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My New Book!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

September 17, 2013: Gloucester Stories: The Sense of the Past

[A series of posts highlighting some of the many interesting American histories and stories in our oldest seaport. Add your thoughts, please!]
On a couple important reasons to better remember Gloucester’s long-term histories.
This AmericanStudier is never ashamed to admit all the things I’m still learning about America; heck, I wrote a whole recent series on that topic! But this might be the first time that one of the central premises of a week’s series has fallen into that category: before I visited Gloucester for the first time, in late August, I had no idea that the city was as old as it is. I probably would have guessed sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century for Gloucester’s origin, but in fact the city was permanently settled as a fishing and trade village in 1623, only three years after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. Moreover, initial explorations of the area by both French explorer Samuel de Champlain and English adventurer John Smith significantly predate either of those arrivals, making Gloucester and Cape Ann one of the oldest sites of European contact in New England.
Such early, complex, and foundational American histories are, as I have argued many times, worth better remembering for their own sakes; but there are also other benefits to improving our collective memories of Gloucester’s past. For one thing, recognizing that 1623 settlement date forces us to engage with just how diverse—in purpose and mission, in demographics, in identity—the English settlers and communities in Massachusetts have always been. Even the Mayflower arrivals were composed not only of the stereotypical Puritans seeking religious freedom but also of many other Englishmen and women hoping for a new and better economic and personal situation, as the Plimoth Plantation interpreters do a great job highlighting. And as Gloucester demonstrates, within a few years the Massachusetts and New England world would include entire English communities dedicated entirely to such commercial pursuits—and thus, for example, ones with very distinct and far more economically motivated relationships to local Native American tribes and communities than those of the Massachusetts Bay colony as a whole.
Partly we have tended to equate the English in New England with the Puritans because they’re a really compelling (if often oversimplified or falsified) story—but partly we have done so because the colony’s own leaders and historians, from William Bradford and John Winthrop down to the Mathers and many others, emphasized precisely that identity. So better remembering Gloucester’s place in that early history would also help us to see how much such collective narratives of community and identity are constructed, in their own moment and in the writing of their histories—and how much they are influenced by factors such as religious ideology and class. Certainly the former seems to have been paramount for the Puritan leaders and historians, but I would argue that it’s difficult to separate religion from class, Puritanism from elitism—which is to say, that Gloucester’s working class identity was as much a factor in its earliest histories as it has continued to be in its 20th and 21st century story (on which more later this week). We’re not so good at talking about class here in America, but a place like Gloucester can certainly help us to do so.
Next Gloucester story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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