily have to deal with the same things. But men have their own problems.
What kinds of things do men have to deal with?
—I dunno. We’ve all got stuff.
—We have to deal with being called sexist!
—Sometimes men are sexist, Ethan!
—And sometimes we’re not, Emily!
Let’s remember we’re back in the seventeenth century. Ethan and Paolo, would you agree it was tougher for women, then?
—I guess.
Remember that Bradstreet saw what happened to Hutchinson when she dared to wander onto male turf.
—But you said that wasn’t because of sexism. You said it was because what Hutchinson was saying was dangerous.
I did say that. And I believe it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m right.
—Yeah, Mr. K. How do we know you’re not an agent of Satan?
You don’t, Emily. Maybe you’d like to teach the class?
—Ummm, no thanks. You go ahead. But I’ll let you know if you get out of line.
Gee, thanks. I’ll note that you’re a little like our friend Goody Bradstreet here
Seventeenth century slang. Short for “goodwife.” That’s how Bradstreet would have been known to her peers. Anyway, she struck a more moderate note than Hutchinson did in challenging authority, one that reflected her temperament as well as perhaps a more general Puritan pragmatism. Bradstreet returned to this theme at the end of The Tenth Muse, in a poem honoring Queen Elizabeth: “She hath wiped off th’ aspersion of her sex / That women wisdom lack to play the rex.” She pushed the point into a contemporary context. Here, I have it on the Smart Board:
Now say, have women worth? Or they have none?
Or had them some, but with our Queen is’t gone?
Nay masculines, you have taxed us long
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ’tis slander now but once was treason.

Check out that last line: “’tis slander now but once was treason.” Once upon a time, she’s saying, you could be punished for making a sexist remark about a woman.
—Just like today.
—Oh, shut up, Ethan.
The Tenth Muse put Anne Bradstreet on the literary map. She enjoyed a measure of fame in her lifetime, which tapered gradually over the next two centuries, after which she disappeared from literary anthologies. Her reappearance a 1929 poetry collection marked the beginning of a comeback that’s really picked up steam since the 1970s, when the women’s movement kicked into gear. So you’re on the right track there, Sadie, when you called her feminist. Which is wonderful. But it’s not why I love Anne Bradstreet so.
—Why do you love her so?
I’ll get back to you on that.

Next: The next chapter of Bradstreet’s life