Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock

Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock

by John Seelye

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ISBN-13: 9780807867044
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 11/09/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 720
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

John Seelye is Graduate Research Professor of American Literature at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He is author of a number of books in the field of American studies, including two volumes on the role of rivers in opening and permitting communications between the territories that became the United States.

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Chapter One

A Boat, a Ship, Some People

History is revelation.

--Calvin Coolidge

           Let us pause here at the start to contemplate a familiar image, the rendering of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth by Charles Lucy, an English artist, a picture that was much circulated and adapted in popular engravings from about 1850 on. This is a static composition, monumental in its form and expression, and whatever its interest to us or lack thereof, it does serve to illustrate one overwhelming proposition: the Rock on which the Pilgrims stand is given meaning by their presence. Here, the iconography is overwhelmingly pacific, even prayerful, in keeping with the errand of the Pilgrims, but that is, as we will see, only one emphasis of several available. Still, we cannot separate the Rock from the Separatists. Viewing it, we must always remind ourselves of the Landing, for without the Landing, there is no subject meaning--no correlative--to the object.

    Yet the Rock contributes to the Pilgrim experience also, signifying the obdurate stonescape that became their new home, a land of adversity that tallied so well with the obstinate Puritan ethos, like the anvil with the hammer. William Bradford provided for future generations an epitome of that hard prospect, the winter-blasted shore confronting the Forefathers when they first landed on the mainland: "The season it was winter, and they that know 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. ... For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather-beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue" (62).

    There is, significantly, no particular Rock in Bradford's scene (nor, for that matter, any rocks at all), a lack borne out by the accounts written by the Pilgrims of their first days in North America. There, as in Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation, the settlers simply "march into the land" as they had been doing since wading ashore on the outermost point of Cape Cod a month before. We may not doubt that the Rock was there, having been deposited during the glacial age, but the exploring Pilgrims, who had waded ashore all along the Cape, would probably not have steered toward but away from any such hazard to navigation. And had a convenient natural pier been provided, surely their contemporary journals, filled with instances of providential aid, would have made some mention of it. Still, whatever the fact of the matter, the instrumentality of the Rock as a platform--or stage--does have considerable resonance, especially when taken in context with the "Pilgrim" designation, which, like the Rock's elevation, was the work of later generations of celebrants.

    A contemporary anthropologist, Victor Turner, has studied the phenomenon of pilgrimage and come up with terms that Robert Arner has cited as relevant to the events of 1620. Drawing on numerous "root paradigms" from historical instances of insurrection to African rituals, Turner has derived a complex theory of liminality, regarded in effect as a communal rite of passage. By his definition, liminality is a "phenomen[on] of transition" that produces what Turner calls "communitas" an ideal state experienced (here quoting Martin Buber) by "'a multitude of persons'" which, "'though it moves towards one goal, yet experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the others, a flowing from I to Thou'" (Ritual Process, 112, 126-27). The result, in Turner's terms, is "a spontaneously generated relationship between leveled and equal total and individuated human beings, stripped of structural attributes" yet highly productive of new structures (Dramas, 202). For while communitas represents "a negation of many ... of the features of preliminal social structure," it affirms "another order of things and relations. Social structure is not eliminated, rather it is radically simplified" (Dramas, 196). Moreover, though communitas "strains toward universalism and openness,' its "historical fate ... seems to have been to pass from openness to closure, from 'free' communitas to the solidarity given by bounded structure, from optation to obligation" (202).

    Though the liminal instance is a "limbo of structure" inspiring a sense of "permanent revolution," such ideal moments are literally transitional, for the "'movement' becomes itself an institution among other institutions--often one more fanatical and militant than the rest, for the reason that it feels itself to be the unique bearer of universal human truths" (Dramas, 248, 252; Ritual Process, 112). Turner, whose influential works were published in 1969 and 1974, respectively, makes a number of references to parallel instances during the "age of Aquarius," when "many people, especially those under thirty, ... tr[ied] to create a communitas and a style of life that [was] permanently contained within liminality," and it may have been to hippies that his essentially conservative message was addressed (Dramas, 260. If, as he opines, "yesterday's liminal becomes today's stabilized," he must be accounted a prophet, for yesterday's member of Woodstock Nation is often today's commuter from New Canaan to Wall Street (16).

    And yet anyone familiar with the history of the Pilgrims in North America can detect the obvious parallel with Turner's programmatic movement from "existential or spontaneous communitas" to "normative communitas" and on to "ideological communitas." The Plymouth colonists would seem best assigned the middle modality, "where, under the influence of time, the need to mobilize and organize resources, and the necessity for social control among the members of the group in pursuance of these goals, the existential communitas is organized into a perduring social system" (Ritual Process, 132). Certainly the Pilgrims' failure to institute a primitive communism during their first year in the New World is well known. And William Bradford's great history of Plymouth Plantation took its initial impetus from the rising hope for continued (if modified) communitas experienced by him and his fellow colonists, while the falling action of the book reflects the author's dismay over and finally his stoic acceptance of the loss of the original spirit of the colony, as Christian idealism was replaced by commercial considerations.

    We may doubt that as a group the Pilgrims ever experienced that intense euphoria Turner associates with the first modality or stage of communitas, for in the records they left behind, the Forefathers consistently insisted on conformity of the individual to community needs--as attested to, among many other documents, by the terms of the Mayflower Compact. And when it came to what Turner calls "the absolute communitas of unchanneled anarchy," we tend to think of Thomas Morton, the Pilgrims' archadversary in the New World, an opinion backed by revisionist historians, notably Richard Slotkin, for whom the Pilgrims as Puritans were repressive structure personified (Turner, Dramas, 171; Slotkin, 58-65).

    When Turner speaks of "pilgrims," he most often has in mind the devout Muslims who journey to Mecca, yet in emphasizing the "passage quality of the religious life," he coincidentally detects "traces" of liminality in "formulations" also used by the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Thus when Turner notes that "'the Christian is a stranger to the world, a pilgrim, a traveler, with no place to rest his head," he cites terms that bear comparison with Bradford's "they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on [worldly] things, but lift[ed] up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country," or with the "wandering wilderness" evoked by Robert Cushman in the first sermon associated with Plymouth Plantation (Turner, Ritual Process, 107; Bradford, 47; Cushman, 44).

    Much else that Turner tells us about liminality likewise applies, including the marginal status of its avatars, their relatively low place on the social scale, and their sense of apartness and specialness--all qualities associated with the people we now call the Pilgrims but who were thought of at the time as Separatists, a fact to which the following quotation from Turner certainly applies: "The countless sects and schismatic movements in the history of religions have almost always asserted the values of communitas against those of structure and claimed that the major religions from which they have seceded have become totally structured and secularized, mere empty forms. Significantly, such separatist movements have almost invariably adopted a cultural style dominated by the cultural idiom of indigence. In their first impetus, such movements often strip their members of the outward show of wealth or status, adopt a simple form of speech, and to a considerable extent strip their religious practices of ritualism and visual symbolism. Organizationally, they often abolish priestly hierarchies and substitute for them either prophetic charismatic leadership or democratic methods of representation" (Dramas, 266-67).

    Then, too, as we consider the meaning of the Pilgrims to us, and the peculiar appeal of their experience to subsequent generations, something further might be derived from Turner's definition of "the power of the weak," by means of which a low social status is replaced by "sacred attributes" (Ritual Process, 109). Certainly the Pilgrims stand out from all the other early settlers of the North American continent, whether the French of Canada, the Spanish of Florida and Mexico, or the English at Roanoke and Jamestown, as remarkable exemplars of "pure" motives, distinct from the rest in having only a secondary interest in the commercial aspects of colonial enterprise. And though the settlers of Boston also knew great hardship during their first year in New England, the privileged birthright of John Winthrop and other leaders of the Bay Colony served to divorce them from that lowly state productive of a sacred status, much as the activities of John Endicott come down to us as structural repressiveness itself.

    The popular images we have of the Pilgrims, whether gathered in tearful prayer as they prepare to depart from Leyden or in thoughtful congress as each in turn signs the Mayflower Compact, or posed on the threshold provided by Plymouth Rock, or making their solitary way to Sabbath service through snowy woods, or seated with Massasoit and other Indians at the Thanksgiving table, all of these promote a powerful image of pure, selfless integrity that is without equal in the icons of American experience. During their prolonged ordeals, the Pilgrims may indeed have taken on that deep inner spirituality described by Turner--certainly something similar sustained them during a lengthy experience of cultural alienation and powerlessness--but for those who would later celebrate them, the Pilgrims are sanctity itself.

    And it is right here that we must establish an important distinction, again relying on Victor Turner for terminology but departing the realm of anthropology and archetypes for aesthetics. What the liminal experience of the Pilgrims may have been as they came ashore in 1620 is highly conjectural, but the forms inspired by that historic advent are not. They may tell us nothing about the facts of the experience, but they do inform us how that experience was regarded by makers of those artifacts--the icons--that have made the Landing so memorable a moment. And that will be the proper subject of this study.

    Referring back now to Lucy's tableau, we can once again observe the static quality of the composition, even to the triangular form, enhanced by the (imaginary) mountain in the background. These are not people portrayed as in motion: they have been frozen, rather, at a key point in their passage, the moment they landed on the Rock. Behind them lies the Mayflower--their ark of passage from the Old World--before them is a vastness they will define by their presence. The moment is liminal, the Rock a literal threshold, but the execution conveys permanence, stability, structure. The perspective, as in virtually all depictions of the Landing, is from the shore the Pilgrims are contemplating and opens outward to the ocean. We never see what the Pilgrims are looking at; we are what they are looking at; we are the realized future. They are frozen in beholding us.

    Look now at Henry Sargent's depiction of the Landing, a picture that antedates Lucy's by a half century. Here again the composition is static, although there is a significant drama being enacted. The Pilgrims are confronting an Indian, Samoset, at the moment of their arrival, a distortion of historical fact that Sargent resorted to in order to dovetail one scene of the drama to another, at the same time evoking the image of the ur-Arrival, already celebrated by Joel Barlow in his tercentenary production The Vision of Columbus. The Landing thereby becomes an encounter with the inhabitants of the New World, figured as a cringing supplicant, a posture regarded as proper to the occasion by a contemporary reviewer.

    Sargent's picture is also enhanced by color, resulting in another difference: Governor Carver, like several of his male companions, is dressed in military wear, a helmet and, more significant, a scarlet jacket, a color associated with the agents of the British empire. The pious postures of Lucy's Pilgrims are largely missing: instead we have the determined front of British imperialism. But the same element of stability--of structure--is present, enhanced by the elements of the backdrop, those signifiers of adversity like the jagged tree stump and bits of rock and ice all contributing to the drama of the scene.

    Discussions of the contexts from which Lucy's and Sargent's depictions emerged belong in subsequent chapters. But the point to be made here, drawing on both pictures, is that the traditional image of the Pilgrims in artistic depictions of the Landing, from early to late in the nineteenth century, is not one of passage but arrival, and not only of arrival, but endurance--prevalence. Notably, no prominent painting exists of the Pilgrims under way aboard the Mayflower, despite the stress given to that ordeal in Bradford's history. We have instead Edwin White's depiction of the pious passengers gathered in their cabin to sign the Compact, a moment that precedes the Landing at Plymouth and reinforces the idea of a stable social order, one given distinction by divine favor. Thus the liminalism of the Pilgrim experience, as conveyed by their writings, is blocked out from the pictorial record, to which we can add Lucy's alternative icon, the departure from Leyden, another scene with a pyramidal structure, suggesting the cohesiveness of a common faith.

    Taken together, these paintings do suggest a process, being moments that signal the uniqueness, pathos, and drama of the Pilgrim Pageant. They seem, however, not to have been imagined by the artists as forming a triptych or a series but as a sequence of discrete scenes. To use the language of the century that produced these pictures, they take the theatrical form of posed and frozen tableaux, a mute, summary moment occurring sometimes at midpoint, sometimes at the end of the play. Much as the Pilgrim experience resolved itself from millennial expectations into solidly institutionalized structures, so artistic interpretations of that experience during the course of the nineteenth century imposed a structure upon (or derived one from) that experience for the purposes of validating cultural stability by asserting the permanence of the past, in effect coining a rhetoric of conservative icons.

    It is a gallery of pictures equivalent to the murals in the rotunda of our Capitol, save that they all derive from the single--and singular--experience of the Pilgrims, who are relegated to one panel in that national display. Notably, all of these icons hang in Pilgrim Hall, the templelike museum in Plymouth that contains dozens of mementos validating the sacredness of the Pilgrim experience and hence the exceptional nature of New England itself. It is a collection dominated by Sargent's Anglophiliac tableau, which testifies as well to the Anglo-Saxon continuity once considered so essential to the region's sense of its exclusive character. In sum, for celebrants of New England's sanctity, the Rock serves as a cornerstone, freighted with images garnered from a real and an imagined past upon which a nation will be built.

    We can here again refer to Robert Arner, who has written suggestively about the archetypical signification of stones in assessing the peculiar power of Plymouth Rock, whether as border markers, thresholds of liminality, or sacramental altars: "It is both the merest ledge of consciousness emerging from a great, gray unconsciousness of sea and a symbol of the sea itself," writes Arner of the Rock, "a vestige of the neutral zone so central to the rite of passage, and those who tread it belong temporarily neither to past nor future but are magico-religiously taken out of time" (32).

    It may have been all of that, and more--one of the "thin places" celebrated by the Plymouth savant Peter Gomes, being a mystic zone where supernal spheres connect--but the signifying power of Plymouth Rock to its celebrants was also derived from symbolic constructs common not to the ancient but to what was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the modern age. Without denying the subliminal power informing such artifacts, we can insist on the conscious and highly intellectual motives that led to their creation. They were part of the Enlightenment inheritance of the emerging United States, including such texts (soon enough icons themselves) as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

    We have here, for example, a design for a bank note engraved about 1850 that contains a retrospective gathering of such symbols, foregrounding Liberty with her pole and protecting shield, symbols adapted from British iconography of the prerevolutionary period. She is flanked on one side by a broken column betokening the destruction of a corrupt empire by the wrath of God (seen in the bolt of lightning) and on the other by a militant eagle (a symbol with both imperial Roman and Old Testament signification). The nation is represented by that figure dear to Christian idealism, a woman with child, but most important for our present concern, in the background we see a pyramid connoting durability divinely irradiated by providential favor and overarched by a rainbow sign promising peace and harmony. The mystic triangular shape, still associated with our national currency, is derived from the Freemasonic cabala that was a universal language among illuminati between 1750 and 1850. And that pyramid, an architectonic signifier of statist stability, emerged as a national icon at about the time that Patriots in Plymouth were discovering their Rock.

    In 1776, immediately after Independence had been declared, a committee was convened in order to devise a Great Seal with which the documents of the new nation could be validated. Quite independent of each other, both Jefferson and Franklin came up with suggestions inspired by the Old Testament account of Exodus, dynamic tableaux emphasizing the liminal passage toward the land of Canaan (Jefferson) and the whelming of the Egyptian (Old World) army by the Red Sea (Franklin). Franklin also proposed incorporating the Freemasonic pyramid on the verso of the design, the only suggestion that survived, for by the time an acceptable iconic arrangement was adopted--about the time the Revolution was over--quite a different implication was involved. In the familiar spread eagle and shield, on the one side of the Great Seal, and the pyramid of empire, on the other, we have highly structured, statist symbols, connoting republican glory and divinely sanctioned imperial design, not revolutionary and liminal signifiers of departure and secessionism. And Plymouth Rock, as an icon, tends to share this consolidationalist signification, associated with the foundations of republican empire and embued with providential favor, an intellectual perhaps more than an archetypal construct. Sargent and Lucy subsequently arranged their otherwise quite different tableaux in pyramidal compositions, traditional in history paintings but also drawing validation from the national iconography.

    Once again, the Pilgrims themselves--along with their counterparts in Puritan Boston--favored the image of Exodus for their experiences in the New World. But by the time of the Revolution, when the Exodus image was evoked for the Pilgrims, it was as a scriptural frame with which to give perspective to the crisis of the moment. The sufferings of the Fathers, as in the great sermon by Samuel Sherwood in 1776, validated the claims of the Sons to their inheritance of the New World republic, on the one hand, and on the other provided a high mark for emulation. The net result was to fix and simplify the experience of the Pilgrims in a series of symbolic moments, "sacred" in quite a different way from that intended by Victor Turner.

    The process is identical to that encroachment of institutionalization over communitas that he describes, but the framing effect places the sacred moment in the past--identified with the national memory--and the composition as in the paintings by Sargent and Lucy is intended to give a positive shape not to the idea of transition or transformation but of stability. Notably, the emergence of the Mayflower Compact as essential to the idea of the Pilgrims attended the process of ratification of the Constitution, both documents being associated not with revolution but consolidation--statism.

    That is why the Landing on the Rock as depicted by these artists gives the threshold less a liminal than a static function. The Pilgrims are frozen by conceptual time into a motionless aggregate, a point of reference--as well as reverence--for future ages to elicit whenever the occasion seems right. They are vibrant with potential but motionless. Their corporeal reality, so evident in their journals and histories, is gone; they are ossified into entablatures and statues, carved from the same substance as the Rock. They stand not for movement but stability, not the stability of the Pilgrims in 1620, so fragile in its dependence on their compact with each other and the very thin thread of support with England, but that massive, monolithic permanence desired by their descendants as they attempted to establish a republic whose foundation they fancied was laid by the Forefathers.

    The Departure, the Landing, the Signing, these provide a statist trinity, a sacred triad of tableaux that would have as their equivalents the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution. At a later point would be added the Treaty with Massasoit, an icon associated with a pacific (if so often betrayed) policy of westward expansion, and the First Thanksgiving, an image that emerged as a national ritual during the Civil War, promoting an ideology of domestic tranquility, compensating for the tragedy of a national House Divided.

    Eventually, as I have earlier suggested, the First Thanksgiving would displace the Landing as our dominant Pilgrim icon and occasion for celebration. There is a popular depiction of that feast by Jennie Brownscombe, which also hangs in Pilgrim Hall at Plymouth, but the painter gave us as well her version of the Landing, known only through a reproduction. The pyramidal composition and prayerful postures are carried over into the twentieth century, as is the emphasis on arms and the man, but the gendered aspect has been reversed: a woman now dominates the scene, much as women are essential to the notion of the First Thanksgiving. The primary place on the Rock is held by a pious figure with a definitive Botticelli quality, suggesting the complicity of shallop and scallop. Hers is a tender presence guarded by the advancing figures of Miles Standish with pikestaff and sword and a Pilgrim (probably John Carver) with a blunderbuss, but it reminds us that by the tercentenary year women in America were gathering political strength.

    We will learn the identity of that woman in due time, but it suffices to say here that she is not Priscilla Mullins, who is placed slightly behind her in company with John Alden, in his carpenter's leather jerkin. They are figures not seen in the paintings by either Lucy or Sargent, for reasons we shall be learning as well. Perhaps most notable because so idiosyncratic, Brownscombe's tableau is resonant with postures and configurations associated with Roman Catholicism, and her emphasis on the prayerful woman suggests an element of Mariolatry, perhaps an attempt to rectify the imbalance in American iconography detected by Henry Adams. Here, presumably, the Virgin is the Dynamo, and from her electric loins, as from the Rock, a nation will spring.

    Specifics aside, these revisions reflect contextual shifts, clues to changing values in both region and nation, with their political and cultural manifestations. Let me say at this point that the contextual frame that has in recent years been placed around nineteenth-century depictions of historical subjects may be traced in terms of methodology to the landmark article by William H. Treuttner entitled "The Art of History" to which I was referred by the author himself at a critical point in the creation of this book. "We must 'read,'" writes Treuttner, "our mid-century history paintings as broadly as we read the historians of the period, [for] the artists, like their literary colleagues, indeed had an eye on the present, regardless of the subject in which they chose to incorporate their message. ... We must become more adept at interpreting historical subjects and think more carefully about what they meant in their own context. ... And above all, we must keep in mind how the yardstick of history operated in the nineteenth century" (31). That yardstick is the basic unit of measure in Memory's Nation.

    Which brings us to the image with which this initial discussion of iconography will end, a picture that marks a radical departure from the filiopietism of the depictions of the Pilgrims previously displayed. Here we have the Forefathers having their measurements taken for a line of men's clothing, a stark image of commodification that assures us the Pilgrims were not inevitably an object of piety for all Americans, most especially as the hegemony of Anglo-Saxon New England declined. This is a very funny picture and was intended as such surely, humor and hucksterism being close cousins. Needless to say, it does not hang in Pilgrim Hall.

    Yet there is a serious dimension to this tableau, located in the specific liberties taken with an icon essential to the imagery of Liberty as an American ideal. Governor Carver remains frozen, but so does any man having his inseam measured, and a smile of pleasurable anticipation now plays beneath his beard. The woman to his left also smiles as she looks back at Standish and his ailing wife, and the formerly prayerful figure to his right now focuses his devotions on the three pairs of trousers he is removing from their box. The monumentality of the composition is gone, and we no longer focus on the Pilgrims posed at a pure moment of arrival, with the Mayflower in the background and the distant and entirely imaginary mountain conveying a sublime sense of critical mass. We are distracted by the bustling salesmen with their tape measures, movement connoting American enterprise and get-up-and-go, Emersonianism at its lowest common denominator.

    The composition has been altered, the pyramidal form modified by adding the post office building and a line of Pilgrims waiting for their shipments, as another Pilgrim pulls on a pair of pants in a foreground littered with cartons. The Indians traditional to scenes of landing, missing from Lucy's tableau, have been added, their loincloths covered by mail-order trousers, a mismatch common to comic portrayals of the day, in which Native Americans are shown in awkward and unseemly attempts to adapt to the white man's costume. Even the Rock itself is desecrated, having been painted with an advertisement, a graffito not uncommon in the 1880s. Hilariously irreverent, this parody is entirely in keeping with the commercial spirit of the day, even to the conflation of the notions of "custom [that is, tailor] made" and mail-order delivery.

    In sum, despite the decline in sacredness of the Pilgrim idea, it obviously survives as a widely recognizable icon, and though entirely in the service here of the merchandising impulse, what is going on in this picture can stand for what had been happening for nearly a century. As a tableau, this advertisement is as accurate as the original by Lucy or the painting by Sargent, or even the later assemblage mounted by Brownscombe, for those "historical" images bear no resemblance to the actual arrival of the Pilgrims, either. These and other depictions of the Landing are shaped by artistic convention and contemporary ideologies. Always, the Pilgrims are having their measure taken for some purpose, are being assessed for ready-made garments, for stereotypical postures, rhetorical gestures, political platitudes. If the Rock takes its meaning from the Pilgrims, then the Pilgrims take their meaning from the ideological discourse of the moment. What they are, what they are looking toward, is entirely in the charge of whatever mode or impulse has control of the proceedings. The liminality of their passage is an illusion, was always an illusion. It is, finally, the consolidation into a negotiable icon that is the plastic element, not the experience of arrival. That is what changes over the years, not the Pilgrims in America, but our use of the Pilgrims in America.

    At the start of their experience in the New World the founders of Plymouth gave those who wish to re-create those first days very little to go by. We have the early printed account of their American encounter, Mourt's Relation, but that experience was edited and shaped by the authors for certain effects. Bradford's omnium-gatherum provides detailed documentation of their commercial and other dealings, but the personal element is virtually absent, save for vivid descriptions of their adversaries, the Strangers among them. For Bradford's history is a lengthy legal brief on the Saints' behalf, whose moral integrity is intensified by the grim particulars of their intended traducers. In truth, the Puritan Separatists from Scrooby by way of Leyden were a commodity from the start. They became a commodity the moment they arrived, even as they drew up the document certfying their community, a kind of package warranting the praise-worthiness of their endeavor. They were advertisements for themselves, and what happened afterward was merely a signifying continuation of that initial process. Even now we are taking the measure of the Pilgrims for new garments precut to our specifications.

    Do not be fooled by the living museum at Plimoth [sic] Plantation. What you see there is living rhetoric, theatrical equivalents to the semiotics of the democratic process, that ongoing liminal state. The Pilgrims, their sacred status removed, are presented as plain folks going about their daily business, no different from modern, everyday people, save in their quaint costumes and antique way of speaking. They have become democratized into an item of popular consumption, perhaps a more gritty comestible than the candified menu served up in Disneyland's version of the American past, but as a specimen preserve of a historical moment (1627) no less tailored by the needs of the present generation. We make a distinction between the living museum and the accumulation of well-dusted artifacts in Pilgrim Hall or the tawdry souvenirs for sale in Plymouth shops, but they all have much in common with each other and little connection to the reality of the Forefathers, whatever that may have been.

    And yet we still seem to have a need to establish connections with those ancient people, whose arrival survives as a special moment, a zone available to anyone willing to effect a separation from the ongoing process of commodification at Plymouth. Return to that place and stand looking seaward on a wintry day. The image you behold is what you project upon that gray sea and sky and will be as true as any other. So long as there is a need for such an image, it will have the power of an icon, and you will not be alone upon that margin, nor will they, but for the moment there will be established a kind of communitas, that gathering of the living and the dead commemorated here as Memory's Nation. Look! Even now the ship is entering the harbor, the passengers clambering into the boat as oars gleam in the pale cold air. But do not expect as they step upon the shore to recognize them by their antique dress, for if that place is a liminal zone, so also does it transform the Pilgrims ever and again into persons not easily recognized as such by any exterior forms. You must not confuse the spirit with the thing.

Table of Contents

Preface,xiii
Introduction,1
1 A Boat, a Ship, Some People,6
2 The Liberty Boys Hoist One for the Forefathers,23
3 The Federalists Take Their Stand on the Rock,41
4 Webster and the Rock,60
5 Wherein Tears Are Struck from the Rock,86
6 Circumferential Matters Relating to the Rock,101
7 The Great Trinitarian-Unitarian-Congregational Battle over
the Ownership of the Pilgrims and Their Rock,114
8 Concerning Certain Flaws in the Rock,142
9 The Rock Rolled Back,169
10 Tabling the Rock,196
11 Written on the Rock,226
12 Setting Free the Rock,250
13 Rock Ballast for the Ship of State,278
14 Wherein the Rock Becomes a Rolling Stone,306
15 Carving a Face on the Rock,330
16 Feminizing the Rock,361
17 Under the Rock--Something for Bowdoin,396
18 Cutting a Colossus from the Rock,422
19 The Rock's Red Glare,452
20 Brooklyn Nights--Something by Way of Lighter Fare,486
21 The Stern and Rock-Bound Lodge,510
22 Wherein the Rock Gets Reconstructed,534
23 The Pilgrim Fathers, Where Are They?,566
24 The Rock Impounded,589
25 The Statue and the Rock,619
Sanct Graal: A Forwarding Address,634
Bibliography,647
Acknowledgments,671
Index,675

What People are Saying About This

Michael Kammen

One of the most illuminating books ever written about the role of regional legends in our sense (and non-sense) of American origins as well as national identity.

From the Publisher

[Seelye] says flatly that the Plymouth Rock legend was a myth, but charts how the myth evolved over the years—in paintings, literature and public speeches—and how various political and social movements (especially abolition) made use of it. The book is rich, even lavish, in its detail . . . on subjects that range from early New England patriotic iconography . . . to the rivalry between Plymouth and Provincetown over Pilgrim bragging rights, to how the Rock itself has been displayed over the centuries.—Publishers Weekly



An extensive and often entertaining study of the place of Plymouth Rock in the national memory.—Boston Globe

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