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It was March 17, 1776, the mud season in New England. A Continental officer of high rank was guiding his horse through the potholed streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those who knew horses noticed that he rode with the easy grace of a natural rider, and a complete mastery of himself.
Autumn is here again – in England, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, in the US also the season of Thanksgiving. On the fourth Thursday in November, schoolchildren across the country will stage pageants, some playing black-suited Puritans, others Native Americans bedecked with feathers. By tradition, Barack Obama will ‘pardon’ a turkey, but 46 million others will be eaten in a feast complete with corncobs and pumpkin pie. The holiday has a long history: Lincoln fixed the date (amended by Roosevelt in 1941), and Washington made it a national event. Its origins, of course, lay in the Pilgrim Fathers’ first harvest of 1621.
Who now remembers who these intrepid migrants were – not the early ‘founding fathers’ they became, but who they were when they left? The pageant pilgrims are undifferentiated. Who knows the name of Christopher Martin, a merchant from Billericay near Chelmsford in Essex? He took his whole family on the Mayflower, most of whom, including Martin himself, perished in New Plymouth’s first winter. They died Essex folk in a strange land: there was nothing ‘American’ about them. And as for Thanksgiving, well that habit came from the harvest festivals and religious observances of Protestant England. Even pumpkin pie was an English dish, exported then forgotten on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
Towns like Billericay, Chelmsford and Colchester were crucial to American colonization: ordinary places that produced extraordinary people. The trickle of migrants in the 1620s, in the next decade became a flood, leading to some remarkable transformations. In 1630 Francis Wainwright was drawing ale and clearing pots in a Chelmsford inn when his master, Alexander Knight, decided to emigrate to Massachusetts. It was an age of austerity, of bad harvests and depression in the cloth industry. Plus those who wanted the Protestant Reformation to go further – Puritans – feared that under Charles I it was slipping backwards. Many thought they would try their luck elsewhere until England’s fortunes were restored, perhaps even that by building a ‘new’ England they could help with this restoration. Wainwright, aged about fourteen, went with Knight, and so entered a world of hardship and danger and wonder.
One May dawn, seven years later, Wainwright was standing by the Mystic River in Connecticut, one of seventy troops waiting to shoot at approaching Pequot warriors. According to an observer, the Englishmen ‘being bereaved of pity, fell upon the work without compassion’, and by dusk 400 Indians lay dead in their ruined encampment. The innkeeper’s apprentice had fired until his ammunition was exhausted, then used his musket as a club. One participant celebrated the victory, remarking that English guns had been so fearsome, it was ‘as though the finger of God had touched both match and flint’. Another rejoiced that providence had made a ‘fiery oven’ of the Pequots’ fort. Wainwright took two native heads home as souvenirs. Unlike many migrants, he stayed in America, proud to be a New Englander, English by birth but made different by experience. He lived a long life in commerce, through many fears and alarms, and died at Salem in 1692 during the white heat of the witch-trials.
The story poses hard historical questions. What is identity, and how does it change? Thanksgiving pageants turn Englishmen into Americans as if by magic; but the reality was more gradual and nuanced. Recently much scholarly energy has been poured into understanding past emotions. We may think our emotions are private, but they leak out all the time; we may even use them to get what we want. Converted into word and deed, emotions leave traces in the historical record. When the Pilgrim William Bradford called the Pequot massacre ‘a sweet sacrifice’, he was not exactly happy but certainly pleased that God’s will had been done.
Puritans are not usually associated with emotion, but they were deeply sensitive to human and divine behaviour, especially in the colonies. Settlers were proud to be God’s chosen people – like Israelites in the wilderness – yet pride brought shame, followed by doubt that God liked them at all. Introspection led to wretchedness, which was cured by the Holy Spirit, and they were back to their old censorious selves. In England, even fellow Puritans thought they’d lost the plot, as did most (non-Puritan) New Englanders. But godly colonists established what historians call an ‘emotional regime’ or ‘emotional community’ in which their tears and thunder were not only acceptable but carried great political authority.
John Winthrop, the leader of the fleet that carried Francis Wainwright to New England, was an intensely emotional man who loved his wife and children almost as much as he loved God. Gaunt, ascetic and tirelessly judgmental, he became Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, driven by dreams of building a ‘city upon a hill’. It didn’t quite work out: Boston grew too quickly, and became diverse and worldly. And not everyone cared for Winthrop’s definition of liberty: freedom to obey him and his personal interpretation of God’s designs. But presidents from Reagan to Obama have been drawn to ‘the city upon the hill’ as an emotionally potent metaphor for the US in its mission to inspire, assist, and police the world.
Winthrop’s feelings, however, came from and were directed at England. His friend Thomas Hooker, ‘the father of Connecticut’, cut his teeth as a clergyman in Chelmsford when Francis Wainwright lived there. Partly thanks to Wainwright, one assumes, he found the town full of drunks, with ‘more profaneness than devotion’. But Hooker ‘quickly cleared streets of this disorder’. The ‘city upon the hill’, then, was not a blueprint for America, but an exemplar to help England reform itself. Indeed, long before the idea was associated with Massachusetts, it related to English towns – notably Colchester – that aspired to be righteous commonwealths in a country many felt was going to the dogs. Revellers did not disappear from Chelmsford and Colchester – try visiting on a Saturday night – but, as preachers and merchants and warriors, its people did sow the seeds from which grew the most powerful nation in the world.
So if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this year, or you know someone who is, it’s worth remembering that the first colonists to give thanks were not just generic Old World exiles, uniformly dull until America made them special, but living, breathing emotional individuals with hearts and minds rooted in English towns and shires. To them, the New World was not an upgrade on England: it was a space in which to return their beloved country to its former glories.
Featured image credit: Signing of the Constitution, by Thomas P. Rossiter. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
I had the great pleasure of listening to a panel on which Emily Lockhart spoke at BEA. She is an adroit, strong, well-spoken writer. I was intrigued and decided to end my year of book reviews with one about her latest, We Were Liars.
Lockhart has a style all her own, somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway - parsimonious, yet emotionally sated. Style alone - doing a lot with so few word - is reason enough to read We Were Liars. Plus, there's that whole, it's a "damn fine story" aspect. Is one allowed to curse in book reviews? I wonder. Ah well. This is YA people. Cursing happens.
I very much like Penguin's recap of this book, so I am shamelessly stealing:
A beautiful and distinguished family. A private island. A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy. A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive. A revolution. An accident. A secret. Lies upon lies. True love. The truth.
Again, parsimonious, almost free verse.
Lockhart builds in a nice, other worldly experience into the book that the book blurb doesn't reference, and of the four friends, three are cousins, but otherwise, the synopsis captures style and story very well.
I've only met one reader so far who didn't pick up on the other worldly experience early in the story. I'm not sure you're not supposed to pick up on it. In fact, I think you're supposed to sense it but not be sure, paralleling the experience of the main character. There are parallels to M. Night Shyamalan's visual work.
My oldest has to read two novels for the summer for her Fall Sophomore class English. I've pressed this one on her. Think of all of those coming of age stories you had to read - Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye - that's where this book belongs, only written in today's vernacular and thus readily accessible to today's youth without becoming weighty. This could also make a great beach read since it happens in summer, at least partly on a beach.
For other great summer treasures, Barrie Summy's website marks the spot for reads galore. Have a great summer!
I went to visit my friend Patty in Lexington, MA and the great part was I made it during the peak Fall season.
Look at the beautiful blanket of leaves on the ground! I was with two friends on our way to Concord and we passed by this cemetery and we just had to stop. The trees were so beautiful they looked like God plugged them in and flipped the switch. It was the perfect experience.
I'm thrilled beyond thrilled to be back in New England for what promises to be the best colorful Autumn in years. I think the West should be able to celebrate the season for the same reason....COLOR!!!
A New England Folk TaleAs told by the Riverman Back in the old days, things would happen that you'd never believe now. Why, things that seemed downright magical were commonplace back then. Pigs could fly, birds could talk and farm boys could marry princesses! I know some of it because I was there and some of it because other folks have told me. My name is Riverman, and I tell stories for a living
Finding that last summer's 'escape to the north' vacation worked well to disrupt our protracted Texas summers, we repeated the venture again this year, this time visiting New England. Unfortunately, we were met by a number of less than ideal circumstances - I contracted some kind of illness almost immediately upon our arrival and Hurricane Irene was on the approach.
We spent a very long first day making up for all the hiking we didn't get to do this summer - first at Flume Gorge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Following lunch we started hike #2 on Falling Waters Trail, intending to climb all the way to the summit of Little Haystack Mountain. We thought surely this would be no problem at all as the trail was only 3.25 miles one way. I knew it was a steep mountain just from reading about it, so I must have been deluding myself that the trail would gently meander it's way up the mountain. I was wrong. It was 3.25 miles of up. Boulders, stairs, crossing streams here and there. It was beautiful - just what we've been missing out on in Dallas, but it was too strenuous for us out-of-shape, currently non-hiking hikers and we decided to give up after learning from several descending hikers that after about two and a half hours on the trail we still had an hour of up to go before reaching the summit. Even so, we enjoyed several gorgeous waterfalls along the way. I think this one's called "Cloudland Falls:"Having a little bit a daylight left and suffering the disappointment that we didn't get to enjoy a view from the top, we cheated our way to the top of a different mountain by way of the aerial tram on Cannon Mountain. We had a nice view of Echo Lake from the tram:And a nice view of a black bear too!
Above is a little summary of our New England vacation. A little Cape, a lot of New Hampshire, including a hike through the Flume Gorge, which I had never seen before. I was tickled to find these in a little shop in Bethlehem, NH. I love when old postcards come with messages on them. The bottom one was written by someone whose vacation mirrored ours, fifty some years ago.
Hubs and I enjoyed listening to Rob Lowe’s memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friendson our car trip (read by Lowe), and we’ve almost finished listening to Yes, Chef, a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson. Really fascinating and read by Samuelsson himself in his fabulous scratchy voice. His story begins in Ethiopia, then goes on to Sweden, throughout Europe, and on to New York City as he follows his dream of becoming a master chef.
Catherine has never really met anyone like Skye Butterfield. Daughter of the Senator, Skye has been on television since she was a little girl. And when she decides to befriend Catherine while attending Esther Percy School for Girls, Catherine finds herself charmed and flattered.
Catherine has maintained her friends from Waverly, of course. After getting caught in bed with her boyfriend John Paul, Catherine's father thought a school for girls would keep Catherine out of trouble, and concentrating on her studies and her horse riding. But John Paul still comes to her meets, and the first people that Skye wants to meet are Catherine's Waverly friends.
What comes with the mix of her Waverly friends with Skye Butterfield is cocaine from South America,unsupervised trips away from school, and the slow destruction of marriages, friendships and love.
Nina de Gramont has captured the insular world of privileged youth perfectly. Set against the back drop of 1984, a school year in the reckless abandon of these teens reads truthful. Catherine, Drew, Susannah and Skye all know that no matter what, their parent's means will help them out of any situation - be it bringing drugs into the country, or sleeping with a teacher. John Paul's scholarship status does leave him more vulnerable than the rest, and it's amazing to read how little thought his friends give to his circumstance.