Rebunking the Pilgrims?

[crossposted at the THS blog]
Randall Stephens

As Americans prepare to stuff their faces with turkey, pie, turkey pie, and all manner of bread-related foods, and clock in millions of hours of TV football viewing, it’s worth considering the Pilgrims, originators of America's holiday. (I was just thinking that a Martian would have a very hard time understanding how football and overeating are linked to an otherworldly religious sect.) How do Pilgrims fit into American history and religious history in general?

How low the founders of our national myth have fallen. Nineteenth-century Protestants celebrated the Pilgrims as hearty, pure-of-heart forbearers. Yet even in the 19th century Pilgrims had their share of detractors. Eli Thayer, the Kansas prophet, and the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale fussed about the place of Pilgrims in American history. Every lowly Kansan (which I proudly count myself among) had more grit and determination and was more deserving of panegyrics than were the not-all-that-great Pilgrims.

In 1881, Mark Twain delivered an uproarious address, in the form of a plea, to the New England Society of Philadelphia. Why all this “laudation and hosannaing” about the Pilgrims? he asked his audience. “The Pilgrims were a simple and ignorant race. They never had seen any good rocks before, or at least any that were not watched, and so they were excusable for hopping ashore in frantic delight and clapping an iron fence around this one.” “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims” was a classic piece of Sam Clemens’ contrarianism. As the whole country went mad with Pilgrim fever, Twain shouted, “Humbug!”

Good fun. But did Twain’s comic take on those “ignorant,” “narrow” Pilgrims win the day in the 20th century? And did it win the day minus the comedy? Historian Jeremy Bangs thinks so. In 2004, he wrote:

Those inspiring Pilgrims of my youth have taken a beating! According to today’s historians, the Pilgrims were among the least significant of England’s American colonists. Their tiny Plymouth Colony was soon absorbed by the larger and more prosperous Massachussets Bay. The Pilgrims were no friendlier to Indians than other Europeans in the Americas—which is to say, they were greedy, duplicitous purveyors of genocide. Nor did they invent democracy: the Mayflower Compact was just an expedient means of maintaining order in a new environment. And their first “Thanksgiving” was nothing more than a replica of a traditional, secular English harvest feast. The Pilgrims didn’t even call themselves Pilgrims, a term coined by the 19th-century Americans who invented these virtuous forbears out of thin air in an effort to grace the relatively new United States with a glorious past. Indeed, about the only aspect of my schoolboy Pilgrims that has survived this assault is their poverty.

The truth about the Pilgrims—and yes, I do still call them Pilgrims—is perhaps closer to the “myth” than to what we can learn from today’s textbooks.

So Bangs offers an erudite rebuttal to the Pilgrim’s modern-day cultured despisers. His Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009) sets the Pilgrims in their thick historical context. His well-written scholarly account has no rival as far as scope and detail goes. The book has a whopping 894 pages and by my reckoning weighs nearly 4lbs. As a bonus, it's richly illustrated with a variety of prints and photographs (Bangs has spent much time working on the material culture of English separatists.)

Bangs writes that Samuel Elliot Morrison, Darret Rutman, and Theodre Dwight Bozeman dismissed the Plymouth colony as insignificant, a backwater. Add to that Malcolm X’s turn of phrase: “We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!” (I'm not sure if Brian Wilson's immortal words count as a critique or a drug-related bit of wordplay: "Rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over . . .") Since the 1970s, a simple formula has guided much wisdom on the Pilgrims: Indians = good; Pilgrims = bad.

Why do the Pilgrims deserve a new look? Their lives and the record they left tell us something basic about the European roots and the hot Protestant context of America’s first English settlers. The Pilgrims later significance, Bangs notes, also reveals a great deal about what future generations wanted to remember (and one might add, forget) about early colonial America. Bangs argues: “No history of the Plymouth Colony, no history of Leiden, no history of the Netherlands so far explains adequately the Pilgrims' defining experience in exile.” Travellers and Sojourners “undertakes the necessary task of starting over, not simply to add incrementally to what is already known about the Pilgrims in Leiden but instead to reconceive the question of who the Pilgrims were and what contributed to the choices that make them interesting historically.”


JJO said…
I like the sound of Bangs's goal of "reconceiv[ing] the question of who the Pilgrims were and what contributed to the choices that make them interesting historically," but the language of the 2004 post make me a bit sceptical. Is there actually anything about the revision of the heroic story that's significantly incorrect in substance (if not emphasis)? To the extent that there is, shouldn't the goal be to contextualize their beliefs, practices, and experiences (e.g. the Compact and Thanksgiving) in their time rather than simply refuse the revisions? If your goal is to depict their experience in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Atlantic world of religious conflict and ferment, why proudly proclaim your attachment to the heroic, mythical nineteenth-century version of their name and their story?

I worry that, rather than marking an interpretive advance, this might just be a return to a history of heroes and villains.
Randall said…
Jeremy Bangs replies:

JJO: It is frequently interesting to analyze language. Yours seems suited for commentary on a topic proposal for a graduate student's thesis. I like your suggestions on what my goal should be, but I wonder how you arrive at the assumption that the book is not about contextualizing (etc.). You would have to read the book to find out whether I "simply refuse the revisions" or even whether I have much interest in "the heroic, mythical nineteenth-century version." A couple of scholars who have read the book are quoted on the dust jacket. William Fowler (Northeastern University): "In this incredible work Jeremy Bangs rips away nearly four centuries of encrusted knowledge about the Pilgrims. ... The result is an extraordinary reassessment of these people ... his scholarship is the starting line for any historian interested in the Pilgrim story or early American history writ large." Francis Bremer (Millersville University): "No one knows more about the Pilgrims ... This exhaustive study is a rich trove for those seeking to learn more about their lives and thoughts in England, the Netherlands, and America."
JJO said…
I don't have a lot invested in this, but I think that given the takeaway from the 2004 quotation -- The truth about the Pilgrims—and yes, I do still call them Pilgrims—is perhaps closer to the “myth” than to what we can learn from today’s textbooks. -- it's not unreasonable to raise the questions I did, and use the opportunity to make a bad Beach Boys joke based on Randall's Brian Wilson reference in the post.

But I want to emphasize how much I am in sympathy with larger project of the book as described and evaluated in the blurbs you cite -- and the questions I raised were raised in this context of this larger sympathy. It sounds like the concerns may be unwarranted; I'm eager to take a look at the book.
JJO said…
And by "not a lot invested" I simply mean that it was a superficial critique based on a reading of the 2004 post (not the book itself) that I'm happy to abandon in the face of evidence to the contrary -- not that I take the larger issues or the seriousness of the scholarship here lightly.
Randall said…
Holy Pilgrims! I didn't see the Heroes and Villains bit until just now. Love it.

I would add here that the playing up of the 19th-century Protestant vision of the Pilgrims was an editorial decision at Historically Speaking. More of a rhetorical hook than a hard-and-fast argument.
Bland Whitley said…
Perhaps this is the Virginian in me (ok, strike the perhaps), but one good reason to continue to debunk the Pilgrims is to minimize New England chauvinism. First English settlers? Puhleaze, Randall--didn't we historically minded folks just commemorate the 400th anniversary of permanent English settlement/discrimination/genocide? As anybody raised in VA can tell you, 1619 (ahem, a year before the Rock), saw the creation of the first legislative body in the New World, as well as a Thanksgiving ceremony shrouded in less myth and less publicity than the one to the North. And it also saw the importation of African slaves, perhaps the first in English North America. So there you have it--American democracy and American slavery emerging before the Mayflower set sail. Who's more representative of the American character? My own chauvinism & my own shame say the colonists in VA.
Yes it is important not to forget our origins and Pilgrim are an important part of our history... Thank you for reminding me that >:D<