(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In 1620, 102 English passengers, many of whom were religious dissidents, crowded onto a small ship christened the Mayflower and embarked on a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to found a community based on biblical ideals. Their historic voyage and subsequent settlement in the New World became the cornerstone on which a great nation was built. The seeds of myth, however, are often sowed in the soil of history, and the story of the Pilgrims is no exception.

In 1741, an elderly Plymouth resident claimed that his father, a Mayflower passenger, pointed out the very boulder where the Pilgrims had first set foot in the New World, giving birth to the legend of Plymouth Rock. Over the years, legend intertwined with symbolism, as the rock came to represent the solid ideals on which the United States was founded. The Mayflower Compact was hailed by Revolutionary War patriots and their descendants as a document that prefigured the Constitution. The iconic image of the Pilgrims and their native neighbors sitting down to a fall feast spread out on a white cloth-covered table originated in Victorian America after Abraham Lincoln instituted a national day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War. Writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wed legend to history in his poem The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), the story of a supposed love triangle between three Mayflower passengersthe stalwart John Alden, the swashbuckling Miles Standish, and the impish Priscilla Mullins.

Washington Irving focuses on a different aspect of the Pilgrims’ legacy in his essay “Philip of Pokanoket” (1820), recounting the events leading up to the devastating King Philip’s War, which took place during 1675-1676 between the Indians and the English. Irving recasts the renegade Metacomet, or Philip, the leader of the native rebellion, as a “patriot attached to his native soil” and “a prince true to his subjects, and indignant of their wrongs.” In Irving’s retrospective, Philip’s battle against English oppression parallels the cause of American Revolutionary War patriots. As the years passed, however, King Philip’s War was largely ignored by historians. In Mayflower, a superb study of the original settlers and their legacy, Nathaniel Philbrick observes: “In the American popular imagination, the nation’s history began with the Pilgrims and then leapfrogged more than 150 years to Lexington and Concord and the Revolution.”

In his fresh take on the story of the Pilgrims, Philbrick attempts to demythologize the familiar tale of the early New England settlers and reclaim the lost years between the first Thanksgiving and 1776. Although the title of his book is Mayflower, Philbrick spends little time on the voyage itself. In his view, the landing of the square-rigged merchant vessel is the beginning of a complex, little-acknowledged period in American history, the reverberations of which continue to be felt in modern times.

His main purpose is to dissect the often complicated relationship between the English and the various native tribes to reveal the root causes of King Philip’s War. Exposing the disturbing influence of intolerance, greed, and racism, his portrayal of the settlers’ often violent and deceitful behavior toward the Indians is a far cry from the sanitized version of cooperation and respect that is presented to grammar school children in annual Thanksgiving Day pageants. In fact, Philbrick’s retelling of the history of the Plymouth colony replaces “the story we already know” with “the story we need to know.”

Philbrick lays the foundation for his history by briefly going over familiar ground: the Pilgrims’ sojourn in Leiden, the Netherlands; their hiring of the Mayflower; their ocean voyage; the institution of the Compact; and their eventual colonization of Plymouth. Along the way he includes information that is often left out of the history books. For example, the settlers’ original destination was the mouth of the Hudson River, but because of treacherous seas, the ship’s master, Christopher Jones, made the momentous decision to head to Cape Cod. Therefore the settlers did not make their first landfall at the site of their future colony but instead mounted an overland expedition headed by the pugnacious Captain Standish to explore the sandy shores of Provincetown Harbor. One of their first encounters with native culture foreshadowed the later sense of entitlement their descendants would feel toward the Indians. When Standish and his company of...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 12 (February 15, 2006): 4.

The Boston Sunday Globe, May 7, 2006, p. E6.

The Economist 379 (May 6, 2006): 82-83.

Library Journal 131, no. 6 (April 1, 2006): 108.

The New York Times 155 (May 4, 2006): E1-E9.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (June 4, 2006): 10.

The New Yorker 82, no. 10 (April 24, 2006): 164-170.

Newsweek 147, no. 18 (May 1, 2006): 63.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 17 (April 24, 2006): 20-21.

USA Today, May 18, 2006, p. 6D.