A Peep at the Pilgrims in 1636: A Tale of Olden Times

A Peep at the Pilgrims in 1636: A Tale of Olden Times

Quick Facts:

Date of Publication: 1824, the same year as Hobomok

Author: Harriet Vaughan Foster Cheney

Setting: Mostly around Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1636 just before the Pequot War

Plot Synopsis: Miriam Grey is a young Puritan woman in Plymouth. Loved by all in the community for her sweetness and beauty, she is a faithful daughter and cheerfully endures the deprivations of pioneer life for the sake of her father, to whom she is very obedient. She falls in love with the English Edward Atherton, who is visiting Miles Standish, his relative. But like Standish, Edward is not Puritan, and Miriam’s father refuses to let him stay in contact with Miriam. But Miriam is captured by Pequots and Edward manages to rescue her, thus reconciling her father to their marriage.

Best Version: No one has recovered this novel yet and published a scholarly edition. It’s long, at nearly 500 pages. Multiple versions can be downloaded from Archive.org here.

Helpful Links: Unfortunately, there aren’t any sites for general readers on this book. It doesn’t seem to be assigned in literature classes, either because of its length or because of the relative obscurity of its author.  I wrote a two-part blog on the book in 2016 when I was first starting on this project. Part One is here and Part Two is here.

My notes and commentary:

I don’t see this one flying off the best-seller lists any time soon, but it’s a novel with some merit, especially to anyone interested in early American literature on the Pilgrims and Puritans. Of all the early books, this one explores the Pilgrims and Puritans in the most detail and it does so with extensive use of historical fact.

Cheney tries to mix in a lot, from the romance to didactic moralizing to even borrowing from the captivity narrative genre to create intrigue. Her scenes might not be quite as dramatic as, say, James Fenimore Cooper’s, but I think the work is more realistic than many of Cooper’s.

It also had a pretty far reach and was quite popular in its day. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson read it, so it’s an important novel to read just for its influence alone.

Pilgrims/Puritans

Cheney deals more overtly with Pilgrims and with Puritans and contrasts the two groups. Like Child, she is very interested in exploring and to some extent denouncing Calvinism. She likes the Pilgrims for their tolerance, and indeed much of the novel centers around the problems of intolerance. Her Puritans are oppressive, best illustrated in the form of the aptly-named Constable Handcuff, who is a little too overzealous in monitoring Atherton’s behavior. But they’re also oppressed, and subjected to various forms of “rigid discipline” that is evident in Plymouth but far more “remarkable” in Boston (246).

Still, the Puritans are also intellectuals and well-educated. Cheney explores some of the difficulties in governing the colonies that result in the need to be overly authoritative. She’s so focused on the “cruel persecutions” that I have to wonder just how influential her novel was in shaping this opinion that would later be explored by many other writers, including Hawthorne.

Factual History

Since it was published in 1824, Cheney wrote this without access to William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. But she certainly made use of other histories to great extent in this novel. There is even reference to a character forced to wear a scarlet “D” for drunkenness as well as a variation on the Miles Standish love triangle that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow popularized decades later in his Courtship of Miles Standish.

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