Can you call a trip to Plymouth Rock ‘ad fontes’? Twenty-four hours ago I believed so, but now I am not so sure. If Plymouth is ‘the source’ it is certainly an elliptical one. I went in search of the beginning of America only to find that America eluded me.
We met a tour guide on Mayflower II who had worked the deck for twenty-one years. “Too long,” he said.
I agreed with him. He had been there too long. Within two minutes of walking aboard the American dream he disillusioned me. “If you think they came in search of freedom of religion – you’re wrong.”
“Who were they then?” I asked.
“Opportunists!” he said definitively.
In spite of him I floated back in time in the Captain’s cabin, the steerage, and under the rigging in the sun. I felt like a hoax historian. My brain said, ‘It’s a fake…’ but I was there in the 17th century anyway – hook, line and sinker – ready to weep at the thought of them embarking, half-starving with the weight of the future on their shoulders. They had to be pilgrims – to make my pilgrimage worthwhile – didn’t they?
After the Mayflower we found the real Rock. “1620” carved in stone was reassuringly unambiguous, until the tossed coins sparkled under the surface. There was something a little too ironic in the image for me. But I liked the fact that the rock had been repaired. Apparently it broke in transit whilst being moved from somewhere in Plymouth to somewhere else in Plymouth. The repair lent an endearing authenticity to the stone. If I had dropped Plymouth Rock and broken it in two, I would have found another ‘Plymouth Rock’ pretty quickly. The repair seemed an honest act to me. It was a sort of rough-hewn America that – I confess – I began to love today. By the Rock there was a quote: “It is the fact that they landed – and remained – that matters, not where they landed. Yet, it is no bad thing for a nation to be founded on a rock.” (Rose T. Briggs, 1968).
“Amen!” I said, even though I knew this rock was broken.
From there we moved on to Plimoth Plantation. I have spent a lot of time in museums but this place was the best! Plimoth Plantation is a large chunk of land containing two reconstructed villages – colonial to the left, and native to the right. We went left first and right second. (The gift shops mirrored the same structural layout; the main shop to the left and the native shop to the right.)
From the two-storied meeting house we looked through the thatched village to the sea. I was enchanted. I heard their voices in my mind and smelt the wood smoke coiling up the street. I shot into every house, stuck my head in bread ovens, found the outhouses and the forge. It was perfect and brutal all at once. There were four other guests at 4.30pm. One couple had the knack of leaving their overloaded baby buggy in awkward spots for photos. It was hard to forgive the visual intrusion when every other detail was historically perfect.
The village was completed by costumed staff with full-grown colonial beards and felt hats – the men that is. The women wore clogs, aprons, rough-spun smocks and white headgear that seemed a little too white for the indisputable grubbiness of the settlers’ lives in 1726. The costumed staff remained in character even when my boffin questions tried to lure them to 18th century enclosures, deforestation, and the expansion of the iron trade. They were persistent blighters and their scrupulous anti-presentism impressed me. Maybe they would give me a job if I found the accent and the clothes?
I am still reading Howard Zinn, A People’s History of America (1999). Today I reached the Mexican War, Jacksonianism and the use of ‘Manifest Destiny’ as a phrase in mid-nineteenth century political rhetoric. Zinn’s systematic deconstruction of every identity-forming American Story reached a lacerating climax in the denunciation of male misogyny during the antebellum period. Here he overplayed his hand as far as I am concerned. However, I didn’t mind too much because I was sitting in a leather wingback chair in a wood-paneled room in Boston drinking a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Myth or no myth, I have had an excellent day. My imagination has been stimulated in extraordinary ways. What more do I need? Only Henry James – The Bostonians. This is one of the few James works that I have never read, but how can I fail to read it here! At school I was told he was an English writer. Forty years in Britain with an Order of the Garter at the end of it does not justify the cultural theft of Henry James by the Brits. I must read him in his rightful place and react accordingly.