Scribner’s American Historical Novels claims that Peep is one of “the best and most detailed of the early nineteenth-century novels of the Puritans [and] probably the best novel of its kind until Standish of Standish.” And while Sedgwick and Child both mention historical figures of Plymouth in their novels, neither writer focused specifically on Plymouth Pilgrims. The fact that Cheney did is interesting because she did it so early on.
Cheney’s novel, published in 1924 and the same year as Child’s, pre-dates the publication of Bradford’s journal and the increasing interest in Pilgrims it generated. Indeed, many of the newspaper and magazine articles I’m finding that seek to differentiate Pilgrims from Puritans were published after 1850. That’s the year The Scarlet Letter was published, and I believe there is a connection.
Prior to 1850, there was very much a local, grassroots effort in Forefather’s Day speeches and so on to venerate the Plymouth Pilgrims. No doubt these local activities inspired the return of Bradford’s manuscript and its subsequent publication, after which the Pilgrims became more of a national story.
But while Cheney purposefully distinguishes between the two groups, she does not necessarily venerate the Plymouth Pilgrims. While the MBC Puritans are certainly both oppressed and oppressive, they are also far more intellectual and given to philosophical discourse informed by their extensive reading.
It’s the fact that they are oppressive that is most problematic to Cheney; even Miriam Gray, steadfast in her utter devotion to her Separatist brethren, can feel some “charity” all other Christians. Her father even comes around to this as well, eventually allowing his daughter to marry Atherton, an English Episcopalian.
In The Puritan Settler in the American Novel before the Civil War, Adelheid Staehlin-Wackernagel writes that Cheney is attacking “intolerance and persecution” because she (along with other writers) is reacting to the idea that religious tolerance was part of the Puritan’s aims (120). While that’s certainly a prevalent belief today, as evidenced by the gravestone above erected sometime in the 1960s, I am not sure it was that widespread in 1824, when Cheney was working.
Still, there is plenty of textual evidence that Cheney’s main problem was the intolerance and “cruel persecutions,” and that is certainly a theme Hawthorne explores in the next decade.