The Joseph M. Schwartz Memorial Essay, 2005: Dancing around the Maypole, Ripping Up the Flag: The Merry Mount Caper and Issues in American History and Art

By Griffin, Edward M. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Joseph M. Schwartz Memorial Essay, 2005: Dancing around the Maypole, Ripping Up the Flag: The Merry Mount Caper and Issues in American History and Art


Griffin, Edward M., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


To the imagination of many American artists--about a dozen poets, novelists, storytellers, historians, dramatists, and composers--Merry Mount has meant more than just a bump in the road near Quincy, Massachusetts. Like Watergate, it has become more important for what it means than for what it is, living in legend long after losing any significance as a place in itself. Among the literary artists and composers who have drawn meaning from the seventeenth-century capers at Thomas Morton's tiny plantation, Merry Mount, are Peter Ackroyd, Stephen Vincent Bendt, L.S. Davidson, Howard Hanson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Lowell, John Lothrop Motley, Richard Stokes, and William Carlos Williams. Since the nineteenth century, they have made famous the iconic Maypole that Thomas Morton erected there, and they have busily stitched Morton into the fabric of American legend, a figure juxtaposed with Miles Standish--who arrested Morton--and John Endicott--who chopped down Morton's Maypole and also slashed the red cross from the insignia of the flag of England.

From the perspective of current American historiography, however, Merry Mount should have quietly nestled into obscurity among the footnotes of American history. The persistence of the Merry Mount episode in literature is hard for historians to account for. The noted American historians Michael Zuckerman and John Demos, for example, find the fascination of creative writers for Merry Mount a curious phenomenon, logically implausible. Zuckerman's summary--though given in a sly tone of voice--is representative. He calls Merry Mount a "tawdry contretemps," noting that although "American poets, playwrights, and novelists have always seen something immensely suggestive" in it, American historians "have gone over this ground more gingerly." They have hesitated for three reasons. First, "On the face of it, the tale of the Maypole at Merry Mount seems almost too trivial to take seriously." The population of Plymouth Colony at the time was about 200, and there were only seven people at Morton's trading post: Morton eventually left the New England colonies (although he kept returning): Plymouth, achieving neither great population nor significance, got amalgamated into Massachusetts Bay. Second, "the tale seems too vulgar to bear any weight of interpretation": Miles Standish led a "comic-opera army," and ultimately nobody "on either side displayed any discernible courage or tactical aptitude, and no one suffered any heroic hurt." (1) Third, the historical record is too thin to support heavy interpretation. We have only the slight documentary accounts of William Bradford and Thomas Morton, and they sharply disagree ("Pilgrims" 77). Likewise, when John Demos takes up the events at Merry Mount, he makes no use at all of creative writers except to dismiss Longfellow, Hawthorne and Benet as untrue to "real" history ("Maypole" 83).

The record of history, however thin, is nevertheless complex. The prominent figure, Morton, is less the Morton of Merry Mount than Morton the Slippery Trickster: now you have him, now you don't. Probably the simplest way to outline his story is to move rapidly through a chronology, some of it familiar to all students of British North America, some of it little known and seldom remarked upon. (2)

* 1608: During the early hours of British North America (after Jamestown but before Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay), a small group of radical extremists in the English Protestant movement, intending to exempt themselves from the corrupt English establishments of church and state, left England, taking refuge for about a dozen years in the Netherlands.

* 1620: Worried about assimilation into Dutch culture and anxious to avoid the corruptions of the continent of Europe altogether, this separatist branch of the English Puritan movement risked everything by removing to the "New World" and establishing Plymouth Colony.

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