Date of publication: 1824, the same year as Harriet Vaughan Cheney’s A Peep at the Pilgrims in 1636: A Tale of Olden Times, and only a year after James McHenry’s The Spectre of the Forest, or Annals of the Housatonic, the earliest Pilgrim/Puritan novel I’ve identified
Author: Lydia Maria Child, her first publication
Setting: Naumkeak, now present-day Salem Massachusetts, in 1629, just before the arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later Plymouth, through about 1633
Plot Synopsis: Mary Conant, the daughter of a harsh Puritan, loses her lover, Charles Brown, when he is banished from the colony for criticizing Puritanism. Her beloved mother dies and her best friend is married and moves away. She learns that Charles’s ship is wrecked with all lives lost, and out of despair and loneliness, marries a Wampanoag named Hobomok, a friend and protector. Not long after their son turns two, Charles returns, having been held captive until escaping. Hobomok, knowing Mary has never stopped loving Charles, decides to move to the west and allow the two to marry.
Best Version: Because Child later went on to become quite famous for her social activism and other literary works, she has received a fair amount of attention from modern scholars. Carolyn Karcher published this version in 1986 with explanatory notes, and it’s the best print edition. You can also download Kindle versions and it’s available through Google Play here.
LMC’s Hobomok: This website, from a class at Radford University, includes character descriptions and a bibliography as well as brief overviews of themes.
Hobomok: This blog is the product of a student’s semester-long exploration of the novel and includes useful context and analysis.
My notes and commentary:
I’ve never taught Hobomok, although I’ve thought about it. The story itself is compelling, but the religious debates are certainly esoteric, and since they form a fair amount of the novel, they can be tough to get through.
It’s a good example of issues with early novels. In 1824, American publishing was in its infancy and the novel itself was not yet a fully formed genre. Furthermore, American history and even American identity were still being formed. So it wasn’t just Child who was experimenting! Hobomok reflects all of these issues.
Child also published anonymously at first, and the novel is not only told from the perspective of an unnamed male narrator, but that narrator is clearly not the author, and the preface is written by yet another male. It’s confusing. But there are reasons for this that are not apparent to modern readers. First, novels were a suspicious at the time because they were believed to have a dangerous influence on the reader (not unlike complaints about violent movies or videogames today). Also, women were not seen as public figures who made intellectual efforts. This would change in a short time, with women writers far out-earning their male counterparts, although very few of those women are recognized for that accomplishment today.
But the book is also problematic because of its treatment of race. Despite the fact that Mary marries Hobomok and bears his child, Native Americans are quite clearly “savages” who are less cultured and less intellectual than the English. And at the end, he “vanishes” to the west. It’s racist, no doubt.
However, there are redeeming qualities. Hobomok actually exemplifies the most Christian behavior of any of the characters, and I think that’s why the book is named after him, yet he barely registers in the first half of the novel. Sacrifice for loved ones is a recurring theme, and he makes the biggest sacrifice of all. The importance of inner light is also a key theme, and also one that Hobomok exemplifies. By modern standards, it is racist, but it was progressive for its time and certainly reflects a less offensive stance than other novels. Of all the Pilgrim/Puritan novels I’ve read, this is one of the most sympathetic treatments of the Native Americans.
As an earlier novel, Hobomok does not differentiate between Pilgrim and Puritan as later works do. But it does deal a lot more with actual Calvinist beliefs. It’s obvious that Child does not adhere to a belief in the “elect,” and she also believes more in a personal spiritual relationship with God/Jesus, one that anticipates Transcendentalism. As Child was a Unitarian, this is not surprising. Male leaders of any belief system are condemned in the novel if they are intolerant or rigidly authoritative, and much of the suffering in Mary’s life happens because of her father’s rigidity.
Like many other historical novels, this one frequently relies on the “historical manuscript” claim as the source of all the story. Child uses names of real historical characters and places but does not at all follow the facts of their actual lives. Still, she obviously knew and followed Cotton Mather’s history, even including certain elements like the ghost ship vision. This, plus her knowledge of Calvinism, mean that the novel is fairly well-informed even if it takes many liberties with the storyline.