William Bradford: Contribution to American Literature

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      William Bradford was born in 1590 in the Pilgrim district of England, in the Yorkshire village of Austerfield, two miles north of Scrooby. While a child, he attended the religious meetings of the Puritans. At the age of eighteen he gave up a good position in the post service of England, and crossed to Holland to escape religious persecution. His History of Plymouth Plantation is not a record of the Puritans as a whole, but only of that branch known as the Pilgrims, who left England for Holland in 1607 and 1608, and who, after remaining there for nearly twelve years, had the initiative to be the first of their band to come to the New World, and to settle at Plymouth in 1620.

William Bradford

      For more than thirty years he was governor of the Plymouth colony, and he managed its affairs with the discretion of a Washington and the zeal of a Cromwell. His History tells the story of the Pilgrim Fathers from the time of the formation of their two congregations in England, until 1647.

      William Bradford, a devoted Christian and benevolent man in the age of highly rigid religious set up, left from his substantial Yorkshire agrarian family in 1606. He joined William Brewster, one of the famous Separatists of the village of Scrooby. In those years, Scrooby and Bawtry were two main centers of the Separatists who felt that they had little hope of cleansing the Church of England from the inside. Consequently, both are separated. Bradford, a prosperous weaver, desperately went to Holland for eleven years.

      In 1620, Bradford sailed to Plymouth abroad by the Mayflower. After the death of John Carver in 1621 he was elected as the governor of Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Separatists landed afterward. He was a self-educated, pious man who had learned several languages, including Hebrew, in order to “see with his own eyes the ancient oracles of God in their native beauty.” His participation in the migration to Holland and the Mayflower voyage to Plymouth, and his duties as governor, made him ideally suited to be the first historian of his colony. His most significant prose work History of Plymouth Plantation (1651) is a clear and compelling account on the life of the people of that colony in the beginning. His first view of America is justly famous:

“Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles... they had now to friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain of refresh their weather-beaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to... savage barbarians ...a country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.”

      Bradford recorded also the first document of the colonial self-governance in the English New World. The “Mayflower Compact,” drawn up while the Pilgrims were still on the board of the ship. The compact was a harbinger of the Declaration of Independence to come a century and a half later. The Puritans disapproved of such secular acts of amusement as dancing and card-playing, which were associated with ungodly aristocrats and an immoral kind of living. The reading or writing “light”( bad concerning sex ) books also fell into this category. The Puritan minds poured their tremendous energies into the works of non-fiction genres: religious poetry, sermons, theological nets, and histories. Their intimate diaries and meditations record their rich inner spiritual lives of this introspective, intensely emotional people. The Puritan’s belief is that man’s word may be used as a vehicle of God’s truth. It was not contested by the two finest poets of the Colonial Period.

      FACSIMILE OF FIRST PARAGRAPH OF BRADFORD'S "HISTORY OF PLYMOUTH PLANTATION" — In 1897 the United States for the first time came into possession of the manuscript of this famous History of Plymouth Plantation, which had in some mysterious manner been taken from Boston in colonial times and had found its way into the library of the Lord Bishop of London. Few of the English seem to have read it. Even its custodian miscalled it The Log of the Mayflower, although after the ship finally cleared from England, only five incidents of the voyage are briefly mentioned: the death of a young seaman who cursed the Pilgrims on the voyage and made sport of their misery; the cracking of one of the main beams of the ship; the washing overboard in a storm of a good young man who was providentially saved; the death of a servant; and the sight of Cape Cod. On petition, the Lord Bishop of London generously gave this manuscript of 270 pages to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In a speech at the time of its formal reception, Senator Hoar eloquently summed up the subject matter of the volume as follows:—

"I do not think many Americans will gaze upon it without a little trembling of the lips and a little gathering of mist in the eyes, as they think of the story of suffering, of sorrow, of peril, of exile, of death, and of lofty triumph which that book tells,—which the hand of the great leader and founder of America has traced on those pages. There is nothing like it in human annals since the story of Bethlehem. These Englishmen and English women going out from their homes in beautiful Lincoln and York, wife separated from husband and mother from child in that hurried embarkation for Holland, pursued to the beach by English horsemen; the thirteen years of exile; the life at Amsterdam, 'in alley foul and lane obscure'; the dwelling at Leyden; the embarkation at Delfthaven; the farewell of Robinson; the terrible voyage across the Atlantic; the compact in the harbor; the landing on the rock; the dreadful first winter; the death roll of more than half the number; the days of suffering and of famine; the wakeful night, listening for the yell of wild beast and the war whoop of the savage; the building of the State on those sure foundations which no wave or tempest has ever shaken; the breaking of the new light; the dawning of the new day; the beginning of the new life; the enjoyment of peace with liberty,—of all these things this is the original record by the hand of our beloved father and founder."

      In addition to giving matter of unique historical importance, Bradford entertains his readers with an account of Squanto, the Pilgrims' tame Indian, of Miles Standish capturing the "lord of misrule" at Merrymount, and of the failure of an experiment in tilling the soil in common. Bradford says that there was immediate improvement when each family received the full returns from working its own individual plot of ground. He thus philosophizes about this social experiment of the Pilgrims:—

"The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients, applauded by some of later times;——that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a common wealth would make them happy and flourishing…. Let none object this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them."

      America need not be ashamed of either the form or the subject matter of her early colonial prose in comparison with that produced in England at the same time.

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