Why the Pilgrims and Puritans?

Why the Pilgrims and Puritans?

Why the Pilgrims and Puritans?
Vintage postcard of the Mayflower, circa 1925

Now that I’m explaining this project to friends and colleagues, I find they’re often a little puzzled.  Many think that I’m researching the actual Pilgrims and Puritans, but I’m mostly interested in what happened to their story after they were long gone.

But I still get some questions, mostly about why this project is relevant in 2017.

Originally, I was fascinated by all the ways that literature got the facts wrong. Then I was intrigued by the ways history borrowed from literature. Then I started to see all of those texts as very closely related, as a process of representation that actually has enormous significance about the meaning of America, even (perhaps especially) today.

In short, I believe stories help us to make meaning of ourselves, not only by helping us to see who we are as individuals but also how we fit into collective groups, like families, communities, and nations. I have no personal agenda here in examining these literary texts; I am not looking to bash or to celebrate the Pilgrim story. I am primarily interested in how the novels and narratives contributed to the vast array of beliefs and opinions today.


Americans are fascinated with genealogical research. To know the stories of your ancestors helps to explain who you are and how you got there.

Mayflower descendants are an especially active group, dedicating to exploring and preserving the memory of their ancestors. But Americans in general are fascinated by the Pilgrims. And a lot of us can claim Pilgrim ancestry; trustworthy genealogists estimate the number around 20 million Americans. (Alas, I am not one of them. I’m descended from Quakers and possibly Puritans, but not of the New England kind)

And after all, each November, Americans all over the country, even the world, gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. Like the 4th of July, Thanksgiving is a true American holiday. It’s one day when we are all collectively doing something similar that relates to our heritage, one that we often believe stretches all the way back to 1621, thanks to the Pilgrims.

Need for an origin

Friedrich Nietzsche is credited with writing, “When one has not had a good father, one must create one.” The family metaphor is common in early American literature to describe the young America separating from England.

As Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition (1983) proves, the need for traditions and origin stories is a human one. The traditions that evolve, though, are unique to the group. America didn’t have an origin story or any traditions, so nineteenth century writers had to invent it all.

Ultimately, it was the Pilgrim/Puritan origin story that had staying power, instead of those greedy Jamestowne settlers who just wanted money. Of course, both of those competing visions are centered on the English origins, although the English were not at all the first settlers here. But that relates more to my later point about politics.

Literary and cultural history

I’m not looking to fire new shots in the canon wars. I do not claim that The Salem Belle is as compelling or well-written as The Scarlet Letter. They are both novels, but they should be studied for different reasons.

One reason is to know the texts and ideas that inspired Hawthorne. We have a tendency to think of the great artists as individual geniuses, but Hawthorne is a perfect example of how that’s not quite true. Not only did he borrow heavily from other writers of his time, but without his powerful network of friends, his own career might never have reached the heights it did in his lifetime. Nor would he be remembered as much today (when Henry James writes your biography, your reputation gets a boost!).

Certain texts and authors are remembered and others are forgotten, for a variety of legitimate reasons. But it’s also true that some texts and authors get a disproportionate amount of the spotlight (I’m looking at you, Nate) and that gives us a skewed understanding of literature and literary history.

Illusory Truth Effect

James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, first published in 1996, is still a huge hit. The title is self-explanatory; the book seeks to correct mistakes and falsehoods about American history that have been repeated in textbooks, taught in schools, or presented in popular culture like literature.

I think one reason that many of these novels are forgotten is that they seem to be repeating the truth. To my knowledge, only a handful of scholars have engaged with how they helped to construct the truth, and those scholars only examined antebellum texts. I have yet to find a thoughtful examination of the impact of Jane Goodwin Austin’s Standish of Standish (1889) or Ernest Gebler’s The Plymouth Adventure (1950).


It might sound surprising, but this project is political. Research has shown that liberals and conservatives are becoming more extreme in their beliefs, and that polarization is increasingly ideological.  In other words, there is less common ground, but perhaps more significantly, that common ground is based on personal beliefs.

American myths (a “traditional story” not necessarily a “false belief”) play a very large role in shaping those ideologies and personal beliefs. And the Pilgrims and Puritans are essential to those myths.  If you believe that hard work and sacrifice are the keys to success, for example, then you probably also value the Pilgrim story. On the other hand, if you think certain groups face discrimination and oppression, then you probably are more interested in the ways that the Pilgrim story gets some of the facts wrong.

There’s also political differences about the need for shared stories. Conservatives tend to believe that shared stories about the country unite citizens and make stronger connections by teaching shared values. They might value the beliefs the story promotes more than the actual history.  But in general, liberals take a different view and believe that ignoring violence or marginalized groups presents a false perspective, one that therefore should not be promoted.

The writers of these novels also took both liberal and conservative views; their personal opinions inform their work. Every time a reader picks up one of those texts, she is engaging in political debate, whether she realizes it or not. But perhaps more importantly, every time an American engages in political debate, he is doing so with these narratives as context.

Confirmation bias

These political differences are made more extreme because humans have a tendency towards confirmation bias.

One of the interesting things I notice about my literature students is that they read texts in a way that supports their particular world views. If a conservative and a liberal both read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, for example, they usually have very different opinions about what Franklin is advocating.

In other words, we don’t tend to challenge our beliefs; we unconsciously seek to confirm them. And that becomes easier to do when there is a mountain of source material to use. Anyone who wants to make pretty much any point about the Pilgrims and Puritans can probably find information to support it.











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