Charlotte Gordon, a poet and postdoctoral fellow at Boston University, has shone a candle’s point of light on America’s past and on life for women in the colonial era as she focuses on the trials and triumphs of our first “best selling author,” Puritan Anne Bradstreet.
A dominant theme of this fact-filled tome is that being a Puritan wasn’t for sissies. In England, where the story begins, almost everyone knew someone who knew someone who’d been burned at the stake for heresy. Hellfire was not a mere concept; it was a horror that lit the nightmares of even as strong-minded a young woman as Anne Bradstreet.
Daughter of one Thomas Dudley, a dictatorial patriarch who took his family to the colonies to escape religious oppression and found a Puritan Utopia, Anne could never allow herself and her own great gifts to overshadow those of her domineering father. All women had “feeble” minds, and when they gathered together, they were assumed to be “gossiping,” possibly, God forbid, comparing mates and fomenting notional thinking that bordered on the sacrilegious. Anne learned early on, upon the example of one strong-minded lady, Anne Hutchison, that women were not to speak out. Hutchison, who was said to have a “very voluble tongue,” dared advance the idea that if all men’s fates were predestined as Puritanism taught, then good works might be unnecessary – an idea which seems rather obvious to anyone with a logical mind, but which Puritans espoused at their peril. Hutchison was harassed and ultimately shunned by her religious community, including Bradstreet herself.
Anne Bradstreet made a good marriage, a love match born in the repressed smoldering of her adolescence, and she became a hardworking wife and moral exemplar while choosing, oddly, to write poetry. Her verse seems now quite dated, and try as one might, it’s tough to read it without some embarrassment. But that it accomplished the poet’s goal – to reveal some godliness in ordinary events – is laudable. Bradstreet also wrote her autobiography. Her life, it seems, was laden with burdens and illnesses, and many deaths.
Perhaps it was the Puritan way to see all things in the light of their potential for evil rather than for good. Anne does not let herself enjoy even the “pleasing faces” of her own children, for fear of encouraging them in mischief that even in childhood led to sin. This is turgid stuff and barely palatable to a modern reader.
One wishes the author had found more for us to like about Anne Bradstreet, who looms brilliant but self-abnegating, churchy, over-competent and wintry, in a cold, cheerless world of religious in-fighting and daily tribulations.