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American Literature 72.4 (2000) 695-720

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Merchants, Money, and the Economics of “Plain Style” in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation

Michelle Burnham

As soon as they make the decision to separate from the Church of England “whatsoever it should cost them,” the small Scrooby congregation initiates the history that is the subject of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation . But the almost brash heroism of this vow gives way to embittered sadness when Bradford announces: “And that it cost them something this ensuing history will declare.” 1 A number of Bradford critics have maintained that an analogous pattern of declension characterizes the entire history, which slides from the optimistic promise of book 1 to the increasingly mournful sense of failure in book 2. 2 These readings assume that Bradford hopes from the beginning to narrate an important and exceptional story about Plymouth’s place within the broader religious and political framework supplied by the Protestant Reformation and by English overseas expansion but that this story, over the years, gradually became impossible for him to tell. Even if he had precisely such ambitions in mind when he began Of Plymouth Plantation , any reader of Bradford’s text knows that his most overt and anxious concern is not Plymouth’s place within the grand sweep of history but the far more mundane problem of finances. In fact, more than Bradford’s descriptions of separatism and the Reformation, his use of the verb “cost” in the opening sentences anticipates the remainder of his book. More than anything else, Of Plymouth Plantation tells a detailed and complicated story of economic mismanagement and loss. So consumed is this narrative by matters of money that it might best be described as a history of the plantation’s financial accounts. 3

Although economic matters dominate Bradford’s text, the sections [End Page 695] concerning finances are routinely excluded from American literature anthologies. Aside from a few notable exceptions, critics typically dismiss the text’s economic content as insignificant or tedious, when they do not ignore it entirely or cite its irrelevance as evidence of a narrative disarray paralleling Plymouth’s own eventual fragmentation. 4 Kenneth Alan Hovey has accurately observed that “[m]ore of Bradford’s work is devoted to the Pilgrims’ financial and legal difficulties than to any other topic”; but in his subsequent acknowledgment that most readers find the “financial and legal history . . . tiresome,” he identifies without comment a profound discrepancy between the concerns of the seventeenth-century Englishman William Bradford and those of his twentieth-century American critics. 5 By suppressing or ignoring the economic elements of the text, critics have effectively alienated it from its immediate sociohistorical environment. As a result, Plymouth generally appears as an isolated and exceptional religious community predictive of American independence rather than as an economic project fully dependent on English mercantile backing and fraught with the tensions produced by transatlantic colonialism and commerce. To this extent, literary studies of Bradford (and of the Puritans more generally) have shared the “asocial bias” that Russell Reising and other recent critics attribute to the dominant liberal tradition of American literary criticism. 6

It is easy to see why this selective reading of Of Plymouth Plantation has prevailed. The once conventional placement of Bradford’s text at the beginning of American literature anthologies gave it the burden of inaugurating American literary history, and Bradford’s expressions of community and religious freedom provided far more attractive themes for such a national narrative than did his financial worries. As a result, two of the contracts described in the early pages of Of Plymouth Plantation have been invested with extraordinary symbolic status; both the religious covenant that bound together the members of the Scrooby/Leyden congregation and the political compact signed aboard the Mayflower have been positioned as anticipatory precursors to an American national community and its Declaration of Independence. 7 But Bradford himself devotes the vast majority of his text to explaining, discussing, and analyzing a third contract: the business agreement between the Plymouth planters who settled...


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