It's talking Tuesday and I have another guest blogger who is willing to share with us today. Author Glenn Cheney is going to talk about his book Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims' First Year in America. So let me hand it over to Glenn.
When I started writing Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims’ First Year in America, I realized that I was going to have a problem with the truth. A philosophical problem.
Because how do we know what’s true? Historians are always very careful to relate only what they know happened. They can’t make stuff up. The same goes for journalists and anyone else who writes nonfiction.
My philosophical problem with truth was the question of lying by omission. Someone who kept a journal during the Pilgrims’ first year in America described the crossing of the Atlantic used just 54 words for the time between shoving off from England to the first espying of Cape Cod. Obviously he (we suppose it was a he, though it could have been a she or a they) left out a lot. To summarize 66 days at sea with “after many difficulties in boisterous storms” is to belittle an experience unimaginable to modern Americans. (Some of our more recent immigrants, on the other hand, may be able to relate to it.) There were 102 people in a space smaller than half the size of a high school basketball court, a space they shared with some farm animals, a few cannons, a dismantled sailboat, and a certain amount of carry-on baggage. If they all lay down at the same time, they’d have to do some serious spooning. When William Bradford later wrote that “many were afflicted with seasickness,” he omitted the fact that they had neither bathroom nor porthole, that the vomit was flying, the chamber pots rolling around, that everybody had to hold on to somebody else to keep from tossing around like so much loose cargo.
But he did note that during one of those boisterous storms, a wave pounded against the ship so hard that it snapped a thick, oak rib that arched over the deck where the Pilgrims lived. he didn’t mention seawater pouring into the boat, the shouts and screams, the panic in the dark or near-dark, the one, giant, mutual thought that the next wave would do more damage, terminal damage, to the critically weakened structure of the ship.
I wrote this:
“For the next two months, the passengers would live in a dim, wet world that smelled of seawater, vomit, chamber pots, animal dung, unwashed clothes, and every aroma the human can produce, not to mention the whiffs of wine, tar, fish, and turpentine of cargoes past. They heard men snore, women weep, children whine, an oink-oink here, a cluck-cluck there, sailors thumping around the deck above. They heard each other pray. They heard the stutter of the tiller as it swung back and forth at the rear of the gundeck. They heard a continuous creaking of wood that spoke of the condition of the ship, the mood of the sea, the strength of the wind. Sometimes the creaking murmured that all was well; sometimes it screamed that man was not meant to sail across oceans. They read the tones of the shouts of the sailors to guess the ever-shifting degree of danger. When waves reared back and thundered across the upper deck, cold water dripped through the decking. During each four-hour shift, sailors manned two pumps to draw water out of the bilge, up onto the top deck, where most of it ran to the sea but some of it dripped or trickled back down on the passengers. The passengers were moist at the best of time, soaked at the worst of time, and never truly dry, not for a moment, from late summer 1620 to mid-winder 1621.”
I had to surmise everything in that paragraph, pulling together the sensory data that we have to conclude was there. (I’ve spared you my surmised scene of endemic seasickness in close quarters.)
It was with sensory information that I tried to induce the reader to share the Pilgrim, experience. I didn’t need a journalist to tell me what it felt like to wade a hundred yards to a Cape Cod beach in the middle of November. I didn’t need to tell the reader — wouldn’t dare tell the reader — what to think when Bradford and others dug up an Indian grave and found the body of a child with yellow hair. And I must admit I had to cheat when implying how I thought the Pilgrims reacted when an almost naked “savage” strolled boldly into their camp, said “Welcome Englishmen” in their own language, and promptly asked if they had any beer. Having no information on how the Pilgrims felt at that moment that I had to write “Documents surviving from the period do not record whether flabbergasted jaws dropped open, teeth fell to the ground, eyes popped rom wide-stretched sockets, breath stopped short or words clotted in throats.”
Neither Bradford nor the journalist described how people felt on April 5, 1621, when the Mayflower — their home since the previous summer — sailed for England. They had no idea whether the ship would make it across the ocean again. If it didn’t, no one there would know where they were. I wrote:
“Given their history since they first left Scrooby [England] for Leyden [Holland] in 1608, the [Pilgrims] had no reason to expect any such best-case scenario. If things went as they had so far, they’d never hear from England again. Instead of a Mayflower full of food, tools, and people, they’d get a pirate ship full of cannons. But miracles, they knew, happened. God would take care of them. On April 5, the Mayflower weighed anchor, hoisted sail, and eased toward the eastern horizon, but it carried no Planters. Everyone stayed. If there was a moment when they became Americans, this was it.”
I could go on and on. In fact that’s what I did. That’s how I ended up with a book. If you’d like to read more of it, there’s a lengthy excerpt at NLLibrarium.com/thanksgiving . Do have a look. And don’t wait for November. Thanksgiving isn’t bout a holiday. It’s about a bunch of people and everything that happened to them.
For more information about Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims' First Year in America please visit New London Librarium
Thank you Glen so much for your post. I've got my copy of Thanksgiving in hand and I'm finishing up one more book before I start it. But reading this post makes me want to read it now... I've flipped through it a little bit and my first thoughts are that it looks pretty interesting. I have the hardcover and I LOVE the ribbon bookmark.