I love coffee and I love coffee shops. And, yes, I love Starbucks. Nothing beats a classic grande latte at the Starbucks down the street. You know the one. Everyone has a Starbucks down the street, right? Ok, give me a break. I know it’s all so basic and I’d die if anyone ever accused me of being basic. What’s so great about being a man of class and sophistication is that I can look around this Starbucks and see–let me count them–and see at least five other men dressed exactly like me in khaki pants, Oxford cloth dress shirts with sleeves rolled up, and classic brown penny loafers. ‘Makes me feel at comfortable and, basically, in my element. By the way, what does it mean to be basic again?
Well, I’ll tell you what’s not basic. I’m holding in my hand my copy of William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. That’s not basic Starbucks reading. So there.
I’ve been trying to make the point that Bradford is the perfect read for November if you live and breathe Great Literature in the U.S. If you are just now clicking in to The Literary Life for the first time, take a moment and scroll down through the last several postings just to get a context for this post.
Let’s look at the famous section about the Pilgrims’ voyage in the Mayflower and their safe landing in Massachusetts in 1620. Bradford tells the story in Book I, Chapter IX: Of Their Voyage and How They Passed the Sea; and of Their Safe Arrival at Cape Cod.
One instance recorded here is that of a “lusty” young sailor who habitually cursed and belittled everybody aboard who was sick, and there were plenty of sick Pilgrims. Look how Bradford tells of his fate: “But it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.” I always thought that was funny–lots good humor in Bradford. Except, I don’t think our dour author intended us to laugh. Anyway, Bradford continues: “Thus his curses light on his own head, and it was an astonishment to all his fellows for they noted it to be the first hand of God upon him.” He’s smacked down by the providence of God.
In another passage, parallel to the one above, the opposite occurred. God’s providence saved a man from drowning: “but it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards which hung overboard and ran out at length.”
They finally arrived in the New World and Bradford notes that their plight was worse than the Apostle Paul’s when he was shipwrecked. They had nothing to sustain them, he writes, “but the Spirit of God and his grace. . . .”
I’m not being fair to Bradford, I know. He really is a great writer and his History of Plymouth Plantation is more than one of the most important of early American documents, and it is far more intriguing as Great Literature than its historical significance. As Aristotle says, literature has more truth than history—or something like that.
But look at its literary style. Look at all the sentences that have much the same rhythm as lines from the Bible? Look at the grand Biblical diction that sets the tone of the writing as solemn, dignified, emotional, and religious. And note the actual Biblical allusions. Particularly the one from Deuteronomy 34 comparing their arrival to the ascent up Mt. Pisgah.
How should we describe Bradford’s concept of how God works in this world? Is this as much an American concept for our country and its history as much as a simple Christian idea? Can you imagine how this concept influenced the later history of the U.S.?
Or notice that in the very first the reference to the indigenous peoples Bradford expects to find that he calls them “savage barbarians” before they even appear. Let’s see if Bradford’s pre-judgment turns out to be warranted?
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