A Peep at the Pilgrims: Part One

A Peep at the Pilgrims: Part One

While I’m passionate about recovering the works of forgotten women writers, I also concede that some works have been forgotten for a reason. Harriet Vaughan Foster Cheney’s A Peep at the Pilgrims in 1636: A Tale of Olden Times probably won’t spark much interest among modern readers unless they like the didactic, heavily moralizing style of the earlier nineteenth century.

Although the plot centers around the burgeoning (and forbidden!) romance developing between the English Edward Atherton and the Puritan Miriam Grey, there is suspenseful intrigue when Grey is captured by the Pequots, and various characters provide comic relief, the novel is a fairly slow read. It’s no longer in print, but my print-on-demand copy runs to 462 pages.

But Cheney is a good writer, with a talent for describing the natural landscape and developing the voices of her characters, even though they remain rather flat types. Miriam Grey, despite her sweetness and beauty, is an early prototype of the hardy pioneer woman celebrated in the second-half of the century. As a heroine, though, her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness so as to remain obedient to her father and her religion becomes a little grating, especially after several scenes of passionate renunciation.

If Miriam Grey is the ideal new American woman, then Edward Atherton is the ideal new American man; he is brave, tough, honest, pious, and steadfast. In a storm, he can save the boat; in war, he can defend his people not only through his battle skills, but his negotiating skills as well. As a couple, they remind me of Maria Van Rough and Colonel Henry Manly from Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast.

Maria Van Rough and Miriam Grey are both exemplars of Republican motherhood. Grey’s father only wants “the satisfaction of seeing [his] descendants rising up to honor and advance those civil and religious institutions, of which we, ‘through much tribulation,’ have laid the ‘foundation stone’” (172), a sentence which is far from the only example of Cheney’s moralizing.

I didn’t read A Peep at the Pilgrims for my dissertation, although I knew of its existence at the time. Instead, I chose Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827) and Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok (1824) to examine along with Austin’s Standish of Standish (1889). The antebellum novels, loosely based on history, provided good contrasts to Austin’s post-Civil War mindset and her fidelity to the historical record.

All three novels feature strong, fairly progressive heroines, even though there are debates as to whether or not the endings of Hobomok and Hope Leslie defy the patriarchy or reinscribe it. Priscilla Mullins in Standish certainly conforms to social expectations, but she tries to do so on her own terms.

More importantly, in examining all three novels, I was trying to argue that, in reviving earlier styles of historical fiction, Austin was trying to supplant the problematic (and vilified) Puritans as founding fathers with the more congenial, admirable Pilgrims. In doing so, she recycled earlier rhetoric but created a newly usable past.

Like Austin, Cheney sticks closer to the “truth” of the Puritan experience. She borrows heavily from historical records, such as Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, and makes reference to such troubling events as the Pilgrims plundering graves and stealing seed corn, as well as to the Puritan troubles with Anne Hutchinson.

She’s sympathetic to the former, but not so much for the latter. And although her Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans live in a semi-police state, enforced by the overzealous and aptly named Constable Handcuffs, it becomes clear when Atherton dines with John Winthrop that Handcuffs does not represent Puritan leadership.

Whereas Austin is more prone to hagiography with less substance, Cheney works more directly to defend Puritan and Pilgrim leadership by directly addressing the history. She can do so, of course, because her novel is set in a difficult time; the Pequot War is impending, and the Pequot massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the Puritan settlement, occurs at the end of the novel. She has nearly 17 years of material to work with, whereas Austin’s novel is set in the first three years or so of the Pilgrim’s time in the new world.

Standish and Hope Leslie also strip away a great deal of the Calvinist philosophies of the actual Puritans and Pilgrims, whereas Cheney’s book upholds many of them, even as she subtly condemns their zealousness. It’s somewhat surprising, since Cheney was a Unitarian like Child and Sedgwick; her father was even a Unitarian minister. One of the key arguments frequently made about both Hobomok and Hope Leslie is how progressive they are in promoting liberal Unitarianism, and I expected the same when I read Peep at the Pilgrims. But that was not the case!

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