Lesson 1: Our Puritan Heritage

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to accomplish the following:

  1. Describe themes in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation and identify details from the history.
  2. Interpret meaning in Anne Bradstreet's poems, discuss her characteristic use of oppositions, and recognize details from the poems.
  3. Define literary terms and apply them appropriately to the readings.
  4. Identify components of American history that are relevant to the lesson's assigned readings.

Reading Assignment

Please read the following assignments before proceeding to the lesson commentary.

From The Norton Anthology of American Literature:

  • Of Plymouth Plantation, by William Bradford (pages 58–75)
  • Poems by Anne Bradstreet:
    • "The Prologue" (pages 98–99)
    • "The Author to Her Book" (pages 106–107)
    • "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment" (pages 108–109)
    • Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666" (pages 109–110)


Conceit: a figure of speech in which an elaborate comparison is drawn between two dissimilar things.

Imagery: a figure of speech in which abstract ideas are described with vivid language in order to make those abstractions concrete for the reader. In everyday speech, we associate the word image with visual pictures, but in literature, imagery may refer to other senses or associations as well.

Irony: an incongruity between appearance and reality. Irony can be verbal, when what is said is different from what is meant. It can be situational, when what happens is the opposite of what one would expect. Or it can be manifested in other ways. Irony is very common in daily life, but it is more difficult to detect in literature. In life, we have many contextual cues such as the surroundings or the speaker's facial expression and tone of voice to indicate that what is being said is different from the intended meaning. In literature, we have fewer cues, but you can see how important it is to detect irony—if not, you've understood the story exactly the opposite of the intended meaning.

Poetry: literary writing that often, though not necessarily always, takes on the qualities of verse. Poems that do not take on the qualities of verse are understood to employ a more compact style and structure (and thus to have a higher imaginative or aesthetic value) than prose.

Puritan plain style: an aesthetic that influenced the written language, architecture and other design, and the visual arts in early America. Characteristics of plain style writing include 1) artful simplicity, 2) accessibility, 3) an absence of rhetorical ornamentation, and 4) the presence of didactic intent.

Theme: a controlling idea in a work of literature. A theme is not the subject of the work but the statement about or position that the text takes on the subject; therefore, two works might have the same subject but different themes. Consider the subject of love, for example. One work might suggest that love is eternal, enduring through time and across vast distances. Another work might suggest that love is fleeting, coming and going as naturally as the seasons.

Verse: literary writing that is metrically or rhythmically structured. Verse may or may not have a rhyme scheme.


Although we are beginning our study of American literature with the Puritans, there are other reasonable starting points. For example, explorers like Christopher Columbus had described the so-called new world—its inhabitants, resources, and promise—more than a hundred years before the Pilgrims and Puritans arrived. Among histories of settlement, John Smith's description of clearing an outpost and struggling to survive in Virginia precedes the arrival of the now famous religious dissenters in what would become Massachusetts. And, of course, before any Europeans set foot on the North American continent, Native Americans had a rich history of oral storytelling, much of which is now available in print. Still, the arrival of the Pilgrims in the Mayflower has become an iconic image of America's beginning, and their influence can be seen in American literature throughout its history. In the readings assigned for this lesson, you hear about Pilgrim and Puritan life directly from those who lived it.

Puritanism and Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation

Meaning of Puritanism

England's King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic religion in the early 1500s and established the Church of England. Of course, this action was very controversial, with some in favor of such a move and others opposed. The Puritans were dissatisfied, not with the split from Rome, but because they felt that the reform still left the English church too similar to Catholicism. Instead of church hierarchy, tradition, and ornamentation, they preferred a simpler form of worship based upon a minister, a congregation, and the Bible.

The word Puritan refers to all sorts of religious dissenters who shared this basic conviction about a simple approach to religious belief but who otherwise may have differed in significant ways. Only one small group of Puritans is known as "the Pilgrims." This is a name given by William Bradford himself to a small group of Puritans who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower and supposedly landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Only about half of the 100 or so people aboard the ship were a part of this group. They were separatists; that is, they did not think the English church could be sufficiently reformed, so they wanted to separate from it. Anne Bradstreet, on the other hand, arrived at the North American shore ten years after the Pilgrims with a much larger group of a thousand Puritans who settled in what would became known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were non-separatists; although dissatisfied, they still held out hope for the possibility of further church reform. So while all Pilgrims are Puritans, not all Puritans are Pilgrims.

Bradford's Pilgrims lasted as a distinct group only for a single generation, until about 1690, when they were absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans themselves ceased to exist as a distinct group within the next century.

Puritan Beliefs

Before beginning a discussion of the readings, let's take a moment to consider the beliefs of the Puritans. Many religious people today believe in the influence of God in their lives. But the Puritans attributed God's involvement to every little detail of daily life; for example, if the milk jug was dropped and broken, it was not only the result of human clumsiness but also a sign from God. They lived in a very symbolic world, in which every material object, action, and outcome might represent profound meaning.

The Puritans thought that by nature every human is sinful, but that God chose to save a few people from damnation. Whether a given individual was chosen was not the result of good works on earth but was pre-determined. Those chosen to experience a state of grace were called the elect or saints. For those who were chosen, nothing they could do would alter that fact. They couldn't behave badly and become un-chosen, nor could they decide to, say, pass on their state of grace to one of their children or someone whom they deemed more worthy. On the other hand, it was impossible to know for sure who was chosen; indeed, smug self-assurance about one's own grace was a sure sign that such a person was not one of the elect.

Still, the Puritans believed that it was possible to see signs from God suggesting who was chosen, so they were always looking for indications of grace. Today, many people are likely to believe that the most humble person can have great faith and can be saved as easily as a Wall Street titan. (Or perhaps more easily!) For the Puritans, however, financial and social success counted as good signs. While a Puritan could never be sure about his or her personal condition, the group certainly believed that collectively they had a very special mission to carry out, one that paralleled Biblical events. For example, notice that William Bradford's description of arriving at Cape Cod is compared to Moses viewing the Promised Land from Mount Pisgah (61).

Puritan Plain Style
"God's altar needs not our polishing"
(John Cotton, New England Puritan minister)

The quotation above explains the attitude that led the Puritans to develop what we now call the Puritan plain style. If, however, Bradford's and Bradstreet's texts don't seem stylistically plain to you, that is understandable. After all, the vocabulary, sentence structure, and Biblical references don't sound to the modern ear especially simple or easy to understand. But keep in mind that these Puritans were writing during the same time period as the literary movement in Europe known as the Renaissance, along with literary greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, and John Donne. If you compare our Puritans to Shakespeare, for example, it is easier to detect the simplicity of their style.

Themes in Of Plymouth Plantation

The first thing to notice about William Bradford's text is that it is a history of events written fifteen or more years after the events took place. It is not possible for Bradford to describe to readers everything that happened, so out of necessity he includes only what he remembers (and how he remembers it) or what he chooses to share with others (and how he chooses to share it). Similar to a storyteller, he shapes the material to tell the story he wants to tell. He sees experiences through the lens of his belief system. In fairness, this is true of all histories, which are always more than straightforward facts.

In reading Bradford's history, you no doubt noticed that the Puritans did not travel alone; instead, they were accompanied by many non-Puritans. For example, they brought with them servants, people who were willing to risk their lives crossing the ocean to uncharted territories in order to escape unpleasant circumstances at home such as debt or even prison sentences. They also needed the technical expertise of sailors and other skilled workers.

At the beginning of your assigned reading, Bradford tells the story of one sailor who was foul-mouthed and offensive to those onboard the ship. He wished the worst for his passengers, boasting about the satisfaction it would bring him to cast the Puritan travelers overboard. However, he himself became desperately ill and died midway across the Atlantic Ocean. Notice the language that Bradford uses in describing this incident: "it pleased God" to have stricken the sailor with disease; it was "the just hand of God upon him"; and it was "a special work of God's providence" (59). These three quotations appear in a single paragraph, underscoring one of Bradford's themes: God's providence. That is, the notion that the Pilgrims are under the protective care of God is an idea that Bradford wants to communicate to his readers. In turn, because communicating that idea is one of his purposes, he chooses to share information that will support that theme.

Other examples of the theme of God's providence appear in Bradford's history. Upon reaching land, a landing party came upon an area deserted by its Native American inhabitants. The European men found a couple of dwellings, various utensils, and seed corn, which they took and eventually used to plant their own crops. Notice that Bradford doesn't think of the corn as an accidental occurrence or a lucky find, or the result of the skill of the scouting party. He says: "And here it is to be noted a special providence of God…that here they got seed to plant them corn the next year, or else they might have starved" (63). Similarly, they were later taught how to plant their corn and find other ways of acquiring food from their Native American friend, Squanto, whom they think of as "a special instrument sent of God" (69). You can find other references to God's providence in Bradford's history.

The Puritans and beer

Bradford fell ill like many of the Pilgrims. Notice how he complains, on page 67, that during his illness the sailors force him to drink water instead of sharing their beer with him. We think of water as healthy, but the Puritans much preferred beer. For example, the ship Arbella, arriving ten years after the Mayflower, was loaded with 10,000 gallons of beer and only one-third that much fresh water.

Another controlling idea, or theme, that appears in the history of the Pilgrims is that of community. Reread the "Difficult Beginnings" section on pages 66–68 and notice the way Bradford describes the Pilgrims' treatment of others during times of sickness compared to the sailors' treatment of others. After half the Pilgrims had died and most of the remaining settlers were ill, the few healthy members of the group were responsible for all the cooking, laundry, chopping of wood, nursing the sick, and so on. Yet they did "all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren" (67). In contrast, when illness affects the sailors, they "began now to desert one another in this calamity" (67). Indeed, one sick sailor who is cared for by the Pilgrims is quoted as saying, "'you, I now see, show your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another lie and die like dogs'" (67). The caring and close-knit nature of the Pilgrim group is clearly a source of pride that Bradford wants to share with his readers.

Before coming ashore, the Pilgrims had formally bound themselves together as a community with a written agreement. They were concerned about establishing and maintaining an orderly and just society for the general good of the people. On page 66, Bradford includes in his history a copy of the covenant, or agreement, that was signed by the male heads of all families, not just the important families—a pretty democratic approach for the time. The Pilgrims were familiar with the idea of covenants from the Bible, and this specific agreement is what we now refer to as the Mayflower Compact. Bradford calls it the first foundation of their government and, indeed, as a written statement of shared principles and intentions, it is a forerunner of our own national constitution.

painting that illustrates the signing of the Mayflower compact Figure 1.1. This painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicts the signing of the Mayflower Compact in a cabin aboard the Mayflower. John Carver, Myles Standish, and William Bradford are included in the scene, along with other Pilgrims.

Although not all their dealings with the Native Americans were peaceful, it is worth noting that the Pilgrims extended to the Indians their tendency to create formal agreements. Bradford includes in his history the six points of verbal agreement made with Chief Massasoit to secure peace between the two groups (68).

Because of their commitment to each other and to the success of their mission, the Pilgrims prospered. It is ironic that this very prosperity contributed to the unraveling of the community. As individuals acquired more livestock and reaped successful harvests from farming, they wanted even more land, so people moved farther away from each other. Distance made it more difficult to maintain the geographical community and, in turn, the spirit of community. In an effort to prevent the fracturing of the settlement, some centrally located prime real estate was given to "special persons" who promised to remain in town, but this action to keep the community together created jealousy and hard feelings, resulting in social rifts and further divisions. As Bradford concludes, the "remedy proved worse than the disease" (75). In only a single generation, the closely knit Puritan community began to pull apart.

photograph of Plimouth Plantation living museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts Figure 1.2. Plimoth Plantation living museum (Plymouth, Massachusetts)

Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet is sometimes called America's first poet. This would be an accomplishment for anyone but especially for a woman of her time. Bradstreet lived when women were often made to suffer for any aspirations beyond those of wife and mother. Women who showed signs of intellectualism or who entered the public world of men often faced social censure or worse. One of the reasons that Bradstreet seemed to fare better than some other women who moved beyond the acceptable feminine sphere was that she never ignored her womanly responsibilities. She raised eight children and ran not only a large household but also the family business during her husband's many absences. She did all of this on the edge of the wilderness while also composing verse in her head during the day, which she would commit to paper (a rare commodity) by candlelight after everyone in the house had gone to bed. Her crucial ability to balance the domestic and to write poetry may explain the appearance of opposite pairings in her poems. As we discuss Bradstreet's poetry, look for a balancing of oppositions.

"The Prologue"

Some readers interpret the speaker's tone in this poem as quite humble and submissive. Others think she sounds confident, even bold. Probably both are true, depending upon the part of the poem you are considering. In the first five stanzas, the speaker seems to acknowledge that her writing as a female is inherently inferior to that of male writers. Notice, however, that stanza six begins with the word but. This word indicates that what follows will contrast with that which has come before. Let's take a closer look at the poem.

The first observation you might want to make is about the poem's title. A prologue is an introductory section of a literary work. What sort of work was this prologue introducing? Some background information is helpful here: this work introduced a set of poems about history called "The Four Monarchies." Yet in the first stanza, Bradstreet says that poems about wars and kings are too important for her humble abilities. She is saying one thing while doing exactly the opposite; therefore, what she seems to be saying may not be what she actually means—the very definition of irony.

In stanza 2, Bradstreet again manages to be humble and not so humble at the same time. First, she acknowledges that she will never write as well as the much-admired French poet Bartas. Even though she comes up short, however, she has nonetheless compared herself to an imposing figure. What would you think if you tell a friend that he is a good swimmer, but he "humbly" replies, "Well, I'm no Michael Phelps"? Michael Phelps has won more than a dozen Olympic gold medals in swimming. By comparing himself to such an elite figure, your friend is suggesting that he is a good swimmer. The humility of his words wouldn't necessarily seem sincere.

In the next couple of stanzas, Bradstreet provides examples of people who practice in order to improve their abilities. Even though she emphasizes the schoolboy's lack of artistry in stanza 3, he is by definition in school, learning, and refining his skill. The footnote helps you to better understand stanza 4; the "sweet tongued Greek" is Demosthenes, who overcame a speech defect to become a great orator. In stanza 5, Bradstreet anticipates that readers will disapprove of a woman writing poetry and doubt that the work is actually the result of her own talent, a real concern for her.

Even at the poem's end, Bradstreet continues to suggest that she is unworthy as a poet while also suggesting she deserves some honor. She says, "I ask no bays." This line refers to the traditional use of bay laurel leaves to make garland crowns as a way of honoring artistic accomplishments (99; see footnote). While she doesn't want that particular crown, she still expects some honor: "Give thyme or parsley wreath" (99). By carefully balancing both humility and self-assurance, Bradstreet comes across as quite modest even in the act of choosing her crown.

"The Author to Her Book"

A footnote to this poem on page 106 (and the introductory material, page 97) tells you that Bradstreet's brother-in-law published her work in England without her knowledge. This may be true, but a recent biographer of Bradstreet suggests that she was well aware that he had her manuscript and knew what he was going to do with it. Indeed, the story that the work had been published without her knowledge may have been a ruse to protect her in case the work was not well received by the public.

It may be obvious to you that in this poem Bradstreet speaks to her book (thus, the title of the poem) as if it is a child. On the surface, there is little in common between a child and a book, so the comparison is unusual. However, it makes sense: each is a sort of offspring of Bradstreet's feminine energy, biological in one case and creative in the other. And notice that the comparison is sustained throughout the entire poem. As you recall from the beginning of this lesson, an elaborate comparison between two dissimilar things is called a conceit.

Bradstreet seems to be expressing some of the same concerns we saw in "The Prologue." She is certainly modest about the quality of the work, acknowledging errors and conveying concern about how it will be judged. With images that suggest she is washing her child's dirty face, she tries to clean it up but seems to notice only more imperfections as a result. Perhaps you've had that same experience with your own writing: in trying to fix a problem spot, you seem to just make matters worse. Bradstreet describes her child by saying, "thou runst more hobbling than is meet" (line 16). That is, she suggests that the child runs awkwardly, perhaps because it is very young or because it is lame. Keeping in mind that the child is actually a book of poetry, uneven feet are of particular concern, although in the case of poetry the word feet refers to metrical feet (units of stressed and unstressed syllables). Poets, of course, want their poetry to be rhythmical, not awkward.

Another way in which this poem might be compared to "The Prologue" is that we can see that Bradstreet still wants full credit for her work. In "The Prologue" she worries that if her poetry is good, readers and critics won't believe the work is her own and, instead, will say "it's stol'n, or else it was by chance" (lines 29–30). Similarly, in this poem, she tells her "child" that if asked about a father, "say thou hadst none" (line 22). That is, Bradstreet is taking sole responsibility for her poetry. Despite any imperfections it may have, she is expressing pride and ownership for something that women were not expected to do and were believed by many to be intellectually incapable of doing. She doesn't want readers to think that a man contributed to the creation of her poetry. In both poems, pride and humility exist side by side.

Title page from the second edition of Anne Bradstreet's poems, published 1678 Figure 1.3. The second edition title page of Anne Bradstreet's poems, published 1678
"A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment"

The Puritans and sex

You may expect the Puritans to have been hush-hush about the topic of sex, but, in fact, ministers sometimes extolled its importance from the pulpit. As historian Edmund S. Morgan says in his book, American Heroes, "The Puritans were not ascetics; they never wished to prevent the enjoyment of earthly delights" (63). There were only two important limitations they placed upon sex: it must occur only in marriage, and it must not interfere with religion.

In this poem, Bradstreet expresses her love for her husband. She uses two types of imagery to show the close connection they have. The poem begins and ends with body imagery: head, heart, eyes, neck, flesh, and bone. Notice that her references are not to two bodies but instead help establish the notion that she and her husband are so close it is as if they are one person: "If two be one, as surely thou and I" (line 3). While the poem does not directly deal with the subject of physical intimacy between husband and wife, the presence of references to the human body in a love poem is subtly suggestive.

In the middle of the poem, we find nature/seasonal imagery: earth, sun, winter, and summer. The effect of this imagery is similar to the body imagery in that it describes the way Bradstreet feels in the relationship, especially when her husband is absent. She identifies herself as earth and her husband as the sun. Without him, she is left cold and without joy, just as in the winter season the absence of the sun leaves the earth cold and frozen. She pleads for her husband to come home: "Return, return, sweet Sol" (line 12), knowing that just as summer returns and brings warmth to the earth, his presence will likewise warm her heart. The intensity of emotion in the poem is surprising in light of the business-like title.

In this poem, as in the others, we see a balancing of opposites, such as winter and summer or husband and wife.

"Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666"

Although very religious and ever aware of possible signs foretelling their place with God in eternity, the Puritans nonetheless very much valued life here on earth. After all, God had made it and found it good, so it would be disrespectful to Him to turn their backs on the material world. Still, the material world would pass away and was insubstantial compared to heaven. The Puritans were faced with the dilemma of appreciating their mortal lives—but not too much. They were always trying to achieve a balance between this world and the spiritual world of salvation.

We can see that balancing act going on in Bradstreet's poem about the burning of her house. The poem begins by describing being awakened in the middle of the night to shouts of "Fire!" The poem begins on a human level, describing a fear that most readers can relate to. Although I hope you have not had such an experience, a house catching fire is a common worry that average people guard against today with smoke alarms and strategies for exiting their homes that they hope they'll never have to use in an actual emergency. When Bradstreet escapes from her burning home and looks back at the flames, she doesn't bemoan her loss. Instead, she praises God. All she possessed came from God to begin with, so it isn't unjust if God decides to take it away. From approximately lines 13 through 20, Bradstreet's attention shifts away from the material world to that of the divine world.

Parts of this poem may remind you of reading Bradford's text, because God's providence is important in this poem as it was in Bradford's history. For example, even though God chose to take away Bradstreet's home and all its belongings, she says, "yet sufficient for us left" (line 20). That is, she and her family were left with enough to get by. But the poem doesn't maintain a focus on the divine. Bradstreet can't help but feel sorrow as she thinks of all she has lost. She regrets the loss of material objects, her "pleasant things in ashes lie" (line 27), as well as the end of activities that will no longer occur as they once did: "Under thy roof no guest shall sit/Nor at thy table eat a bit" (lines 29–30).

The poem shifts back to a focus on the divine world and ends with a proper application of Puritan belief. Bradstreet chides herself for putting too much importance on her material belongings. She comes to see the loss of her house as a reminder of heaven, of God's "house on high erect" (line 43). But her path to this religious commitment has been a wavering one. Throughout the poem, her attention and feelings vacillate between love for the material world and for the divine world. This vacillation is another example of the balancing of opposites that we have seen in Bradstreet's poetry.

Works Cited

Bradford, William. "Of Plymouth Plantation." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 58–75.

Bradstreet, Anne. "The Prologue." 1650. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 98–99.

---. "The Author to Her Book." 1678. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 106–107.

---. "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment." 1678. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 108–109.

---. "Here Follows Some Versus upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666." 1867. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 109–110.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America. New York: Norton, 2009.

Practice Question

The question that follows is an identification question. This sort of question will appear on the midterm exam. Answer the following question as completely as you can before checking your answer with the one provided.

Note: This practice question is for your benefit only, and your answers should not be submitted for evaluation.

  1. "…in two or three months' time half of [the Pilgrims] died…there was but six or seven sound persons, who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes…and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren…."
    1. Author?
    2. Title?
    3. Identify one theme of this work and be specific in explaining how this passage relates to that theme.
    Grading rubric
    a. Identify correct author 1 point
    b. Identify correct title 1 point
    c. Identify correct theme 1 point
    Accuracy/full development of how passage relates to theme 2 point
    TOTAL: 5 points

    Sample Response:

    1. William Bradford
    2. Of Plymouth Plantation (pages 66–67)
    3. One theme of this work is about community. In the quoted passage, Bradford describes the Pilgrims' treatment of each other during times of sickness. The caring and close-knit nature of the Pilgrims is clearly a source of pride that Bradford wants to share with his readers. In comparison, he also describes the sailors' treatment of their sick comrades. When illness affects the sailors, they begin now to desert each other. Indeed, one sick sailor who is cared for by the Pilgrims sees the difference, commenting on their Christian-like behavior and noting how the sailors let each other die like dogs.