November 15, 2016
(Repeated from November 2015)
I live in West Texas—where we capitalize the W—and here it is November and seven weeks after the first day of fall. As is typical here, the leaves are all brown and are ignominiously just blowing off the few trees we have. No big piles of fall leaves here. No beautiful autumn colors. It is harvest time but the harvest is cotton, not corn and wheat or anything like that. Still, I love it, but it’s a loose relationship based upon an unspoken understanding that West Texas fall can do what it wants and I can do what I want.
Yeah, but what I want is some fall leaves, some frost, and a fire in the fireplace of this the study I can only dream about. Anyway, let me pull down my Classics Club edition of William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, always a favorite in November, and see what’s special about this book.
Here’s the traditional reading of William Bradford, the reading that has been used to help establish the view of the United States as an exceptional nation founded under special circumstances and established by God much as God established the wandering Israelites in the Promised Land.
Bradford structures his history around annual accounts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the Mayflower voyage in 1620 until 1646. The most famous parts, obviously, are the early parts about the first encounters of the Pilgrims in the New World, the stories of the tension surrounding the development of the Mayflower Compact, the brutal first winter in a hostile land during which over half the colony perishes, and the bountiful harvest of 1621 which would have been impossible without the help of the Native American locals led by Massasoit.
From the start Bradford considers “the hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men,” while in the end he shows us a well-established community with a bright future, a community that serves as a beacon shining light into darkness. Early school pedagogues used to teach Bradford’s History as the first American epic with its theme of dogged struggle of civilization and piety against the savage continent and powers of darkness. Although self-effacing, Bradford has usually been seen as a man of profound goodness and dignity, practicality, compassion, and monumental endurance.
Thus, the traditional interpretation and certainly the intended interpretation by the author. However, this is the postmodern era, and for us today what the author of any given text intended no longer matters—at least not in the way, here, that Bradford thought.
But next time let’s de-center this text a bit. Look off to the sides. Let’s start asking questions William Bradford never intended us to ask.
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