Welcome aboard Iconographers. I hope you’re not prone to seasickness; we have a long journey aboard the Mayflower ahead of us.
In this two-part series on the Mayflower, we won’t just cross the Atlantic on this famous ship; we’ll also cross the rubicon with her passengers, watch as they are transformed from the people they saw themselves as – ordinary Englishmen and ordinary Englishwomen of the 17th century, set apart only by their steadfast religious beliefs, pilgrims with a lower case p, making a dangerous pilgrimage and surviving (barely) on the edge of the known world.
We’ll watch as they are transformed, long after they could point out any, erm, discrepancies, into the icons they would become – the first Americans, founders of religious freedom and democratic ideals, romantic heroes and heroines, cornerstones of the modern turkey and buckle industries… in short, we will see them become the Pilgrims. Capital P. This is a story of capitalization.
We’ll watch it all from the decks of the Mayflower, an icon which has sailed in the wake of these transformations, the churn of history furnishing the wind that billows her sails. Like the Pilgrims, today the Mayflower is legend, one of history’s most storied passenger vessels, an earthbound Apollo 11.
That wasn’t always the case. In her own time, the Mayflower was such an insignificant blip on the radar screens of history that within a few years of returning to England from Massachusetts in 1621… poof. Gone. Probably torn apart for scrap.
Which wasn’t considered a significant loss for a very long time. But then, in a mirror of what subsequent generations did to the legacies Plymouth settlers like Governor William Bradford, Edward Winslow, Miles Standish, John and Priscilla Alden, the Mayflower was rebuilt. Same name, but it could never be exactly like it was in 1620.
(Iconography Theme plays)
This is Iconography, and I’m Charles Gustine, your guide on this tour of icons real and imagined.
This leg of our tour kicks off in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. At the southern edge of the Mystic Seaport Museum, just off a scenic river that’s frozen at the edges, there is a towering white tent. The tent is longer than it is wide, and the shorter sides taper off at the top into elegant arcs. As you approach this tent, the sound of hustle and bustle overtakes the honking of geese and the lapping of the river against the ice.
For the past few years, this tent has been the home of the Mayflower II, a full-scale, functional replica of the ship that brought the first English settlers to Massachusetts in 1620. As you might guess, this reproduction vessel does not typically live on dry land in a tent in coastal Connecticut. For most of its 62-year life-span thus far, the Mayflower II has been moored right next door to Plymouth Rock, bobbing in Plymouth Harbor as guests climb below decks and gasp “They fit 102 passengers on this thing!”
Therein lies the rub – 62 years… Mayflower II has now been a floating vessel for much longer than its inspiration ever was. We don’t really know the precise launch date or decommissioning date of the original Mayflower (partly because there were so many ships named Mayflower on the books in the early seventeenth century – popular name), but we can be fairly certain that it fell well short of a half century on the water.
All that time in direct contact with the cold water of Cape Cod Bay has done a real number on the Mayflower II, and so, in anticipation of its big year in 2020, it’s spent the last few years being renovated by specialists in historic shipbuilding.
They’re in there now, whirring and buzzing, rebuilding this piece of American history – RE-rebuilding it to be perfectly honest – behind a screen. Like it’s in surgery. For most of the time I’ve been working on this episode – and to give you a little behind the scenes insight, this is the longest I’ve ever worked on a single icon by a long shot – I assumed that this was a closed-door process; that you couldn’t just drop by and say “Hi!” And I very much wanted to – I needed to see this ship.
As it turns out you can. For the price of admission to the Mystic Seaport Museum, you not only get access to an array of preserved ships and buildings staffed by knowledgeable people who are happy to show you how to make a barrel or smith an iron bottle opener. You can also get a live glimpse into the process of renovating an icon for a new age.
CHARLES GUSTINE, HOST, VISTING MYSTIC SEAPORT MUSEUM: Okay there’as a staircase on the side here… Viewing platform. (Sings) This is what I came for.
Oh, this is super weird. Oh I hate closed doors.
If you can find the right door…
CHARLES, IN MYSTIC: That was a staff area! (laughs)
I immediately retreated – I’m a rule follower – but maybe I should have tried to push my way through. I’ve found over the past few months that the scores of people who have dedicated their time to the upcoming commemoration of 1620’s quadricentenary are extremely welcoming and more than happy to talk about the rewards and challenges of framing history for an anniversary commemoration. And thank goodness for that. I have needed their help.
The Mayflower is one of the cornerstone icons that forms the foundation of my country. It is capital-I Important. And I have complicated feelings about its legacy, which we’ll touch on in this episode about it’s journey across the Atlantic and the ways its been interpreted; and in the next episode about the history of the Mayflower II and the ways we recreate history out of the materials available to us.
What I hope I get across most of all as we take apart and then rebuild the Mayflower in these episodes is that the legacy of the Pilgrims is complex, not because of the people themselves but because of al the strange and profound things we’ve done in the name of honoring them.
In the previous episode of Iconography, we saw one example of this: how Thanksgiving was transformed by the late arrival of the holiday’s de facto mascots: The Pilgrims. For decades before the First Thanksgiving celebration was ascribed to the settlers of Plymouth colony and the Native American Wampanoags, Thanksgiving was already pretty much exactly what it is now – a joyous family gathering, the year’s most looked forward to feast, a period of reflection and unity. Thanksgiving didn’t need the Pilgrims to be incredible and indelible; it already was and still is.
Well this is a two-way street. Focusing most of our Pilgrim appreciation on their Thanksgiving celebration has radically changed the way we see the Pilgrims.
I suppose the question we’re left to answer then is this: if you ignore the Thanksgiving Story, and the attendant hero worship that comes along with it, is there still something worth celebrating here? And if we do our best to connect with the people we’ve come to know as the Pilgrims as they were and not as we want them to be, do Americans have founders we can be proud of?
The simple answer is yes, these people on this boat were extraordinary. But the long answer is probably one of the bigger undertakings Iconography has tackled, so I enlisted a lot of help in wrestling with this story.
I spoke to experts on both sides of the Atlantic…
JO LOOSEMORE: All of the commemorations tell us something about their particular period, and in 2020 what we say about the Mayflower story and how we tell it will tell us as much about the Anglo relationship in the 21st century as it will tell us about the Anglo American relationship in the 17th century.
People who have a major part to play in the upcoming 400th commemoration of the Mayflower’s journey…
BRIAN LOGAN: We call it a commemoration rather than Plymouth’s Birthday or a big celebration because, while it’s certainly a point of pride for many different people, it’s just not very celebratory for folks who were here for thousands of years before the Mayflower arrived.
People who have put years of their lives into thinking about the ship’s place in history…
TOM BEGLEY: The Mayflower Compact as we look back on is an amazing moment of people of differing views and behaviors that are able to come together to agree to form a new way of doing things for them.
And who care deeply about how we frame that story for the next generation…
ANNA SCOTT: I think 2020, every time there is a big anniversary like this it gives you an opportunity to rethink that narrative and tell it in a new way to engage new audiences with it. And I think that's what we do more generally across society with history we retell it with every new generation. And it's quite interesting to watch that process in action. And I think that happens particularly heavily when we hit major anniversaries.
PART 1: The Teacher
ANNA: I’m hoping I’m going to be useful to you, I’ve been teaching nine year olds this morning, so I’m not quite sure (laughs) when we do Pilgrims with nine year olds, it’s a bit less detailed then some of the things I think you’re interested in.
CHARLES: Well no actually, I’m actually very interested in that!
I’ve been on the Pilgrim beat for almost a year now, and one of the chief things I’ve been wondering as I’ve waded further and further into Pilgrim scholarship is how one builds all (or any) of this nuance into a grade school curriculum so that the myths of the past aren’t just repeated ad nauseum. So when Dr. Anna Scott introduces herself by saying she’s mostly been working with British schoolchildren lately, I’m as pleased as I would’ve been if she told me she’d recently conducted a séance with William Bradford. Finally, I have a teacher who I can ask: how do you do teach a subject like the Pilgrims?
ANNA: No I don't start with Arminian theology.
I laugh and Google this while she’s talking so I can pass the test in case I get quizzed on it later. Arminian theology - a reaction to Calvinist theology that asserts among many other things that the desire to be saved is not planted by God but comes from within oneself… I think… Probably not where you’d start if you were teaching 29 year olds like me either.
But it is an important piece to understanding why the Separatists who we have come to know as the Pilgrims moved around so much. Many of us today wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of the subtle distinctions in theology that drove the Pilgrims to flee England for Holland and then, after years of debating theie Dutch neighbors on their hippie dippie newfangled Arminianism, to start a new colony where they could raise their children free from the intrusion of other doctrines. But this was all crystal clear to the congregation of pastor John Robinson, the spiritual leader of a flock who refused to worship within the Church of England, unlike the Puritans they are often lumped in with.
ANNA: And so I think you do have to have conversations about faith, and I talk about the Pilgrims belief in Providence and God's will, and how do you get through these obstacles that keep presenting themselves.
Anna Scott is from the county of Nottinghamshire, which was the birthplace and home of many of the Mayflower passengers including Governor William Bradford and William Brewster, who lived in a tiny village called Scrooby. Brewster’s home became a meetinghouse and place of worship for those who refused to worship within the national religion.That makes this area of the East Midlands region of the U.K. especially important to the upcoming 400th anniversary commemoration of the Mayflower’s journey.
ANNA: So within the Mayflower 400 partnership, there are 11 partners across England and five of those partners are in in my region.
I've got various roles in relation to Mayflower 400. I work for West Lindsey District Council as a Mayflower 400 officer and I'm also a Heritage Consultant for Bassetlaw District Council which is in Nottinghamshire and I'm also attached to the University of Lincoln which is also nearby. And we have a group of partners in the Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and South Yorkshire area who together we call ourselves The Pilgrim Roots group and we've been working together to tell the roots of some of the separatists who were on the Mayflower - tell that story.
Which is not, Anna realizes, the story most people associate with Nottinghamshire.
ANNA: One of the preeminent stories from my area is Robin Hood. I live very near to Sherwood Forest and that's a very dominant story for the area. And obviously the thing with Robin Hood is there's an awful lot of mythology around that Robin Hood story.
My academic interest is in a field called Critical Heritage Studies so I'm very interested in how we use the past today in the present and why we choose particular stories to promote particularly for visitors - why we pick out certain narratives about the past over others.
So I started to look at other stories which people locally tend to pick out as being important significant stories for the area and the Pilgrims tends to be framed around the narrative of the Pilgrim Fathers in our area. So I started to look at how the story had been told.
So that's how my Ph.D. developed, it kind of rolled out from there. I started to look at what other places in England are doing the same thing trying to tell the story and compared how it's done here, looked at how it'd been done in Plymouth and in other areas that are now linked by our Mayflower 400 partnerships.
Anna was talking to local authorities in the tourism industry as part of her research, and eventually she ended up advising them on possible ways to approach the narrative as the quadricentenary of 1620 approached.
ANNA: We've been thinking about how you can tell the story in a way that makes it relevant for people today. And we've got a series of core themes that we're developing to be able to do that around ideas of tolerance and the flip side of that which is the intolerance which you can trace through different parts of the story; the idea of freedom, seeking a new life, and themes of migration which are all incredibly important issues in our world today and relating that to the story I think's important.
One aspect of helping people, particularly younger people, connect with this story is breaking through some preconceived notions.
ANNA: The enduring narrative of the Pilgrim Fathers as an idea which for me conjured up a sense of men particularly, you might think of older men who are perhaps with white beards who are wise and I think perhaps that image of Pilgrims may work well over in America because that's where these people did get older but when they were in our area they were quite young. So William Bradford who went on to become the governor of Plymouth Colony, he was 18 when he left this area to go to Holland, and he was 30 when he was on the Mayflower, so he was young and they were young families.
But it’s not easy to change people’s idea of history, even if that change is more in line with the truth.
ANNA: One thing with this story and I find this when I'm trying to teach children about it or speak to different groups - we've got such a massive amount of iconography if you like, representations of Pilgrims from the 19th century, those really heavily caricatured black and white Pilgrims with the buckle on their hats. And it's so hard to get away from those embedded visual ideas of what the Pilgrims looked like. I'm quite interested in how we might be able to achieve that and I doubt that you can do that. That's really that's all about that story being taken and popularized and that is really embedded in how I think British people and Americans would imagine the Pilgrims.
All of those icons of what the story is sometimes you just lose the nuance because of needing to tell a good story. And when you tell a story that structure of the story is that it has a beginning it has a middle and it has an end and you have characters playing roles within that and you have to bring that story to a resolution to make it satisfying. To make it work. And the story of a voyage, a journey, something that completes in that way is quite a neat device for telling a good story.
It’s why the story of the Mayflower’s Atlantic crossing in particular enchants us so much. That has a clear arc, as does the year of starvation and dying ending in the big harvest celebration where there was plenty of food. The end. But it wasn’t the end for these people, and their story began long before anyone stepped aboard the Mayflower. So how does Anna make sure she includes that larger context?
ANNA: There's a lot of travelling and I like to get them to think about how long it would take to do that travelling.
Because I'm up in the East Midlands, not next to the sea, I like to emphasize that it wasn't just the single voyage of the Mayflower that made the journeys that they took part in. I like to have a map and work through the journeys. I like to do it with Google Maps (laughs). Other maps are available.
So I'm up in Nottinghamshire, we start to talk about fleeing to Boston to try and escape to Holland, which is in Lincolnshire - Boston's got a lot of name recognition for you in a different way.
And then we talk about, they don't manage to escape from Boston, so we talk about Immingham which is where they actually did escape from which is also in the north part of Lincolnshire.
And then we talk about the sea, going on the sea over to Holland, talk about Amsterdam and Leiden.
Maps can give us another important insight when thinking about why this congregation which had made its way to the city of Leiden and found some measure of stability there decided to leave for a dangerous and mysterious land.
ANNA: I think as well you've got to think about the landscape around Nottinghmshire, Lincolnshire area the places around here that are connected to this story. They're not urban; we're not in a city. And so the skills of people living in that kind of a place would be very different to people living in a city. So I think the fact that they then went to Amsterdam briefly before moving to Leiden, there was that complete change in lifestyle that is associated with that. So having to change your trade effectively, having to live in very different types of accommodation probably than you would have been used to. And I think that did eventually create pressures on their lives there and I think contributed to them deciding to leave.
Which is where we tend to begin the story. With the ship and the journey. But when we restrict the narrative arc of this part of history to an Atlantic crossing, we miss out on all the journeys that led to it, all the years that made the story of 1620 and 1621 possible.
ANNA: They were over in Holland for 12 years. I was talking to some nine year olds this morning and I said, "Well yeah they lived there for longer than you've been alive."
12 years is longer than I’ve ever lived in any one city. That amount of time in one place, worshiping, working, raising children, must have had a profound influence on the way these colonists saw themselves. Which, we may need to remind ourselves, was as thoroughly English people.
ANNA: We're talking about a period of time when the United States of America wasn't yet created. We're talking about English people who wanted to retain their English identity, going to a place where there were other people already with their own identities.
English people often need reminding as well.
ANNA: I think perhaps over here it is seen as something owned more by Americans Particularly where Americans would be visiting here to put the plaques up to remember that story. A lot of the commemoration here, a lot of the sites that are marked now as being important Pilgrim sites, the commemoration was actually put up by American groups, either descendants’ groups or faith groups - so particularly the Congregational Church.
And so I think In the past people have said the Pilgrim story is not our history because I think traditionally history has been seen in terms of national boundaries and people think of history in terms of British history or American history or Dutch history, and… I think people generally assume that history is a static thing. It's something that happened and it's fixed and that should be the way it always is. But actually history is a process and it changes and people don't always like change and they may not like what it reflects about them telling that story. So it's a really really tricky thing and I think there are a lot of political dimensions around the story because of how symbolic it's become of national identity. That really complicates it as well and makes it challenging to deal with in many ways.
2020 is a chance to navigate those murky waters and reassert the English origins of the Pilgrims, but also to celebrate the fluid, international lives they lived.
ANNA: This anniversary gives us quite a good opportunity to take ownership of that, the English kind of version of that story and to just highlight things, to look at that story in a different way in a way that we may not have thought about it before but also to reconnect people with the history associated with the place that they live.
I think that's something that we value increasingly today - to help people understand their place in the world but also how they are connected beyond the places that they live in to other parts of the world that are miles away in different countries and connected to how we're connected to different people in that way because of those people who lived here all that time ago, made all those significant journeys which many people around here may never have made themselves.
Which brings us back to Anna Scott’s favorite teaching tool, maps. She doesn’t use them as tools to reinforce the arbitrary boundaries we call borders – borders that have changed since the Pilgrims time (a lot) and will change again (probably a lot). Instead she uses them to connect the dots, draw lines from within one border to a dot within another, following the Pilgrims on their long journey to immortality.
ANNA: And so you can move around the map quite nicely and then bounce along the south coast of England talking about how they're meant to leave from Southampton and then that didn't quite work… talk about the two ships, and we do mention Plymouth on the way past…
Anna pauses for a laugh, and Jo Loosemore provides it. She’s joined us on the line as well, from Plymouth, England, where she’s coordinating another important facet of the U.K.’s Mayflower 400 commemoration.
Part 2: The Curator
The fact that the Mayflower ended up transporting its passengers from a Plymouth in England to a Plymouth in Massachusetts seems more planned or preordained than it actually was. If you were writing up this story, like of course you would draw it up that way, with perfect narrative symmetry – from Plymouth to Plymouth.
But the journey was meant to start from Southampton. Two ships, yes two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, were meant to set sail for what we now know as New York, but the Speedwell sprung a leak. The ships stopped on the way out in Dartmouth for repairs. The Speedwell was fixed, and off the two ships went from Dartmouth, getting all the way past Ireland before the Speedwell began taking on water again. So back it was to Plymouth, a bustling port in the southeast corner of England. And so months after the journey was planned to begin – a delay which had deadly repercussions when the settlers disembarked in the dead of winter – only one ship embarked from Plymouth, destined to deliver its passengers to another Plymouth on the other side of the world.
JO LOOSEMORE: It was very very odd to me as a resident of Plymouth in the UK going to Plymouth in the US and standing on the top of Burial Hill.
This is Jo. She builds on Anna’s ideas about the connections on our maps by telling a story about meeting someone atop Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts who asked her:
JO: "Where are you from?"
And I said "Plymouth!" and she looked at me and, you could tell she was thinking you don't sound quite right.
And I said "The… the other Plymouth, the English one?"
And she looked at me and I looked at her and there was something utterly intangible but meaningfully shared. That by this strange quirk of fate, strange accident of time 400 years ago, here were two people in the 21st century that had a connection. And neither could explain it, but they knew the connection was there.
And so there is a spatial, special relationship, a quirk of geography and history in one perhaps.
Part of the mission of the 400th anniversary commemoration is to give that unspoken spatial, special connection a voice, and at least for England’s Plymouth, this has been that voice.
JO: My name is Jo Loosemore and I'm currently the curator of the Mayflower 400 exhibition for the Box in Plymouth.
The Box, formerly Plymouth city museum and art gallery, is undergoing a major redevelopment. The museum is set to reopen in April 2020.
JO: - let's hope - but we're on schedule currently, and so the Mayflower exhibition will be the first large scale temporary exhibition.
CHARLES: How did you end up kind of in the orbit of the Mayflower and its passengers is that kind of a longstanding interest, something that came up because of curating the Box?
JO: No it was completely by accident. So I'm I suppose really I'm a modernist in many ways. I'm an oral historian really and I do a lot of historic projects. Most of them have been 20th century so World War II, World War I, so most of the work I've done has been living memory.
Working on World War I related projects equipped her surprisingly well for the role. In telling the story of the Great War and the armistice, Jo didn’t have living veterans to rely on.
JO: I had to find the people through the historic sources that did exist. I had to recreate them (revoice them) in a way from newspaper reports, from letters, from diaries.
I'm a kind of a hunter gatherer if you like in the museum and maybe in the radio world as well. I gather stories, I gather material, and I gather content that tells stories and sometimes that's sound, sometimes that's images, sometimes that's objects. And in a way that was quite good training because it's meant the I encounter the people of the 17th century through the historic records.
A hunter gatherer is exactly what Plymouth needed.
JO: Here in Plymouth we have a pretty limited collection in terms of the story. We have quite a commemorative collection, so we have material that goes back to the 1890s that looks at the tercentenary of 1920, that mark the 350th in 1970 as well. But we don't have much beyond that relatively contemporary story.
Partly that’s because, as mentioned earlier, Brits haven’t always felt a tremendous amount of ownership over a group of settlers who have become the definitive “first Americans.”
JO: There's a very profound cultural difference here. I think for you in America this story has become so entwined with the creation of the modern nation that it matters so much more. You've had this story for 400 years and you've told it and you’ve retold it for 400 years.
In a way. We’ve perhaps only had it for 100 years or so. For us, these were a group of people who no one really knew at the time, they left, and we forgot. So actually what we're having to do now, and I think what we have been trying to do since the 1890s is to find ways of remembering them and to find ways of creating a memory of them. We need in a way to be telling an English version of this story as well, because I’m not sure we’ve ever really consistently done that.
So I think I was really charged with the mission of finding Plymouth's story and telling a much wider sense of what happened and Plymouth's part in it really. So we have in a way built our own Mayflower story.
Caveat: it wouldn’t be all that much easier to accomplish that mission if Jo were an American in Plymouth, Massachusetts, backed by all the patriotic zeal we could muster. There are and always will be a lot of missing puzzle pieces in this puzzle. Like details about the Mayflower itself.
JO: So in my mission to try and illustrate the Mayflower story, of course everybody wants to see the ship! Well you can't really say "oh I'm sorry we don't know what it looks like, there aren't any pictures." What you have to do is say "Okay well here are a series of representations and imaginings over time." And in a way for me it's the story of the story that matters as much. How we have thought about it, how we've recreated it and imagined it over 400 years. That's as interesting I think as what may or may not have happened 400 years ago.
The same goes for the passengers on the ship – we only have one portrait of a Mayflower passenger, a painting of Edward Winslow done over 30 years after he landed in Massachusetts, wearing his most expensive black clothing because he’d travelled back across the ocean to London for his son’s wedding.
JO: When I started the exhibition I was told "Right OK, so you'll use you know loads of pictures of all of the people." And I said, "Uh, what do you mean, pictures?" They said "oh yeah you know all the portraits and…" And I thought, "Um, what portraits? You know, one image of Edward Winslow isn't really going to represent 102 people."
So how do you do that? We know a little bit about their backgrounds I suppose, but for me it seems that it's actually the story of a really quite diverse community - people of different ages, different educational backgrounds, different professions, certainly different motivations probably. So how do you go about showing that? And that is the greatest challenge I think that any of us face in doing any work around the Mayflower for 2020.
It's been slightly shocking for somebody who I suppose has concentrated very much in the 20th century to go back to the 17th century, which most definitely isn't my world in many ways and isn't I suppose my period of history either - you go back three or four centuries and the world is a very different place.
I’m curious, in reaching back centuries beyond her comfort zone and revoicing the people of the 16teens, if she’s able to connect with a Pilgrim in the same way she might a World War II veteran.
CHARLES: Is it kind of like "oh wow these people were so different from people today!” or moreso like "even though the world was so different like these people were really like the people today"?
JO: That's such an interesting question isn't it? When we think of the people of the past are they the same as us or are they different because they live in a very very different place?
Were they the same as us? I don't think so. And yet as people often we have quite common interests don't we - where we live, how we eat, what we do, who we interact with. So there are very common lines but I think it's always dangerous isn't it to pretend that they lived in exactly the same ways as we did and experienced things in the same ways that we do. I think we can imagine that and it's good for us to imagine that, but at the same time I think we need to be careful to see their motivations as probably being very different and their understanding of the world, very different as well.
How we imagine the Pilgrims has changed over time, not necessarily because of startling new discoveries about who they were, but because of the changes over time in who we are. What do we, the interpreters, want to see in them?
Part 3: Imagining the Pilgrims
What struck me in talking with Anna and Jo about how they are preparing for Mayflower 400 is how we face the same challenges whether we are channeling the past by defining a curriculum for schoolchildren or curating a museum exhibit or putting together a podcast episode. We have to make choices; we prioritize and emphasize because there’s a lifetime of information to convey, but we only have an audience’s attention for so long.
I ask Jo, what her goals are as a curator, what she hopes people will take away when they visit the Mayflower 400 Exhibition at The Box, and they don’t sound all that different from my goals for this series of episodes.
JO: I think for me it's about challenging and changing perceptions. And it's about saying we think we know this story, but do we? Really? So I think we need to look at that. I think it's the diversity in this group of 102. I think there's the imaginative possibility of those that were left behind. What do we know about them? Those that followed subsequently.
And I think it's also about exploring the story of the story. Here is a historical event that has brought us Plymouth Adventure with Spencer Tracy, that has brought us Longfellow, and has brought us the Pilgrim Barbie doll. Now what other stories can give you that kind of variety? And I think that's what we need to explore and really look at and challenge and maybe change if we can.
Oh good, she said Longfellow. I’ve been waiting to get to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for a while, and I’m ready for round one.
It’s tough to pick a definitive inflection point when the settlers of Plymouth went from lowercase to capital P Pilgrims – it had definitely commenced before Longfellow was born in 1807 and picked up a lot of steam in his thirteenth year, 1820. But you’d be hard-pressed to ignore Longfellow’s retelling of a long-ago family myth about a love triangle between three Mayflower passengers – his ancestors John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, and the Pilgrims military leader, Captain Miles Standish.
Longfellow swallowed up pieces of New England’s history and spat them back out as verse, most famously that little gem about the midnight ride of Paul Revere and the nine part narrative poem “The Courtship of Miles Standsish,” which supposedly sold 10,000 copies in one day in London. His poems were blockbuster entertainment, they were on the school curricula, people could recite stanzas like these to each other in the street.
Then from their houses in haste came forth the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Men and women and children, all hurrying down to the sea-shore, Eager, with tearful eyes, to say farewell to the Mayflower, Homeward bound o'er the sea, and leaving them here in the desert.
Foremost among them was Alden. All night he had lain without slumber, Turning and tossing about in the heat and unrest of his fever. He had beheld Miles Standish, who came back late from the council, Stalking into the room, and heard him mutter and murmur, Sometimes it seemed a prayer, and sometimes it sounded like swearing.
Now was any of this true? Ummmm, shrug emoji?
But Longfellow made it better than true. He made it sell. I enjoy this particularly salty observation from Harvard pastor and Plymouth enthusiast Peter Gomes.
“Had Henry Wadsworth Longfellow devoted himself to the Romance Languages, of which he was Smith Professor at Harvard, rather than to mediocre but memorable verse, the perception of American history may well have been quite different. Paul Revere would have remained an unknown British artisan, and the Pilgrims of Plymouth would be little more than aggregate virtue. It was Longfellow’s disciplined meters and undisciplined history that launched them both into immortality.”
Longfellow can be kind of easy to beat up on, but Anna Scott doesn’t think Longfellow alone is guilty of this. It’s a tendency in all of us, to shape history so it has structure. To renovate it so it can captivate a new audience and survive.
ANNA: I realized in some ways the way we do Pilgrims is not dissimilar to the way we do Robin Hood because it is so heavily mythologized and it's a story that's been used for so many different purposes.
So you can pick out you know the Victorian period for us, how was it done in that period? There is a long legacy from things like the Longfellow poem and that's all tied in as well with the legacies of the visual representation of Pilgrims going to church, Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.
And then you've got the more modern depictions, you've got the popularized ones around Thanksgiving, you've got Pilgrims on The Simpsons…
MARGE SIMPSON: Finally we shall bid goodbye to England and its drunken, decadent sinners! HOMER SIMPSON: Uggghhh, out of my way you god-fearing buckleheads!
ANNA: We have Horrible Histories, Pilgrim Fathers Rap that kind of thing…
(Horrible Histories Pilgrim Fathers Rap plays)
ANNA: I think it really highlights how heritage in history is really retold for every generation.
And so we can see patterns start to emerge; as we dive into how Pilgrims have made their way into popular culture, and how that’s changed the way we see them, I think not only of Henry Longfellow and the love triangle he created that enchanted the public in the 1850s; but also, of another Pilgrim love triangle that came to the silver screen a century later, between the Bradfords, William and Dorothy, and the Master of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones.
CHARLES: There's that movie from the 50s The Plymouth Adventure with Spencer Tracey where they fill in a lot of the gaps by basically being like, "So Dorothy Bradford that's a weird thing that happened right?"
Dorothy Bradford is a really weird thing that happened. Partly because no one actually knows what happened.
For some context: the actual journey of the Mayflower across the Atlantic was truthfully pretty uneventful. There was a bad storm, Christopher Jones successfully rode it out, one man was thrown overboard, but he was rescued. It was not an especially long or arduous Atlantic crossing.
JO: I think it's very easy to make the Atlantic journey disproportionate. Now clearly it's fundamental. They had to get from here to there. But equally I think we fixate don't we on those 66 days and what happened, what they ate, what they did, where they went to the loo… I mean oh my gosh kids love that don't they?
What frequently disappears from the story is the month spent anchored off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of the elephant’s trunk that is Cape Cod. The Mayflower didn’t just sail right into Plymouth Harbor and drop a gangway onto Plymouth Rock. Instead, it hung out at the entrance of the Cape, with its crew and passengers unsure whether to turn back, head south to more well-known territories, or find a suitable settlement somewhere in there.
This was a time of great confusion and turmoil for the people on this ship – they had arrived too late in the year to build a true safe haven, they didn’t know the temperament of the natives, especially after they’d stolen corn from one of their burial mounds in desperation, and there were some among them who wanted to make a go of it on their own and abandon the other settlers. And they were managing all of this while spending more time on a merchant vessel that was not made to hold over 100 people and their things.
This is all really compelling stuff, and it’s been irresistible fodder for storytellers across the centuries – of both historical nonfiction and historical fiction. Jo points out that’s both because of what we do know and what we don’t.
JO: I think if you were going to create a dramatic story, what would you have in it? You'd give it adversity, you'd give it strong characters, you'd give it hope, maybe some romance, maybe jeopardy, adventure, and mystery. And if you think about the Mayflower story, it has all of those things and ultimately that's probably why it's endured. The fact that elements of it are true also helps but the fact that there are gaps in it and so much that we don't know enables us to imagine and to create as well.
And what could be richer really. It gives us space to imagine about the real and the fictionalized doesn't it?
Which brings us back to Dorothy Bradford, a genuine enigma.
Amidst all the chaos before the Pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth, Dorothy Bradford fell off the ship one night and drowned. The Mayflower wasn’t on the move, there wasn’t a storm. She was just… gone.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and it should surprise you not one bit that at some point a Hollywood screenwriter thought] “Huh, that’s odd,” and came up with a reason why.
The reason dreamt up by Helen Duetsch, who wrote the screenplay for 1952’s splashy epic The Plymouth Adventure… well it kinda grosses me out.
(romantic music from Plymouth Adventure swells)
DOROTHY BRADFORD: My place is behind William Bradford.
CHRISTOPHER JONES: No… This is where you belong. Here.
The Plymouth Adventure is not a movie that plays well in the #MeToo era. At all. I hope it’s not a movie that played well in any era.
This is the story of a sozzled old ship’s captain, played by thoroughly American Spencer Tracy, learning about dignity and humanity from a group of religious outsiders who hold their heads high as they are driven from the country of their birth. By the story’s end, the mean old Captain is redeemed – he beats up anyone on his crew who challenges his decision to stay behind and help the outsiders as they face the unknown.
ROBERT COPPIN: We’re taking the Mayflower out of here!
(Coppin is hit and he crumples.)
CHRISTOPHER JONES: Now who else threatens mutiny?
He looks proudly on a flourishing settlement as he steps off Plymouth Rock and turns his ship back to England.
CHRISTOPHER JONES: I can see the sails, two then five then fleets of them, coming here to join you. I’ll e among them.
This is only heart-warming if you’re willing to overlook the part where the captain’s change of heart came after the married woman he had verbally and physically assaulted threw herself from his ship into the cape because she thought she might be falling in love with him. Master Christopher Jones set his eyes on Dorothy Bradford the moment she boarded his ship; he berated her, ogled her; one night, drunk from his exploits at a tavern, he cornered her and groped her…
CHRISTOPHER JONES: Oh a skittish maid! As pretty a bit as ever strolled the lane. Married to that de-faced psalm singer who doesn’t know the right kind of hyms to sing…
DOROTHY BRADFORD: No Captain Jones let me go!
JONES: Oh you have to pretend you don’t like it, I know that, I know that…
He urged her to drop her drip of a husband and give in to her animal impulses.
JONES: By the time this voyage ends this ship will contain not 102 passengers and 30 crewman. It will contain 132 cats and dogs, 132 rutting beasts! It’s the sea does it, the closeness of all the others.
Dorothy refused repeatedly; William glared furiously from the sidelines. Finally, she didn’t resist one kiss, gave in to one embrace, and committed suicide.
This conception of Jones as an animalistic predator forcing himself on another man’s wife is a full-on character assassination, the besmirching of a man’s name when a name is pretty much all we have. And why? Because the most compelling solution to the mystery of Dorothy’s Bradford’s death might be the hint of infidelity?
Not. A. Fan.
But I have to think of it from Jo’s perspective. If I were curating an exhibit on the Mayflower, would I leave The Plymouth Adventure out because it’s problematic? Or because it’s inaccurate?
Ultimately, I think it benefits us to take something like The Plymouth Adventure seriously, because it is an important artifact that shows us how a full team of Hollywood producers, directors, and actors interpreted this story; what they decided to emphasize and what they downplayed. They play up the storm, throwing a lot of the film’s budget at a topsy turvy, effects-heavy sequence; they play down the role of Miles Standish, who would create one love triangle too many if he were eyeing Priscilla Mullins. We don’t see the Pilgrims step out onto Plymouth Rock, but we do linger on the signing of the Mayflower Compact…
WILLIAM BRADFORD: The deadliest danger we face is that we may disagree. That we may each go grubbing in the wilderness alone and so face quick destruction.
With Christopher Jones looking on from the corner thinking “Huh, maybe these people are on to something.”
WILLIAM BRADFORD: Gentleman this is a new world. It is possible here to revise old institutions and to start a new system of a perfection and excellence hitherto unknown to fit our infant society. But until such government can be devised, we must agree to stand together.
If The Plymouth Adventure is animated by one idea, it’s this: the people who created America had every opportunity and every excuse as they began this unprecedented experiment in the New World to loosen their grip on their moral convictions, and they refused. When most others would have given up or given in, they sat down and reaffirmed their commitment to their beliefs.
In turning the lens from William Bradford, who would typically get the lion’s share of the focus, to his wife Dorothy, the filmmakers interpret the Pilgrims as stalwart, humble, loyal, and, above all, virtuous. By pacing the film so it climaxes with Dorothy’s death, the filmmakers tie her ineffably with the ship – their dual journeys end together as a new chapter begins for everyone. The Mayflower, which could have been the site of an unraveling, was instead defined by an awakening. Of spirituality within its captain and of a new nation.
Rather than see Dorothy leap into oblivion, we last see her caressing the Mayflower’s railing, as if she is imbuing the ship with her spirit before she goes.
The film sanctifies her. It martyrs her.
This interpretation may have played well in a theater in 1952, but it weirds me out now; we tend to take a more nuanced, balanced view of the Pilgrims. But Jo points out that we have not reached anything close to a definitive interpretation of this historical moment; will the commemorations in 2020 be any less colored by our own views and blind spots as past commemorations have been?
JO: I think it does make us question, doesn't it? What will our interpretation say about us? Because we are interpreting this story. And I think for us now living in I suppose a diverse society thinking about it in the year where particularly women's issues are now playing such a big part in public discourse, of course we are going to look at the women and the children of this story because for so long they have been ignored! They have been forgotten. They have been excluded. So in a way our 21st century interpretation will include them and will put them more central. And that says as much about us as it does about them doesn't it?
I’ve certainly been conscious of that as I’ve written and rewritten these episodes on the iconography the Pilgrims left us. I am an interpreter to, and whatever I say about the Mayflower and the people it carried across the sea, however I interpret them, I’m actually baring my own soul. Whatever I say about them says much more about me.
Which has been daunting. I’ve really struggled with how to capture the essence of these long ago heroic figures who up and left their own continent to live their lives the way they wanted to on the other side of the world. Imagine me as that classic figure with one line written on a blank piece of paper, and one hundred crumpled drafts strewn at my feet… except with me its fifteen hastily abandoned Microsoft Word files open on my screen at all times, all of them named “Mayflower something something.”
CHARLES, AT MYSTIC SEAPORT MUSEUM: Alright, this is take two of trying to get in and see the Mayflower II.
I thought if I could see the Mayflower II, even on dry land, even surrounded by scaffolding in a tent, I would finally get past this block and would understand what I was trying to say about the Pilgrims. I became obsessed with the idea that the Mayflower II, even though it was only 62 years old, would somehow unlock over 400 years of history for me. Every time I passed through Plymouth, its absence haunted me, and every weekend that went by that I didn’t make the hour and a half drive to Mystic Seaport to see the ship hung around my neck like a chain. I convinced myself that I couldn’t write this episode unless I saw the Mayflower II.
The surprise Staff Only door was like one last cosmic joke, one final test before I could enter the lair of the beast and face it head on. I did eventually find the right door. It wasn’t that hard.
And you want to know the funny thing: after hearing for so long how small the Mayflower was, how everyone who visits it mostly thinks there’s no way it could carry that many people from Europe to America, I was surprised by how large it was. I tried to get a sense of it from the viewing platform I’d been granted below it’s stern and I really couldn’t. I felt tiny.
Somehow, I think that’s exactly right. I just needed to be there to get that sense of scale.
JO: We need something don't we. We need something I suppose to see or to connect with just to help our imaginations a bit more. And I think that that ship really does that.
A beautiful sentiment to go out on… but Jo provides me with the equivalent of a post credits teaser where an improbably new character shows up and you’re like “Oh man, I have to see the next one!”
JO: It’s interesting, there have been you know over the past 20, 30 years calls for Plymouth here to have one. But of course now it's such a massive undertaking that I'm not sure many people would necessarily try to do that. So the 21st century version of this is actually the Mayflower III, an autonomous robotic ship that is being made by the University of Plymouth in conjunction with the Royal Navy which will sail without any passengers but it will make the same journey in 2020.
CHARLES: Wait, how does, it's going to be a full size replica but sailed by robots?
JO: It's called the Mayflower autonomous ship - clue in the title - so it doesn't look anything like the Mayflower II nor what we think the original Mayflower may have looked like which of course we don't know anyway… It looks like a catamaran really. So it looks like a modern pretty techie ship, but it will bear the same name and it will follow a very similar journey. And I would imagine it will probably do it in half the time and what it will do is actually inform navigation and sea safety for the next 10, 15, 20, 30, 50 years - that's its mission.
That and more on when Iconography looks at the Mayflower II… and beyond?
Iconography is written and produced by me, Charles Gustine. Thanks as always to Carol Zall for script editing and feedback on this episode.
Our guests this episode were Dr. Anna Scott, Heritage Consultant and Public Historian, and Jo Loosemore, curator of the Mayflower 400 exhibition at The Box in Plymouth. You also heard a tiny preview of next episode’s guests, Brian Logan, Communicaitons Manager for Plymouth 400, and Tom Begley, Executive Liaison for Administration, Research, & Special Projects at Plimoth Plantation.
You can hit me up on Twitter @icongraphypod or on Facebook at facebook.com/iconographypodcast and tell me what you thought of the episode. Whether it’s through social media, or the website – iconographypodcast.squarespace.com – or a review on iTunes – which I always appreciate – it’s your turn to tell the people what you thought: Iconographers, I ask you: Isn’t it Iconic… Donthca Think?
Iconography is a proud member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-centric collective of smart, idea-driven podcasts. This week, I am recommending two episodes from The Lonely Palette, the podcast that brings art history to the masses. That’s right, two episodes for the rice of one. Because not only did host Tamar Avishai take a typically incredibly thought out look at Cecilia Vicuna’s Disappeared Quipu at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she also got an exclusive interview with the artist, which she posted as a bonus episode. You can find those episodes at thelonelypalette.com or wherever you get quality podcasts.