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  • Contextualizing Anne Bradstreet’s Literary RemainsWhy We Need a New Edition of the Poems
  • Margaret Olofson Thickstun (bio)

Over the past thirty years, historians of the book have developed a rich and nuanced understanding of what it meant to write poetry in the early modern period and of the interplay between manuscript circulation and print production. Feminist scholars have reconstructed our understanding of women’s education during this period and recovered works by hundreds of women—from aristocrats writing Petrarchan sonnets to the wives of tradesmen publishing religious prophecies. Many scholars have become interested in the literary culture of the British Atlantic expansion. Some of these scholars of early modern England have done very good work specifically about Anne Bradstreet, placing her poetry in relation to texts by other early modern Englishwomen.1 Some Americanists have published chapters or articles that place Bradstreet in relation to particular facets of English or international literary culture: Philip Round, Tamara Harvey, Christopher Ivic, and Robert Hilliker. I am not discounting their contributions. But there continues to be very little conversation across the figurative Atlantic between the fields of seventeenth-century English and colonial American literature.

Why does that matter? Because Anne Bradstreet was an early modern English woman participating in a literary culture about which we now know quite a lot, a culture in which people wrote poems to demonstrate their social status and to explore their intellectual interests, in which those poems circulated in manuscripts that were not at all “private” in the way that we understand that term today, and in which “professional” status and print publication were not the sine qua non of authorial achievement.2 The Harvard edition of her poems (Hensley), which monopolizes the teaching market as the only currently available edition and which remains the edition most frequently cited in the scholarship by an overwhelming margin, [End Page 389] not only presents an antiquated understanding of Bradstreet’s life and artistic activity but completely misrepresents what poems appeared in print when. Because the 1867 edition by John Harvard Ellis similarly misrepresents Bradstreet’s work, scholars who have not been following developments in book history and early modern women’s writing not only perpetuate misinformation but also make embarrassing mistakes. By placing Bradstreet’s art and accomplishments in the context of seventeenth-century women’s education, literary activity, and circulation practices, we gain a clearer sense of the role literary activity played in her life and a more accurate sense of her interests, aims, and accomplishments as a writer.

anne bradstreet’s life and education in context

Anne Bradstreet was a privileged Englishwoman who was transplanted in her late teens to Massachusetts and spent the rest of her life outside England. Both her father and her husband were Cambridge-educated men who worked, while in England, as stewards to the aristocracy: her father, Thomas Dudley, ran the estates of Theophilus Fiennes-Clinton, the fourth Earl of Lincoln; her husband, Simon Bradstreet, began in that household and then worked for the dowager Countess of Warwick. In Massachusetts Bay, both Bradstreet’s father and her husband served regularly in colonial government, and each was selected several times to serve as governor. As one editorial team comments, “Thomas Dudley, Simon Bradstreet, John Winthrop, and their comrades had moved in the higher economic and social circles of England; they had learned about success by being a part of the class that ran the country” (McElrath and Robb xix). Massachusetts Bay Colony was the project of an elite and highly educated group of Englishmen with a serious religious and political agenda aimed at reforming the English church. The Earl of Lincoln was one backer of the Massachusetts Bay experiment; the Dudley-Bradstreet clan traveled to the New World with the earl’s sister Arbella, after whom their ship was named;3 Bradstreet’s father corresponded with the young countess Bridget Fiennes-Clinton. Anne Bradstreet was part, in other words, of the service class to the elite and lived among the elite, both in England and in Massachusetts Bay.4

Scholars of early modern women’s writings have, in the past thirty years, done considerable research about the education and intellectual and artistic...


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