Friday, November 07, 2008

Saints and Strangers

Our book today is Saints and Strangers, George Willison’s much-celebrated and hugely enjoyable 1945 best-seller about, as his droll period-subtitle informs us, “the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers & Their Families, with Their Friends & Foes; & an Account of Their Posthumous Wanderings in Liimbo, Their Final Resurrection & Rise to Glory, & the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock.”

Willison is at pains throughout his book to remind his readers that he’s talking about the Pilgrims not the Puritans, their straight-laced, humorless, and entirely less fun neighbors. He takes great joy in noting the difference, and indeed, his delightful book is based on that joy, on the remarkable robustness of his subjects:

They practiced no macerations of the flesh, no tortures of self-denial. They appreciated the pleasures of the table and of the bottle, liking both “strong waters” and beer, especially the latter, never complaining more loudly of their hardships than when necessity reduced them to drinking water, which they always regarded with suspicion as a prolific source of human ills. They were not monks or nuns in their intimate relations as their usually numerous families and more than occasional irregularities attest. Fond of the comforts of connubial bed and board, they married early and often and late, sometimes within a few weeks of losing a mate.

As his subtitle indicates, Willison concentrates a chunk of his book on the Pilgrims’ posthumous reputation, singling out the Victorian era as the time when they took on the schoolbook form in which most Americans currently know them. Willison is quick and consistent to point out how wrong this form is; “Far from being Victorians,” he writes, “they were children of another and a greater age, the Elizabethan …” Fortunately, the Pilgrims and their direct descendants left behind rather copious written records, so Willison is able to quote liberally from letters, official documents, and such weird and engrossing books as Of Plimoth Plantation by the insufferable priggish William Bradford, whose descendants have come to no good (including his eldest son, who, after many a false start in life, ended up in a godforsaken place called Norwich, Connecticut).

Life is the main gist of Willison’s narrative, the stress of how these brave, covetous, often clueless men and women who voyaged to America in the early 1600’s were living, breathing beings taking the greatest gamble of their lives. Willison clearly loves their bawling company:

Given to speaking their minds plainly, they expressed themselves in the language of Marlowe and Shakespeare, in the torrential and often rafter-shaking rhetoric of Elizabethan England, with no slightest regard for the proprieties and circumlocutions of a later day.

America in November 2008 has cause to think both of new hope and of voyaging to uncharted territories, and so Willison’s subjects seem more vital than ever. No better introduction to those subjects has ever been written (or seems likely in the future) than Saints and Strangers, and it’s had a long and very successful life as a book, so editions will be easy to come by (the one pictured, published by Parnassus many moons ago, is simply my favorite for aesthetic reasons).

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