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Book History 5 (2002) 1-18

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Morton's Maypole and the Indians:
Publishing in Early New England

Matt Cohen

Histories of the book in early New England customarily begin around the time of the Antinomian controversy. It is difficult, beyond exploring continuities and discontinuities with European traditions, to discuss cultures of print in the days before the printing press came to Massachusetts; the work by scholars such as David Hall to bring new techniques to the study of communications in New England has been innovative and rewarding. Hall has claimed that one of the advantages of studying the northern colonies is that "the whole of New England constituted a reasonably uniform language field, a circumstance that helps us understand how deeply the culture was bound up with print as a medium of communication." 1 But the assumption that there was a common language gives us a key to new ways of approaching the heterogeneity of American information culture. After all, we can only agree with this assumption if we forget about the many Algonquian dialects heard and, in the case of discovery and travel narratives, transcribed by early visitors to the region. As the history of the [End Page 1] book has evolved, it has begun to confront overlaps and interactions among oral, manuscript, and print culture, becoming capable of describing the complex ways in which these coeval strains of representation influence or compete with one another. 2 In this essay I will use Thomas Morton's Maypole and his New English Canaan—both of which explicitly raised issues of public communication and literacy in the northern settlements—to sketch out a conflict over information cultures and social power in pre-1637 New England. In addition, I hope this essay will give those who teach texts by Morton and his nemesis, William Bradford, a way to move beyond Hawthornian comedy-versus-prudery readings—to convey a different sense of what colonists felt was at stake when they wrote about themselves and America. 3

The conflict between Thomas Morton and both the Pilgrims and the Puritans has long been a controversial episode for cultural historians of New England. What made the separatists pursue Morton so violently? Scholars have hitherto pointed to Morton's paganism as a psychological threat and his fur-trading with the natives as an economic challenge. Yet the dent he made in Plymouth's economic interests was minor, and the psychic problems Morton's merrymaking posed to a supposedly blunt, humorless Pilgrim leadership provoked one of the longest and wittiest sections in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. 4 I will argue that while Morton's poems were important, it was more particularly his mode of presenting them that constituted the core of his challenge to the Pilgrims. Scholars of early America and the history of the book have pointed to the Puritan leaders' strict control of the circulation of information, both printed and proclaimed, as central to understanding the culture of early New England. 5 "Publishing" something in the seventeenth century, we have come to understand, had a meaning broader than its print-bound connotations today—it included posting or proclaiming documents in a public place; this was the method Morton chose to publicize his densely allusive poetry. For Bradford and the Puritan settlers' other leaders, a centralized communications structure was the foundation of a sustainable community. But technologies of communication in early New England were diverse, including posted manuscript messages, letters, oral proclamations (usually from the pulpit), printed texts (usually from Europe), song, and word of mouth (often during commercial transactions). Diaries and journals that we might consider private today were often shared; family Bibles were used to record lineage; and it was not uncommon for worshippers to memorize and transcribe sermons. Settlers invented and adapted a host of methods for communicating with the Indians, from using translators to drawing pictograms or consulting language guides. 6 Religious leaders among the settlers, eager to escape the censorship of England yet also to establish a [End Page 2] community of saintly worship, constantly struggled to keep these technologies...


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