William Bradford Criticism

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G. Cuthbert Blaxland (essay date 1896)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “William Bradford, as Author, Man, and Statesman,” in “Mayflower” Essays on The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers, Ward & Downey Ltd., 1896, pp. 100-29.

[In this excerpt, published only a few decades after the discovery of the Bradford manuscript, Blaxland offers one of the earliest scholarly discussions of Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. Blaxland considers Bradford's style and influences, and attempts to show a deep connection between Bradford the individual and Bradford the historian.]

In the History of Plymouth Plantation we have William Bradford presented to us in the aspect of author, autobiographer, and historian. Of course the History is the chief, indeed the only consciously undertaken object of his writing. And as a history, from the importance of the events he chronicles and from his unique relation to them, as well as from its own intrinsic merit, his work is beyond price. But a history of events so essentially connected with his name and influence, of which it was so true, though he would never have said it, quorum pars magna fui, becomes an involuntary autobiography. It was not his desire to pose before the world. On the contrary, he keeps himself severely in the background, and hardly ever permits himself to appear in the story except under the impersonal designation of the “Governor.” Hardly an allusion personal to himself occurs, except in some annotations made later in life. But this reticence both in what he tells us, and in what he keeps to himself, is strongly characteristic, and adds another expressive, though unconscious, touch to the autobiographical portrait. As an author, his conception and treatment of his subject, his style, language, and, not least, handwriting itself, have all a high degree of literary interest as specimens of the English of the time, and of the culture attained by a man of the people. But there is an interest deeper still in tracing the character of the man in the style of the author, even as the man himself is formed by the history which he relates.

Governor Bradford's manuscript is a large quarto of some 280 pages, written for the most part on one side of the paper only, though in some parts the History covers both sides; and some of the blank pages are used for additional notes written by Bradford himself at a later period, and for a few subsequent annotations by Mr. Thomas Prince, who used the work for his “New England Chronology.” There are a few straggling entries of facts, relating to the later history of the book, written on the outer leaves. The first few pages are used by Bradford as a note-book for his Hebrew Studies. The History occupies 270 pages, and is followed by an Appendix giving a record of the persons who came over in the first ship, written in 1650. Against Bradford's own name someone has written “who dyed 9th of May 1658,” and has also added a few notes as to survivors of the first party as late as 1698. The volume is bound in white vellum like an account-book, and is somewhat discoloured.

The History itself is written in handwriting of singular clearness (the letters all formed separately), suggestive of unwearied patience and conscientiousness. In some places it is minute and close, with 59 lines of, on an average, 16 words to the line, in a column of 10 × 7 in., every letter formed with a distinctness as perfect as that of printing. On other pages the writing is larger and less regular. The work falls into two divisions. The first part consists of an introductory chapter, leading to the story of the flight to Leyden and of the subsequent history of the Pilgrims, up to the point of their discovery and occupation of New Plymouth. With their establishment in their new home the writer begins his second book, prefacing it with these words:

The rest of this history (If God give me life, and opportunitie) I shall for brevitie sake, handle by way of annalls, noteing only the heads of principall things and passages as they fell in order of time; and may...

(The entire section is 103,255 words.)