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Anne Bradstreet: America's First Poet

Cover of Charlotte Gordon's <i>Mistress Bradstreet</i>.
Cover of Charlotte Gordon's Mistress Bradstreet.
Author Charlotte Gordon is also a poet, and has published two volumes of her own work.
Author Charlotte Gordon is also a poet, and has published two volumes of her own work.

Anne Bradstreet was a reluctant settler in America, a Puritan who migrated from her beloved England in the 1600s. She became America's first poet, and a new biography details her life. Scott Simon speaks with poet Charlotte Gordon, author of Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet.

Excerpt from Mistress Bradstreet, by Charlotte Gordon


AFTER SEVENTY-SEVEN DAYS AT SEA, one Captain Milbourne steered his ship, the Arbella - packed with more than three hundred hungry, exhausted souls - into Salem Harbor, shooting off the ship's cannon in elation. It was early in the morning of June 12, 1630, a date that would prove to be more fateful to America than the more-famous 1492, but if either the captain or his hapless passengers had expected any kind of fanfare from the New World itself, they were to be disappointed. Far from offering herself up for casual and easy delectation, America hunched like a dark animal, sleeping and black, offering no clues about her contours, let alone the miracles reported by the rumor mill of the 1620s: inland seas, dragons, Indians adorned in golden necklaces, fields sown with diamonds, and bears as tall as windmills.

To the bedraggled individuals who clung to the rails of this huge flagship, once a battleship in the Mediterranean wars against Turkish pirates and now the first vessel of its kind to have successfully limped across the ocean from England, it must have seemed cruel that they would have to wait until dawn before they could glimpse this world that still swam just out of their reach. Most of the passengers, however, were pious individuals and bowed their heads in acquiescence to the Lord's will. But the few rebellious souls, and there were some notable firebrands onboard the Arbella, could not help but find themselves feeling more discontented than ever.

One in particular, a young woman of about eighteen years, could not subdue her resentment. She wished that the new land would never appear before her eyes, that she had never been ripped away from her beloved England, even that she had perished in the waters they had just crossed rather than face what would come next. Not that she admitted her fears to any of the other passengers pacing on the deck that morning. Anne Dudley Bradstreet was the daughter of Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley, the second in command of the expedition, and was too acutely aware of her responsibilities to show her feelings of resentment.

To her, though, it seemed an outrageous venture to have undertaken. To most English people, it was a foolhardy one as well. With the exception of the notorious Pilgrims, who had arrived in Cape Cod in 1620, whom Captain Milbourne and his passengers regarded as crazed radicals with admirable ideals but little common sense, few Englishmen and even fewer women had braved this terrible journey to Massachusetts. For the weary passengers onboard the Arbella, the greatest challenge they had to stare down was not starvation, storms, plague, whales, or even Indians. Instead it was the astonishing mystery they faced: Where were they going? What would it be like when they set foot on land? America had seemed as impossible as a fairy tale, and yet suddenly, in the next few hours, it was about to become miraculously real.

It was difficult not to speculate. Maybe there would be wild vineyards laden with grapes. Maybe tigers would spring up out of the water. Maybe the settlers would die immediately of some New World fever or get eaten by giant creatures. Maybe, though, they had finally arrived in the land of milk and honey, which was what some of the preachers back home had hinted at. If England was a corrupt country, then America had every possibility of being a new chance, the promised land, a Canaan that offered not only respite but also fame, glory, and God's approval.

Anne remained unconvinced by such heady forecasts. But she had learned to hide her doubts from those who watched to see how the deputy governor's eldest daughter behaved. Only many years later did she admit how resistant she had been to coming to America. When "I found a new world and new manners," she wrote, "my heart rose," meaning not that she rejoiced but that she retched.1 Certainly she had no idea of the fame that lay ahead for her. Indeed, only a seer, the kind of mystic that Anne would have dismissed as idly superstitious, or worse, as a sinister dabbler in witchcraft, could have prophesied that within twenty years this seemingly unremarkable young woman - intelligent and passionate as she may have been - would spearhead England's most dramatic venture, the creation of a thriving colony in America, and assume her place as one of the significant people in the English-speaking world.

BUT ALL OF THIS excitement and good fortune lay hidden in the future, while the present consisted of a frightening new continent swathed in darkness. Nor did things improve as the sun grew stronger. The shadows gave way to forest and a beach, and finally, the growing light revealed a rocky, uneven-looking land, remarkable more for what was missing than for what was present.

Here there were no chimneys or steeples. No windmills, crenellated turrets, wheat fields, or cities. No orchards, hedgerows, cottages, or grazing sheep. No shops, carts, or roads to travel on. This was true emptiness. Anne had known this would be the case, but the shock was still overwhelming. Granted, there were also no bishops who hated them, and the merciless king who seemed intent on the destruction of Anne's people was thousands of miles away. But for this eighteen-year-old and many of her fellow travelers, the thrill of escaping those foes had long since dissipated in the face of the "great waters" they had just crossed. Now, staring at this hulking continent, it was clear to the faithful that only the hand of their God could protect them from the dangers ahead. The only other reassuring consideration was that here was plenty of land for the picking and enough timber for everyone to build a house and barn and keep warm all winter long - a refreshing difference from England, where wood was so scarce that stealing lumber was punishable by death.

Despite the uncertainty they faced after their long days at sea, most of the travelers were understandably eager to feel solid earth beneath their feet. Before they could disembark, however, Governor John Winthrop, Deputy Governor Dudley, and Anne's husband, Simon Bradstreet, announced that a small group would go to inspect the settlement in Salem that had been, they hoped, successfully "planted" by the advance party they had sent the year before. This courageous band of men had been charged to clear land, erect homes, and plant crops to help support the Arbella's passengers when they arrived. But Winthrop and Dudley had received only a few letters from these pioneers, and although they had been optimistic and full of good cheer, no word had been received for many months, triggering concerns that the little group had not survived the winter. Perhaps the new arrivals would find only a shattered village and the dismal remains of their comrades.

No one could discern the settlement's condition from the Arbella's anchorage. The great ship had lowered its sails about a mile away from shore to avoid any mishaps with hidden rocks or shallow waters. As a result, they would have to row for nearly an hour to find out what had happened in Salem. Anne may have been one of the few to hope that she would not be on this first exploratory mission ashore. However, it soon became clear that her father expected her, her mother, and her three younger sisters to climb down into the tiny skiff that lay tossing up and down in the waves. None of them could swim. But in Anne's world, a good daughter was, by definition, someone who obeyed her parents without question, and so she had little choice but to sweep her sisters along and guide them over the rails of the ship.

Over the years, Anne had become accustomed to yielding to Dudley's outrageous commands, whether they were spurred by his Puritan piety or by his innate sense of adventure. Still, this particular challenge was worse than usual. The tiny boat, or "shallop," was frighteningly unsteady, and these smaller vessels were notorious for their frequent capsizing. In fact, in the months to come, as boat after boat arrived from England, a few unfortunate individuals who had survived the months at sea would suffer the indignity of drowning a few hundred feet from dry land when their shallops overturned en route to the shore.

The sharp, whitened rocks of New England's ragged coastline seemed inhospitable and foreign to Anne and her family, but in the years leading up to their migration, these travelers had been prepared by their ministers to view their arrival in the New World as a return of sorts. It was a leap in logic that made sense to a people who had been taught to compare their "bondage" in England to the Israelites' in Egypt, and who saw their journey to the New World as a reprise of the Jews' famous exodus to the promised land.

In fact, to seal their intimate relationship with God, some of the most devout Puritans suggested that everyone learn Hebrew, so that the only language spoken in New England would be the same as in Scripture. This proposal soon faded away, probably because the non-Puritans onboard complained bitterly. At any rate, such an ambitious project was far too steep for a people who would have to till fields, saw boards, dig wells, slaughter pigs, and fend off diseases, wolves, and other wild creatures from the moment they stepped ashore.

As the water splashed over the bow of the flimsy boat and a strange land loomed ahead, Anne knew she was not supposed to be yearning for the Old World. But for someone who had loved her life in England as much as Anne had, this was a difficult proposition. Even if the Old World had truly been the "Egypt" of her captivity, as they drew closer to the shore, America gave no evidence of being the biblical land of vineyards, honey, and olive trees that her father had promised her. Instead, it soon became clear that a disaster had occurred.

The tiny colony had all but collapsed during the winter. What remained was truly a pitiful sight: just a few acres of cleared land, littered with a motley collection of thatch-roofed huts and hovels. The surrounding forest contained the tallest, widest trees Anne had ever seen, and the two-hundred-foot pines seemed like gigantic monstrosities, terrible deviations that bore little resemblance to the slender poplars, willows, and ashes back home. If the size of the trees was any indication, what of the wild creatures that lurked in their shade?

The inhabitants of Salem who had come out onto the beach to greet them were even more dreadful to look at than the landscape. Many of them appeared to be weaker than the sickest passengers on the Arbella, with their bones visible through papery skin. The outpost, it turned out, had endured a brutal winter, losing eighty people to starvation and illness. The survivors seemed lethargic and defeated. Many were invalids or were disoriented, withdrawn, and sullen, as is often the case with people suffering from scurvy, one of the diseases responsible for the devastation. Some of these sad souls also exhibited an incoherence that suggested they were drunk, while others seemed strangely drugged from the strong Indian tobacco that they smoked incessantly.

For once, Anne could take comfort from the fact that she was not alone in her misgivings. It was clear to Winthrop, and Dudley, too, that Salem was not Canaan. Despite the coolness of their sea-soaked clothes, the summer heat was oppressive. The stench given off by the little settlement was rancid and nauseating, its weak residents having resorted to emptying their bowels behind their own homesteads, covering the fecal matter with dirt. To the newcomers, it seemed that the Englishmen they had sent to improve the land had instead deteriorated into savages, and that the wilderness, instead of being subdued, had succeeded in toppling the forces of civilization. Further proof lay in the fact that the settlers had been unable to create adequate shelter for themselves. The laziest had dug caves in the hillside. Others had erected flimsy wooden huts. At best these structures had a wattle-and-daub chimney, a wooden door if the denizens had been industrious, and sometimes one small paper window. The dirt floors of all these dwellings were lined with reeds and wild grasses in a futile attempt to ward off the rain, cold, and damp.

To the new arrivals, however, the structures that were most disturbing were the odd "English wigwams." These were made from "small poles prick't into the ground" that were "bended and fastened at the tops." Like tepees, they were "matted with boughs and covered with sedge and old mats." Copied as they were from Indian dwellings, these tiny hovels could only appear "little and homely" to the eyes of the English, since anything Indian was not worthy of Christians like themselves.

With this array of miserable homesteads, no one was even slightly heartened by the majesty of the pine groves, the gloriously uneven headlands, or even the blue noontime sky. Instead the land seemed lifeless, full of death and waste. Of course, this was an astonishingly arrogant viewpoint. New England was far from being the "empty" land that the English proclaimed it to be in order to assert their rights. In fact, this "desert," as the Puritans called it, had been cleared for centuries by the Massachusetts, the tribe that dominated the bay region.

Though their numbers had been depleted by contact with the 1620 Pilgrims and their diseases, especially smallpox, the best estimations of Indian population suggest that as many as one hundred thousand Native Americans continued to make their living along the shores of the bay. It should have been obvious to the Puritan leaders that the land had been cleared before. The groves that the settlers had at first termed "untrackable" were in fact full of paths and almost entirely free of undergrowth thanks to the Indians' forestry skills. But most settlers, including Anne, saw the improvements that the Indians had made to the land as a divine gift rather than as a sign of Indian expertise.

Needing to rest after their long morning's journey, Anne, her husband, and the other leaders repaired to what the settlers called the "great house," where Governor John Endecott, the gruff old soldier who had headed the advance party, made his home. This simple wooden structure, which had only two rooms on the ground floor and two rooms above, had originally housed the first Englishmen who had attempted to make a living from fishing the Cape Ann waters. The house had been floated, intact, along the shore from Gloucester; no one in Salem had attempted to build such a structure. Although to Anne it seemed like the house of a poor peasant family, it was the height of technological achievement for the colonists. Its boards alone represented long hours of labor in a sawpit.

Once inside, there were not enough chairs and benches to go around. The two tiny rooms were dank and smelled of old smoke, sweat, and dirty linens. Yet despite their poverty, Endecott and his men used up the last of their provisions and prepared a delicious meal of "good venison pasty and good beer"-a supper fit for princes back home in England.7 The tales they had to tell, however, were every bit as grim as Salem itself. The winter had been colder than anything they had ever experienced. The food supplies of the poorest settlers had run out. They had had to rely on help from the Indians and from the few scattered old planters, adventurous Englishmen who had come to New England a few years earlier. These men were generous with aid even though Endecott had asked them to leave their plots in Salem to make room for Winthrop's party. But this kind of scattered assistance could do little to ward off the disaster they faced, and even Endecott and his second in command, the minister Francis Higginson, had been weakened by their travails.

It was with dismay, then, that the Salem men discovered that Winthrop's people had actually looked forward to being fed by their struggling little community. Endecott had been counting on the arrival of fresh supplies from the Winthrop fleet; now a crisis seemed imminent. Somehow Dudley and Winthrop would have to solve the problem of food and shelter before the treacherous frosts brought them to their deaths, and they would have to do this without any help from the Salem party. In fact, the Arbella's leaders felt that the frailty of the little settlement could easily demoralize the rest of the passengers.

Impelled no doubt by anxiety-it was already June, and everyone knew they had no time to plant crops, very little food left, and only a few months to erect homes-Winthrop and Dudley got right down to business, brusquely relieving Endecott of his command and asserting their own leadership. This is no more than Endecott expected, and he told the leaders about a deserted Indian settlement taken over by some of the Salemites who had been desperate for a fresh start and "champion land." The English had named the place Charlestown, and Endecott emphasized that not only was it just a short sail away but there was also plenty of tillage suitable for planting. He had even had his men build a simple house and temporary structures there for members of Winthrop's party to inhabit.

Endecott's idea suited Winthrop and Dudley, who were eager to put some distance between their own party and the squalor of Salem. Although Anne must have been relieved as it gradually became clear that they would not have to stay in the depressing settlement, the idea of continuing their journey only raised more questions. What would they find farther south? Charlestown was a vague, shadowy place. While Winthrop and Dudley finalized their plans to go farther down the coast, Anne, her mother and sisters, and their friends soon discovered that peeking out of the undergrowth were wild strawberries. When they ventured a little way from the great house, they found that the ground was carpeted with the fruit and with the white flowers that promised more.

To the women, this bounty seemed to have sprung out of the earth unbidden. But here was another example of the industry of the Indians, who had followed an ingenious agricultural rotation of fields, clearing more land than they needed so that some of the earth could stand fallow. As a result, almost no soil erosion had occurred; the earth was rich with nutrients. Since the epidemic that had reduced their numbers, the Indians had left the ground untilled for a number of years, giving the wild fruits of the region the freedom to multiply.

The women spent the rest of their afternoon in a paradise they had not anticipated. The weather was warm, the air was gentle, and as the daylight glimmered into evening, they rejoiced not only in the sweet fruit but also in the simple pleasure of being on shore. Maybe Eden was not so far off. But in case any of the berry pickers had forgotten they were not in the calm of the English countryside, as night fell, an unfamiliar pest began to swarm around their necks, ears, and eyes. Mosquitoes. There had been no such insects back in England. English gnats were small and persistent, but they were nowhere near as fierce as these American insects. No amount of swatting could clear away the ruthless clouds, so the women hastily headed back to shelter.

When they had reached the safety of Endecott's great house, however, Anne and the others encountered a group of strange-looking men standing near the fire inside the old governor's dwelling. The first Indians Anne had ever seen had come to investigate the arrival of the new English boat. Even from a safe distance, Anne could smell the bitter odor from the herbs they had painted on their skin to defend against insects, various diseases, and the white man. And they were almost completely bare. Their chests and legs were shiny, hairless, muscled, and lean. They wore their hair long and loose like a woman getting ready for bed; a few even had on ropes of shell necklaces.

Englishwomen were not allowed to gaze upon naked men - if indeed these Indians were entirely male. To the English, the Indians seemed a confusing mix of male and female, smooth and hard, warrior and girl, and such confusion was unacceptable. Indeed, English society was grounded in the distinctions between the sexes. Anne's own roles in life - dutiful daughter and loving wife - were predicated on these assumptions; the Indians' apparent disregard for everything that she had been trained to value was deeply disturbing. After a series of awkward exchanges, characterized by the incomprehensible formality of the Indians and the short bursts of translation by one of the old planters who spoke a little of their language, it soon became clear that the Indians would like to examine the Arbella. It was at this point that Anne, her sisters, and the other women appear to have made their first independent decision of the day. Winthrop reported that the ladies elected to stay on land and camp out with the colonists.

Despite the welcome novelty of finally sleeping on land again, for Anne and her companions there was no escaping the fact that this new country was more unpleasant and far more strange than anyone had realized it would be. As she tried to go to sleep, the distant howls of wild animals shook the night air, and Anne wondered how long she would be able to endure this terrible new country.

Unfortunately, her fears were well founded. Between April and December of that first year, more than two hundred of the one thousand immigrants died. Two hundred more fled back to England on the first available boat. One colonist, Edward Johnson, reported that "almost in every family lamentation, mourning, and woe was heard."

But good fortune lay ahead, too. Against all odds and in the midst of unthinkable hardships - privation, freezing cold and blistering heat, hunger, disease, loneliness, and self-doubt - Anne would raise eight children to adulthood, help found three different towns, and run the family's busy household. Even more remarkably, she would find the strength and the time to write verse, diligently and fiercely, until finally in 1650 she had compiled enough poems to publish a book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. To her surprise, her words would catch fire and she would become the voice of an era and of a new country. Having composed the anthems of a faith, she would be famous.

Anne Bradstreet's work would challenge English politics, take on the steepest theological debates, and dissect the history of civilization. She would take each issue by the scruff of the neck and shake hard until the stuffing spilled out; no important topic of the day would be off-limits, from the beheading of the English king to the ascendancy of Puritanism, from the future of England to the question of women's intellectual powers. Furthermore, she would shock Londoners into enraged attention by predicting that America would one day save the English-speaking world from destruction. Hers would be the first poet's voice, male or female, to be heard from the wilderness of the New World.

What would draw people to her was not just the glitter of her words but the story that lay behind the poems, a story that began in England long before The Tenth Muse, and long before the day she set sail on the first boat of the Great Migration to America. Not that Anne could have imagined such an extraordinary future for herself when she was growing up back in England, a well-bred gentleman's daughter. If she wanted anything back then, it was to stay in one familiar place and learn to be a good Christian wife and mother.

Copyright © 2005 by Charlotte Gordon

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.