Thursday, November 27, 2008

"But here I cannot but stay and make a pause..." Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving

So, it's Turkey Day, and of course I can't let the opportunity to do some Pilgrim bashing pass me by (cute buckles notwithstanding). The following excerpt is very long and somewhat boring, but PLEASE read it. I worked really hard cutting and pasting it from a different website:

But here I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people's present condition; and so I think will the reader, too, when he well considers the same. Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by that which went before), they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor. It is recorded in Scripture as a mercy to the Apostle and his shipwrecked company, that the barbarians showed them no small kindness in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they met with them (as after will appear) were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they know that the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men--and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. ….What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: "Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity," etc. "Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and his mercies endure forever. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them." "Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men."
William Bradford
Of Plimoth Plantation

These words of William Bradford contain the entirety of my mixed feelings about the "discovery" of this part of the New World. I read a large portion of this work every year with my students and I always find myself hating and begrudgingly admiring Bradford and his crew.

On one hand, who decides to remain in New England in December and then has the gall to bitch about how rough the conditions are (especially when their charter had been granted for (much warmer) Virginia and they KNEW they weren't in the right place but purposely decided to stay in New England as they could better build an isolated cult without those pesky other settlers around)? Have any of you been to Cape Cod in December? Wearing only wool? I bet they WERE uncomfortable! In this passage, one can also see their seething hatred for untamed nature and for the "savage barbarians" (the same barbarians who would later share their food with them).

On the other hand, I can't help but admire the strength of their faith. When I think of what an incredible risk this was and how badly they desired to build a sort of utopia based around their core beliefs, I am astounded by their courage. I can't think of one thing I believe in strongly enough that would lead me to uproot my life and move to an unseen land on a ship full of sailors who hated me and my kind. Unfortunately, they and the Puritans would ruin it all by, in turn, becoming the least tolerant group of religious fanatics to ever walk the planet. Their desire for religious freedom, it turns out, was only for themselves; they would become the new "hand of the oppressor." For all that it was, it was decidedly NOT a grand experiment in democratic living.

If you ever get the chance, read more in Bradford's work. It is full of "honesty" about how they treated the natives -- of course, they didn't see the problem with their behavior, but you will. It also tells the tale of much suffering on their part.

As an American and a (relatively new) New Englander, I am, of course, very thankful they came. Even if they were sneaky, lying, complaining bastards.


Ana said...

Hey. Can somebody tell me how to change the date on this thing? It should be Thursday, not Tuesday, unless I got caught in a time warp -- entirely possible. What day is it today? Shit! I'm late for work!

Ana said...

Whew! Okay... all's well.

Eva said...

The original text was very well written and in a very different English than what I'm used to. I think I need to go back to reading my book on US civilisation that I had to study tirelessly in my first year of uni. Still, I can really imagine the conditions they must have been facing and I wouldn't have envied their life at the time...

Beverly Hamilton Wenham said...

Me, myself, I have a big problem with, uptight, everything in black and white, itchy (literally), New Englanders. I should know I just had Thanksgiving with some! But none of them had mustaches. I must say your guy was rockin his!
I do love your choice pilgrim prose. I never read this stuff and I know I should. I am looking forward to Sarah Vowel's new book, The Wordy Shipmates. It looks funny and I might just learn something too.

Anonymous said...

The truly scary thing I've encountered is that there are still people today who believe that the Native Americans were savages and had it coming. I've only ever encountered these people in the South, though.

Good excerpt, though. It's nice to be reminded not only to be thankful, but also to be compassionate.

Ana said...

Pulp -- I've encountered them in the Midwest. They truly resent the money they're making on casinos and tax-free cigarettes, I suspect because they are vices those same people can't refuse. But I've also noticed they like to hang oil painting of noble Native Americans on the walls of their supper clubs -- so that boils it down to decorative value. Yeah, pretty messed up.