Monday, June 26, 2006

Book Thoughts: Mistress Bradstreet

It is difficult to reconstruct the past. In fact, really, it is impossible. There is little physical evidence remaining. Ever her house is gone, like most of the dwellings of the early settlers, burned, torn down, crumbled to ash. On their bones, our houses crowd together, huge, windowed, balconied. Cars roar by on the old paths, now paved. I live less than twenty miles from where Anne used to live, but often she feels as far away as the moon.

There is a Jewish tradition of "midrash," which is when the rabbis attempted "to fill in the gaps" of some of the more mystifying biblical stories, such as those of Job or Jonah and the whale, and in many ways that is what these pages have become. By retelling some of the history, the details, and the facts of her time, I have attempted to resurrect Anne and her home in early America. But I have also tried to piece together something more - what it felt like to be one of the first Europeans in America and what Anne, a gently bread, highly educated woman, might have thought, done, and experienced as she struggled through the ordeal of emigration and settling a new country.

~ Charlotte Gordon, preface to Mistress Bradstreet

I don't devour biographies by any stretch of the imagination. I own only a few. It took me a year after buying this book to get around to reading it. But from the beginning, Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet held my attention. As Gordon states in her preface, she took some liberties in the telling of Bradstreet's life. But the very fact that she openly stated her approach (that of the "midrash") at the beginning, tempered my reaction to her style. And her extensive bibliography in the back of the book made me trust her even more. Gordon blends together the known (and not so numerous) facts of Bradstreet's life with her research on colonial life and produces a work that feels more like a story than biographies usually seem to be. It's an approach that perhaps feels less "factual," but one that also happily lacks a cold hardness.

Only occasionally did I feel as though Gordon might be reaching in her rendering of Bradstreet's emotions. In commenting on one of Bradstreet's poems on the death of a grandson, Gordon writes that Bradstreet's "very angry lines" reveal "her ambivalence about God," though she attempts to "dampen her rage." And while I understand and agree that a poem might have a subtext, I found this interpretation of the poem to be a stretch. But while Gordon speculates throughout the book on what Bradstreet might have been thinking and feeling, I found most of her imaginative rendering of Bradstreet's life to be firmly grounded in Bradstreet's works.

I provided Perry Miller's excellent comments on the Puritans (previous post below) as a means of prefacing my thoughts on this biography of Anne Bradstreet. Miller's introduction captures the paradox of pursuing this life wholeheartedly while realizing that "this life" is not all there is. And as I read Gordon's biography of Bradstreet, I felt that a full comprehension of (or, perhaps, sympathy for) this perspective on life was the missing ingredient. Gordon often seems to waver between admiration and condemnation of the Puritans. I felt in reading her work that for all her lauding of Anne Bradstreet, Gordon ultimately finds Bradstreet's belief system to be baffling. She never says so directly. But there is subtext.

At the same time, I loved this book. Gordon more than accomplishes her goal of bringing Bradstreet to life. She also clearly describes the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the role of men such as Thomas Dudley (Bradstreet's father) and John Winthrop. I've studied and taught Anne Bradstreet in the past, but after reading this book I have a much fuller sense of her as a person and a poet.
I highly recommend this book if you enjoy early American literature and/or colonial life.


Blogger Bet said...

I'm really eager to get a copy of this book after reading your descriptions and thoughts about it. Even though I don't even teach literature anymore, Bradstreet remains a favorite of mine. Sounds like this book would be well worth reading. Thanks for sharing it.

4:03 PM  
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