When America Was Rocked Essay

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Maybe because Bradford’s history ends abruptly, in 1647, most Americans’ sense of what happened to the Pilgrims vaguely trails off, too, sometime after Massasoit, a Wampanoag Indian, taught them to plant corn and joined them for the first Thanksgiving, but long before Plymouth and those same Indians went to war.

In 1675, Massasoit’s son Metacom, called King Philip by the English, launched a war against Plymouth and, eventually, against Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Connecticut, too.

He spent nearly all his career at Harvard; he entered as a freshman in 1904, and retired, an endowed professor, in 1955.

Summers he spent sailing: he loved nothing so much as the ocean.

And, unfortunately, by the time the Pilgrims go ashore, readers have learned more about things like the Mayflower’s sounding leads (“the deep-sea or ‘dipsy’ lead, which weighed between forty and one hundred pounds and was equipped with 600 feet of line, and the smaller ‘hand-lead,’ just seven to fourteen pounds with 120 feet of line”) than about its passengers’ religious convictions (“A Puritan believed that everything happened for a reason”). But with every sway and pitch of its decks readers are lulled into believing that the people on board, swaying and pitching in winds we can feel, clutching at ropes we can touch, were just like us. Philbrick, a former all-American sailor and Sunfish-racing champion who lives on Nantucket, seems, at first glance, to be following in Morison’s wake.

Waves slosh through all of his books, whose titles sound like the names of sea chanties: “Sea of Glory,” “Away Off Shore,” “Second Wind,” and “In the Heart of the Sea,” the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction.

In 1620, Bradford crossed what he called “the vast and furious ocean” on board the Mayflower, a hundred-and-eighty-ton, three-masted, square-rigged merchant vessel, its cramped berths filled with forty other religious dissenters who wanted to separate from the Church of England, and some sixty rather less pious passengers who were in search of nothing so much as adventure.

Bradford called these “profane” passengers “Strangers,” but to modern sensibilities they can feel more familiar than, say, William Brewster, who brought along a son named Wrestling, short for “wrestling with God.”The colony that William Bradford helped plant on the windswept western shore of Cape Cod Bay was tiny, and it shrank before it grew; by 1650, its population had not yet reached a thousand. Between 16, he was elected governor every year but five.

In wilderness he did me guide,and in strange lands for me provide.

In fears and wants, through weal and woe, A Pilgrim passed I to and fro.


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