Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Something wicked this way comes...

The Pilgrims were surely an earnest, long-suffering, and hardened people to have gone through all that they did in planting Plymouth Colony. When it wasn't famine, sickness, terrible weather, or threat of an Indian war enveloping them, it was the more common type of hardships that befell them.

Much of William Bradford's excellent history Of Plymouth Plantation (I'm reading the 2001 edition edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, Borzoi Books) chronicles the business reversals that they suffered, the underhanded dealings of agents who were supposedly negotiating for them back in England with their investors (the Merchant Adventurers), but who were really out to make a buck for themselves. The Pilgrims got the shaft every time they turned around, and ironically enough, had a heck of a time finding a pastor for their flock who wasn't a complete charlatan or who didn't have some peculiar belief that they couldn't countenance. But Bradford became seriously perturbed by the "wickedness" he saw breaking out all around him, just as the colonies were becoming more populous and, at least some, more prosperous.

In his entry for year 1642, he entertains several reasons why all this incontinence, sodomy, and buggery was breaking out like an epidemic. He considers that it is because the Devil has to work extra hard and go to greater lengths to sow corruption in a people simply because they "endeavour to preserve holiness and purity ... and strictly punisheth the contrary when it arises." However, Bradford doesn't like the idea that the Devil is more potent in the New World, so he also reasons that it might be because their community didn't allow sins to "run in a common road of liberty" so when it did break through, it was twice as violent.

But here's where he really lets the Puritan freak flag fly -- it's not because they have more than the normal proportion of "evils" done among them:

But they are here more discovered and seen and made public by due search, inquisition and due punishment; for the churches look narrowly to their members, and the magistrates over all, more strictly than in other places. Besides, here the people are but few in comparison of other places which are full and populous and lie hid, as it were, in a wood or a thicket and many horrible evils by that means are never seen nor known; whereas here they are, as it were, brought into the light and set in the plain field, or rather on a hill, made conspicuous to the view of all. (Chapter XXXII, p. 317)

Ah! Here it is, the forerunner of modern "social networking" but without all the spying and legwork. Now, you can simply out yourself, disposing of the bother of relying on others to do it for you. That, my friends, is progress. And if broadcasting all your evils isn't enough, you can take a picture of yourself engaging in said evils and confirm them. Although, I have to say, if hanging were the probable outcome, modern social networkers might manage to be more prudent. Not that I think that's an appropriate antidote. But as Bradford would say, "Thus much for the present."

All joshing aside, what really strikes me about the passage above and of the whole book, really, is the most earnest, genuine, soul-shaking belief that the Devil is REAL. Not some cartoon red imp with a cloven hoof and pitchfork, but a destructive, preying, malevolent presence haunting your every thought, step, and nightmare. And if you were already of this persuasion in Europe, amongst the familiar rolling hills or grand cathedrals of the cities, how much would that feeling be intensified, in almost perfect isolation, facing an endless wilderness that contained unfathomable threats and mysteries?

It's easy to make Puritans the butt of jokes with our 21st century sensibilities. I know I've certainly done it. But for them it was a deadly serious business; they weren't being ironic; they weren't trying to sell people a bogus story in order to defraud them (well, maybe a few). The belief that they were constantly in peril and threatened by eternal damnation is what they staked their lives on and what made them quite willing to execute those members of the community who might be "infected" by evil, a belief that reached its ultimate expression in the witch hunt hysteria which was to follow.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Old World, New World

For most of the spring I was distracted by getting ready for my first trip to Paris for nine days in May. Not really being a world traveler, it was a big deal to finally visit a city that has so long figured in my reading, whether history, fiction, or poetry. I've long considered to myself to be more Anglophile than Francophile, though the latter had been increasing in its power as I've probably read more French literature in the last 10-15 years than I ever had before -- Hugo, Flaubert, Colette, Zola, not to mention, all the ex-pat writers who lived in Paris, especially in the 20s.

My husband and I had a successful first trip to Paris -- I say first, because I do hope to make it back again one day. We spent all nine days and nights in the city, walking the streets and boulevards, riding the metro, and climbing stairs -- stairs up to the heights of the Notre Dame towers and the platform of the Arc de Triomphe, and down into the crypts of the Pantheon and to the narrow streets winding from the hill of Montmartre.

We saw the usual sites that tourists visit, cafes and monuments and crowded museums. I walked down the staircase of the Conciergerie where many a victim of the guillotine took their final steps, including Robespierre, whose descent was commemorated on a brass plaque. We stuck our heads into the bell tower where the fictional Quasimodo swung from perch to perch. We were gently accosted on the street by an old lady who was genuinely in a tizzy over the case of Strauss-Kahn, which was just hitting the news as we arrived. I'm afraid we weren't of much comfort to her and said our bon soirs and moved on. We saw Guy Marchand crooning in a jazz club while we ate foie gras and chicken across from a table that included a tiny and well-behaved poodle. We ventured a bit out of "museum" Paris to the 20th arrondissement and saw an indie band favorite of mine in a hole-in-the-wall club filled with hipsters.

People keep asking me what my favorite thing was and it's actually been pretty easy to answer. I love Paris at night, walking along the Seine and over the bridges, especially around the Ile de la Cite and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, lit up and looming over St. Michel. While hardly empty, at night you can tune out the bustle of tourists and street traffic a little more and just look into the river and feel the breeze ruffling your hair. This is when I felt I was really in the Paris of my imagination. I could have wandered around half the night, but we would eventually stumble back to our hotel in Montparnasse after midnight and start again in another part of the city the next day.

So that was lovely Paris, which I'm still processing like a good Romantic -- emotion recollected in tranquility. I'm not a very "in the moment" kind of person; pretty much the opposite. I do all my sorting out of experience, much, much later. And so, far from digging into more francophilia and French literature, I'm on to my next thing, which is...the New World. My world. America.

Wherein I declare John Smith to be awesome

I'm all the way back to the beginnings at Jamestown and Plymouth Colony. I've been reading Captain John Smith, who has to be one of the most fascinating characters in history. I think he lived about nine lives' worth of adventures and near-executions and shipwrecks and disappointments. I find his prose (not at all modernized in my edition, thankfully) a little difficult to follow sometimes. He assumes a lot of knowledge, and then rattles off Indian names and places and I get thoroughly lost trying to figure whose skulduggery he is describing and why his compatriots are always trying to cross him, if not hang him from the nearest branch. He spends a lot of time in his General History explaining, haranguing, and practically begging potential English investors to mount a proper colonization effort -- going in for the long-haul and not the easy money. Forget the gold mines, he says, there's money in timber, cod, and crops -- all there for the taking, which apparently, just didn't sound sexy enough for most people, particularly when the natives are known for flaying you alive and roasting your innards. But as the Captain opined, "It is not a worke for every one to plant a Colonie; but when a house is built, it is no hard matter to dwell in it." You can feel his frustration bleeding out in most of his writings at the lazy, unimaginative, lily-livered mortals he was often trying to prod into action. This is perhaps why they were always trying to hang him, why he finally got kicked out of the colonies, and why the Pilgrims passed on him in favor of the more manageable Miles Standish. This last bit I learned from Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower, which I'm reading alongside William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford is wonderfully crisp and engaging, and I'll probably have more to say about him in a future post. Possibly, he is not as awesome as Smith, but as your Puritan forefathers go, he's pretty snazzy.