A dull account of the pilgrims

For many Americans, Plymouth and the Pilgrims exist somewhere in the realm of American mythology. It happened somewhere off the east coast of the United States and involved people from a distant time who came to a remote place to pursue religious freedom. They also wore black, had funny hats, and were a little grim. They wouldn’t have been fun at dinner parties. To mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in the so-called New World, numerous scholars had created works for the occasion, many of which aimed precisely at correcting the pilgrims’ mistakes and exposing the traditions that surround them. One may wonder what a non-COVID-19 memory of the Mayflower Landing would have looked like, but other activities marked the occasion, notably the Plymouth Plantation being renamed the Plimouth Patuxet Museum in June this year as well as the start of the 1620- Project, an answer to the New York Times’ 1619 project. This crowded space is also stepped by Carla Gardina Pestana of UCLA with The World of Plymouth Plantation.

While many cultural thinkers, politicians, and historians have pointed to Plymouth and other colonial settlements as part of the origin of the United States (in both complementary and negative ways), Pestana’s The World of Plymouth Plantation positions itself almost as an anti-origin story. According to Pestana, at the heart of this origin story is the fixation of how Plymouth was understood only as a “symbol of great, abstract concepts” that only serves to lay the foundation for an impending American democracy. This backward and sustained preoccupation, while understandable for most Americans, is not healthy in Pestana’s view and has generated all kinds of historical anachronisms. Fundamental to the world of Plymouth Plantation is the fact that the Pilgrims did not want to “start the world over”, but wanted to recreate and improve the world they already knew.

For this reason, instead of looking deeply into the lives of pilgrims, Pestana presents her world to readers. The book is rich in detail on what they ate, what they wore, what tools they hunted with, what songs they sang, and what houses they lived in. Beyond her materials and means, Pestana also conveys the settlers’ customs and beliefs about themselves, the land they were in, and those with whom they shared it. All of this is intentional in the hope of breaking away from the symbolic value of the Plymouth Plantation to American founding mythology and psychology and restoring it to a “real place where people lived, worked and died”. Its aim is to present “the reality of the life of its residents”.

Far from the paintings depicting a unified community, Pestana’s depiction emerges as a Plymouth colony of a transitory nature, a community that is almost always in flux.

Given the mythology that has developed around the pilgrims as separatists desperate to break away from England and lay the foundation for future American identity, Pestana emphasizes the “English” quality and character of the world that Plymouth has created. In this way Pestana reveals the great continuity that existed for the settlers as well as their desire to transport and recreate their English lifestyle on this new soil. Beyond the desire for English food and goods, Plymouth sought to establish English gender norms and class hierarchies. So, in many ways, they were “planters” interested in “transplanting the society they knew and the household work plans that made it possible”.

Much like John G. Turner, whom they knew were pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the competition for American freedom, Pestana is pushing against the idea that Plymouth is an ignored backwater or an isolated outpost. While Turner highlights the networks the Plymouth Colony has built between the other English settlements and the events in the motherland, Pestana highlights immigration to and from Plymouth, as well as trade with Plymouth from the rest of Europe. Much of this networking was driven out of survival and economic interest, but with the movement of goods and people (as well as people sold as goods) came competing ideas and beliefs. Far from the paintings depicting a unified community, a Plymouth colony emerges of a temporary nature, a community that is almost always in flux. But while people may come and go, the real theme of Pestana’s work, the world they were trying to create, is far more solid.

The book breaks down into some of the most important objects, things and roles of the Plymouth Plantation, such as “women”, “weapons”, “god”, “tobacco”, “furs” and “books” to name a few. Almost all of these chapters and their associated sections are incredibly short and thorough. All of this makes for easy but educational reading. However, the lack of focus on human and historical actors brings with it one of the core problems facing The World of Plymouth plantation. Unfortunately, for all the wonderful details about what clothing settlers dressed and how they cooked their meals, the book is incredibly lifeless. In the absence of a narrative behind the study, the flow of the book cannot help but feel uncomfortable and make the reader wonder who such descriptions might apply to.

Material stories certainly have their place, and they have grown in popularity and influence both inside and outside the academy. Such studies, however, require the “thick description” advocated by Clifford Geertz in order to better understand the world under study. I found this particularly true of Pestanta’s all-too-brief dealings with the infamous Thomas Morton. Given her interest in materials, I expected Morton and his maypole to be the perfect figure for her to bring out the intersection of ideas, objects, and people. But that wasn’t meant to be, and just like the other characters in the book, Morton, the man, was already in the distance. Since so many of the other books on Plymouth have focused on the people within and around the colony, Pestana’s contribution is best consumed as additional reading. It will certainly improve the knowledge of those familiar with the Plymouth Plantation people, but I do not recommend it to the uninitiated.

The World of Plymouth Plantation is admirable and undeniably illuminating in its mythical properties, but is limited by its lack of human focus.

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