I suppose every compelling narrative must have some comic relief, and in many stories about the Pilgrims, he often fulfills that role, either by being the hothead who loves a good fight or by being the loser in a love triangle. Even his physical appearance is grounds for humor; he was apparently rather short and had reddish hair.
Standish is probably most remembered today for his botched attempts at courting Priscilla Alden. But I’ve got some questions about the origin of that story.
In Harriet Vaughn Cheney’s Peep at the Pilgrims, Standish is Edward Atherton’s relative and tour guide, showing him around the area and instructing him on the attitudes and beliefs of the community. Cheney’s novel pre-dates Longfellow’s Courtship of Miles Standish by 34 years, and her version of the love triangle does not involve John Alden or Priscilla.
But it otherwise follows a similar pattern. Captain Standish sees a “young damsel” he is interested in marrying, but since he has been a bachelor for so long, he “felt a little awkward at the business, being more accustomed to slashing up Indians than making fine speeches, such as winning pretty women” (346). So he sends a “Mr. Calvert” to plead his case, but when Calvert is finished, the maiden “turned her bewitching eyes upon him, and said with sweet simplicity, ‘Prithee why do you not speak for yourself?”
This line, of course, is more famously attributed to Priscilla, who says it to John Alden, and it becomes one of the most famous lines in nineteenth-century American literature after Longfellow publishes his poem. Timothy Alden’s 1814 A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions (volume II) contains the first known publication of what was formerly family legend.
I’m not sure if Cheney altered to story to fit her fictional characters, since Calvert appears elsewhere in the book but neither John nor Priscilla do, or if the legend originated elsewhere and Timothy Alden attributed it to his ancestors.
Cheney doesn’t always adhere faithfully to the facts, but she certainly does so more than Sedgwick or Child. And if I argue that Austin should be forgiven for some of her inaccurate conclusions due to lack of evidence in her own time, then Cheney deserves the same. She didn’t even have access to Bradford’s history, since her book was published in 1824.
But that’s partly what makes her version of the love triangle seem more odd. She was obviously informed about the history, and like Child and Sedgwick she read historical sources like Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, but not to the extent that she would have read a book as specific as Alden’s. The factual accounts that she does include…Pilgrims stealing seed corn, Anne Hutchinson’s banishment, etc…are used to defend their actions.
Still, Cheney includes odd details that resonate with other fictional accounts, such as a man who is forced to wear a scarlet D on his chest because he is a “drunkard” which of course makes me think of Hawthorne’s scarlet A. Did Cheney and Hawthorne both read a similar history, or was Hawthorne inspired by something Cheney invented?
At any rate, poor Standish plays the fool in both versions of the love triangle.