Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

“The Best Parts of Histories”: The Letters in
William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation

Mark L. Sargent

VIRTUALLY EVERY GREAT BOOK GETS REMADE BY A NEW GENERATION OF editors, but William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation has been sliced up more than most. Ever since an ailing Bradford left the vellum-bound manuscript in the hands of his descendants, the book has been redacted by his admirers. Long before the manuscript was stolen from the Old South Church during the American Revolution and then lost for nearly a century, colonial historians—most notably, Bradford’s nephew Nathaniel Morton—lifted passages from the unpublished text and laced them into their own narratives. Chronologist and pastor Thomas Prince wrote his own notes on the actual manuscript, doctoring up passages that he claimed Bradford got wrong. More recently scholars have moaned that the governor’s book is too full of “administrative details” and some editors have pruned it.1 When Samuel Eliot Morison prepared the “definitive edition” of the history for “modern readers” in 1952, he decided that many of the letters in the book were “tedious” and “arid,” so he moved nearly half of Bradford’s correspondence into the appendices.2 Random House went one step further: when the publishers reprinted Morison’s edition in their Modern Library series, they left all the appendices, except one, out of the volume. That Modern Library paperback is still the edition that most Americans read.3

For William Bradford, however, the numerous letters were not digressions but often the pulse of the story. His narrative was full of his correspondence, largely because he was convinced that “letters are by some wise men counted the best parts of histories.”4 Bradford’s pursuit of the “simple truth in all things,” apparently, required voices other than his own (3). Those voices often bristle, as the history discloses years of financial discord, ethical quarrels, and mismanaged trade. The letters reveal anger and hope, sound notes of sorrow and

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