Monday, November 22, 2010
November 22, 2010: Very Different Pictures
I’m not a big fan of the “tearing down” style of historical revisionism, the kind that identifies idealized or lionized figures or events and tries to take the air out of those balloons; while I think the revisionist information itself often makes for a pretty significant addition to our narratives (Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings would be Exhibit A for that particular case), the desired end result seems far too often to be just the exact opposite of idealizing or lionizing, and I don’t see that as any more productive. But with that said, I can’t really overstate how much my reading of the section of William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation which narrates the Pequot War changed my opinion of both Bradford himself (the generally very impressive and talented leader, governor, and then chronicler of the Pilgrim settlement at Plimoth) and the Pilgrims overall. Bradford, after all, had come over on the Mayflower and so had experienced the first winter at Plimoth, a time when, as he himself at least semi-acknowledges in his narrative, the entire community would have starved and died were it not for the crucial aid of a couple Native Americans (especially Tisquantum, the one known to the Pilgrims as Squanto). Yet in describing the Pequot War’s most brutal and horrific event, the 1637 massacre of Pequot civilians (virtually all, by English design, women, children, and the elderly) and burning of their settlement at Mystic, Bradford writes, “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same; and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.”
Like most Native-European encounters and conflicts, especially those in the first couple of centuries after initial contact, there are all sorts of complexities and differing narratives in play with the Pequot War in general and this massacre in particular, and the best recent historians of both have worked hard to provide nuanced accounts of those multiple layers. And of course the entire Pilgrim mission and even worldview depended on a very central belief that God was with them, that Divine Providence was literally directing their actions and experiences, so Bradford’s take here is in that way not at all surprising or unusual. But on the other hand: Bradford’s own prose admits that what happened to the Pequots was fearful and horrible, and yet his sentence structure makes those same dark realities into “a sweet sacrifice” (easy for him to say) and the “wonderful” workings of God. It’s a moment—and I intentionally mean to conflate at least somewhat the moment of the massacre with the moment of writing, because they feel to me all too close here—that, to me, creates a very different picture of the Pilgrim mindset, one in which a sustaining and powerful faith (something that was, again, crucial to their community and the source of a great deal of good) can produce justifications, even celebrations, of the very worst kind of human brutality and destruction.
It took almost two centuries, but the Mystic massacre would eventually be the subject of another, much more inspiring narrative, one that creates (in its own words) “a very different picture” of the event and, through it, of the possibilities of human interaction and connection across the English and Native communities. That narrative comes early in a very long and not entirely related novel, Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1826); the novel’s two Volumes and over 400 pages are dedicated most fully to the life and experiences of its impressive proto-feminist titular heroine, but it does feature the Pequot perspective very prominently in a key supporting character, Magawisca. She is the daughter of a Pequot chief and one of the sole survivors of the massacre, and in the book’s opening chapters she has developed a mutual and potentially romantic relationship with a young Puritan, Everell Fletcher; it is to him that she tells her narrative of the Mystic massacre, in an extended, amazing passage. The passage is amazing not only in its ability to imagine this Pequot young woman’s voice and perspective, at a remove of two centuries and a great deal else, but also in its vision of what such an alternative voice and story can do, what this “very different picture” of the event means for its open-minded, sympathetic, ideal audience. Sedgwick—understandably—can’t quite sustain this level of cross-cultural conversation and connection throughout the novel, but this moment is absolutely a model for it, in response to (not in spite of, but through and then beyond) this darkest historical encounter between the cultures in question.
My third book project, which I’m just beginning to plan and write now—when I’m not, y’know, blogging, among other things—is going to focus on hard-won hope in American novels, moments of almost utopian possibility that occur through (again, not in spite of but very much through) narratives of our darkest histories and realities. The moments I’ll focus on there are going to be concluding ones, and of course hope is more hopeful when it comes at the end; Magawisca’s end in Sedgwick’s novel is explicitly less hopeful than this early encounter might foreshadow. But in its very different picture of both the Pequot War and Native-English relationships, it’s still deeply impressive and well worth our attention. More tomorrow, on one of America’s greatest filmmakers and his pair of complementary 1990s masterpieces about defining American places, histories, and lives.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The text of the relevant section/year of Bradford’s chronicle: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24950/24950-h/24950-h.htm#a1637
2) Google book of Sedgwick’s novel (with a great intro by one of my mentors, Carolyn Karcher); Magawisca’s story starts on page 48): http://books.google.com/books?id=Vj18oTjtu-UC&printsec=frontcover&dq=catharine+maria+sedgwick+hope+leslie+magawisca's+story&source=bl&ots=-alZgGy9n9&sig=IdQIA5pNKqtYsdSzT3fd1pLJBZw&hl=en&ei=I87pTOD6K8G88gaUh_HLDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CDsQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false