THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 3)

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John Winthrop (1588-1649) is primarily known for his journal which documents the development and daily goings-on of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between the period of 1630 well into the 1640s. Winthrop, just like Smith, was a immigrant, who moved from England to the colony of Massachusetts in 1630 after losing a prominent and profitable political position due to his Puritan leanings a year prior. Winthrop had good reason to leave, due to a climate of increasing religious intolerance brewing in his home country at the behest of Archbishop Laud who delighted in pillorying his political and theological opponents, often having them mutilated and imprisoned indefinitely. Such instances of theocratic oppression were doubly trouble, not just because of their vicious and increasingly common nature, but also because such instances were backed by none other than King Charles I. The public incidents of political violence were largely perpetrated as a means of instantiating a renewed conformity of religious thought and opposing Puritanical fervor; given the fact that both Laud and Charles, were no fans of the Puritans, who they considered theological as well as political adversaries, Winthrop’s exodus was wisely timed. The religious animosity had a history stretching back to the Church of England’s split with papal authority in the 1534 under the reign of Tudor monarch, Henry VIII and only intensified as reformation sentiment re-instantiated itself within the country.

Winthrop’s journal today is generally printed under the title, The History of New England and concerns the history, in great detail, of the first 19 years of the sea passage to America and continues to document the development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Since it was incorporated into the scholarly corpus, Winthrop’s journal has remained the central text utilized to understand the early history of Massachusetts.

Winthrop demonstrates a more poetic touch in his letters to his fiance, Margaret Tyndal, wherein he writes, Being filled with the joy of thy love, and wanting opportunity of more familiar communion with thee, which my heart fervently desires, I am constrained to ease the burden of my mind by this poor help of my scribbling pen. … Love was their banqueting house, love was their wine, love was their ensign; love was his invitings, love was her faintings; love was his apples, love was her comforts, love was his embracings, love was her refreshing.” Such admissions of sexual passion are not only stirring in their lyrical flow and raw delicacy, but also run counter to the commonly held misconception that the Puritans were sexless, joyless sops who slunk about as sullen slugs.

Just like Winthrop, another one of the most significant early writers of the period was a settler from England named William Bradford (1590-1657) of Yorkshire. Bradford joined the English voyagers who traveled to America on the Mayflower in 1620; these errant travelers would go on to establish the Plymouth Colony where Bradford would rule as governor for over thirty years. From 1606 to 1646 Bradford kept a meticulous record of his adventures. His documentation of the events of the Plymouth Colony from 1620-1657 form the backbone of his history, Of Plymouth Plantation. Just as interesting as his considerable body of writings was the circumstances which propelled Bradford to leave England for the New World. In his youth, Bradford fell ill for a lengthy period of time which left him unable to work; during this malaise he became extremely bookish and took a keen interest in theology. His interest lead him to the Rev. Richard Clyfton, a staunch opponent of Roman Catholicism who sought to bring about marked reformation within the Church of England. Bradford became very enamored of the persuasive preacher and began frequent attendance. During one of these sermons he encountered William Brewster, a bailiff and political activist; Bradford and Brewster struck up a friendly relationship with Bradford often borrowing books from Brewsters collection at Scrooby Manor. However, shortly thereafter, King James I ascended to the throne in 1603, declaring that he would bring about a end to all church reformation movements who sought to change the theological makeup of The Church. He demanded that all Puritans and other assorted dissidents would adhere to theocratic conformity else measures would be undertaken to “-harry them out of the land-.” Four years after the king’s ascent, Brewster set to organizing secret meetings at Scrooby Manor; members in attendance included the aforementioned Rev. Clyfton as well as Rev. John Robinson, one of the earliest leaders of the English Separatists (those Puritans who did not believe that the Church of England could be reformed and who thus, broke wholly from it). These gatherings were both political and religious in nature and went expressly against the King’s decree of religious conformity. As such, the Scrooby Manor dissidents garnered the watchful eyes of the clerisy who quickly had numerous members of the sizable congregation arrested. Brewster being chief among them who was found guilty of religiously “disobedient” and was severely fined. Other members of the congregation who were not outright imprisoned were followed, some were watched around the clock, day and night by Church loyalists. Young Bradford witnessed many of these events and was shaped markedly by the development. Given this persecution under the guiding hand of the English theocracy, the manor congregation decided that there was nothing for it but to leave England for the Dutch republic given its secular tendencies and permission of religious freedom. This decision was complicated by the fact that such a move was illegal, even despite this, Bradford decided that he would follow the congregation on its way. However, on their way, the congregation was betrayed by a English sea captain who turned them over to the English authorities; all members were imprisoned, including Bradford. By 1608, however, the group managed to escape once more and set off for the Dutch Republic; an 18 year old Bradford traveled with them. Despite their improved degree of freedom found in the Netherlands, the congregation had spent the majority of their money in the crossing and so lived as paupers and began to become increasingly troubled by the influence upon their children of and, by 1617, they made extensive plans to move to America to establish a colony which would eventually fall under Bradford’s sway.

Having set up a bit of a understanding of the type and style of early writing in the New World let us jump briskly forth through time and examine the genesis of the American novel. [continued in part 4]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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