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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 745-756
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America's Origin Myth:
Remembering Plymouth Rock
Sargent Bush, Jr.
When in December of 1620 the English Separatist Pilgrims sailed across Massachusetts Bay to anchor in Plymouth Harbor, they could not have missed seeing a huge boulder at the edge of the deep channel there. It may even have provided their landing point. Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian and seagoing commodore who edited William Bradford's history Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (1856), surmised that the rock could have served as a base for one end of logs and planks extending to the beach, thus making possible a more or less dry disembarking for the passengers (McPhee 116). However that may be, many generations have learned America began at that spot. The boulder is some 600 million years old and in 1620 probably weighed more than 200 tons (McPhee 117, 108). It was an erratic, a huge individual piece of glacial till, deposited there a mere 20,000 years earlier when the ice receded, a pilgrim of sorts itself (McPhee 113). 1
Within two centuries of that first English footfall, Plymouth Rock achieved the status of national icon. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831-32, remarked on the way a democratic society selects the objects of its veneration: "A few poor souls trod for an instant on this rock, and it has become famous, it is prized by a great nation; fragments are venerated, and tiny pieces distributed far and wide. What has become of the doorsteps of a thousand palaces? Who cares for them?" (qtd. in Seelye 78). For Tocqueville, America's making an icon of Plymouth Rock was a triumph for democratic values. It is also, of course, as John Seelye reminds us, an example of our national memory's selectivity. Though now an ignorable physical object, Plymouth Rock seems to be an indispensable part of the origin myth that America has crafted for itself.
This acquisition of reputation was not without cost to the [End Page 745] object itself, for even as its fame increased, its size diminished. Visitors to Plymouth in this century have almost universally been disappointed on viewing it for the first time since it is now less than five percent of its original size. The extreme veneration of the American people has almost managed to destroy this stone, starting with an attempt in 1774 to move a part of it to a location where it might be more conveniently revered. The result was the first but by no means the last breakage of the Rock. An attempt by The Pilgrim Society to move it in 1834 resulted in another accident and a fracture that required the preservationists of the day--clearly learning by trial and error--to cement it back together. Smaller bits have been chipped off by relic seekers. Surviving segments have been on display alternately and sometimes simultaneously at the waterfront as part of a wharf and high above the harbor in front of Pilgrim Hall on Plymouth's main street, not to mention the various towns throughout the nation, and even in England, that have preserved pieces of this "very live symbol" (Seelye 641). Cracks have been patched, only to need careful cleaning out and remortaring as recently as 1989 (McPhee 110-11). The date 1620 was first painted on it and later carved into the stone itself. It is now sheltered under its second monumental structure, a canopy designed by the noted architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White, where it is the destination for tourists who troop to see it every day of the year, most especially Thanksgiving.
All of this single-minded attention to one rock results partly from its having always been a conspicuous part of the terrain. Despite many a poem and painting referring to the "rock-bound coast" where the Pilgrims came ashore, it was in fact the only large rock in sight on what was then and is...