Monday, May 02, 2005

Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet by Charlotte Gordon

Being a descendant of the poet Anne Bradstreet, wanting to read everything I can about her, I ordered Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet by Charlotte Gordon as soon as I read a review in Booklist. Bradstreet came to America in 1630, arriving on the Arbella with her husband Simon, her parents Thomas and Dorothy Dudley, and her three sisters and her brother. She was only eighteen at the time, but had been married for two years, and she was not happy about coming to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Conditions in the colony were desperate. Many in the previous year’s shipload of Puritan colonists had died over the winter, and they had failed to plant crops to feed the second wave of settlers. Many more would die the next winter.

Bradstreet and all her family survived the early years of the colony, moving from New Towne (Cambridge) to Ipswich and later to Andover, each community freshly cut from the forest. She managed a growing household, including indentured servants, and raised eight children. While in Ipswich, she read heavily, borrowing books from the personal libraries of several wealthy Puritans, including her father’s close friend, the minister Nathaniel Ward. Able to get parchment from her father, who had taught her the mechanics of poetry as a child in England, she began to write verse for her family and learned friends.

What is remarkable about Bradstreet is that few women were allowed as much freedom as she was granted in Puritan society. Anne Hutchinson had just been expelled from the colony for questioning the tenants of the faith, and Bradstreet’s writing could easily have upset church leaders. Her poems were kept within her close circle for years.

Bradstreet wrote two types of verse. Modern readers without knowledge of Puritan theology have trouble understanding her epic works, which deal with humors, graces, elements, and other antique concepts. What many readers enjoy are her personal poems, works that she never intended for public reading, which are simple, intimate, and elegant. These shortened poems, which broke with academic tradition, have influenced generations of poets. Many anthologies of American poetry begin with “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “The Author to Her Book,” or other Bradstreet poems.

Charlotte Gordon drew on Bradstreet’s autobiography, her poems, and many other primary sources to write Mistress Bradstreet. Anyone interested in poetry or in the history of early America should check it out.

Gordon, Charlotte. Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. ISBN 0316169048


Anonymous said...

Dear Rick,
As a retired librarian and also a descendant of Anne and Simon Bradstreet as you are, I was very interested in your review of Charlotte Gordon's excellent book. I'm about a third of the way through it and find it absolutely fascinating. I came across your website by googling Simon Bradstreet who was interesting in his own right. Actually, his wife is far, far more famous than he is; a bit of irony when you consider that she would have been such a secondary figure after her Governor husband in her own time. I'm glad I've come across your website and I'll be visiting it again. Best wishes from a very distant cousin,

Brad Bradstreet said...

As a descendant of Simon and Ann Bradtsreet I wish uou all a Happy New year. I too read Mistress Bradstreet and enjoyed it greatly.