The Pilgrim story is at the heart of the American story. It’s the idea that anyone can come here looking for a fresh start, where they can carve their own path based on their own values and beliefs, and where, if they work hard enough, they can be successful.
But the Pilgrims who came here in 1620 might be surprised to know that’s how they are seen today. How did that story develop and change over the centuries? It was not just through the history books. American writers imagined the story of the Pilgrims and Puritans in historical fiction, and their work is just as influential, if not more so, than the historians in shaping our understanding of their contributions to American life.
Nearly every American is familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, and those who really paid attention in their English classes might also know about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish. But only a very few know about novels like A Peep at the Pilgrims in 1636, Standish of Standish, or The Plymouth Adventure. And yet those novels, bestsellers in their own time, reached far more American readers than the history books did.
Since starting my research, I’ve identified 85+ works of fiction that tell the story of the Pilgrims and/or the Puritans. Some went into multiple printings; others barely sold. Some writers wanted to glorify the historical figures; others wanted to tarnish them. My goal is to explore those long-forgotten texts and explain how they shaped the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans into the one we know today.
I wrote my PhD in 2015 on the American author Jane Goodwin Austin, a writer who deserves more notice for her role in shaping American history. But while my dissertation focused on Austin, I’m now examining all of the American writers who engaged with the Pilgrim narrative in some way. Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, James Fenimore Cooper, and John Neal are just a few of the nineteenth-century writers who wrote historical fiction about Puritans and/or Pilgrims, in addition to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. So far I have identified over 70 texts, and I continue to add to my list on a fairly regular basis. I’m also interested in the material culture of Pilgrim memorabilia, from high culture to kitsch, but I’ve limited my own collection to books and one Pilgrim Barbie.
I’m a native Floridian, but I’ve been obsessed with the New England area since my first visit in 1986, when I insisted that my mom take me to Concord so I could lay flowers on Louisa May Alcott’s grave and visit Orchard House. We visited Plimoth Plantation and have fond memories of joking with Mayflower II sailors. I even married a native New Englander, but one who relocated to the South for warmer weather, so (for now) we live in Georgia, where I teach freshman composition and American literature.