May 2005

Olivia Cronk

nonfiction

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

Where is the man can say, “Lo, I have found
On brittle earth a consolation sound”?

-Anne Bradstreet, from The Vanity of All Worldly Things

Anne quickly learned... that poetry reading and writing should not be simple intellectual or emotional acts. Rather, they should be like ladders to God, like prayers.

-Charlotte Gordon, from Mistress Bradstreet

In 1630 Anne Bradstreet, along with an enormous group of like-minded Puritans, arrived at a northeasterly corner of the New World to colonize. Sick and hungry from a terrifying and brutal journey, these persecuted souls slowly made house in the place falsely billed as a paradise. Anne Bradstreet, one of the elite women of the group, slowly made house against her (private) wishes and slowly evolved into America’s first poet -- a woman of truly legendary status, but a woman, nonetheless, existing in the complicated and frightening context of her place in time.

Charlotte Gordon’s biography of Anne Bradstreet -- Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet -- begs quite a few questions. Gordon, a poet living in New England herself, handles some very complex issues here. The first is that of the role of biographies. It has been some time since I trolled through a biography. Always satisfying because of sheer voyeurism, accounts of writers’ lives, in particular, appeal to the part of the brain that struggles to understand how art is made. And it is always a stimulating experience to observe a biographer treat creation in these works. Gordon, it seems, has positioned herself as a researcher/arranger/narrator rather than as a poet or creator of any sort.

On Sunday, April 24, NPR’s Scott Simon conducted an interview with Charlotte Gordon about her new book. It was the usual fare: a bit of chat about Bradstreet and her role as an early American woman, one of Bradstreet’s poems read smoothly by Gordon and another by Simon, and a bit more chat to wrap things up and plug the book. There were two interesting things about this. 1) Gordon chose to read "To My Dear and Loving Husband," a warm and finely crafted poem with content identical to its title. What was moving about her reading was the pitch of her voice (slightly arched, very young, very familiar with the voice of the poet); it betrayed her real obsession with the writing, the language, the pieces that fall into place out of mere necessity and circumstance to create a nice poem. Why is this notable? Because there are only slight traces of this specific obsession present in her biography. As I mentioned above, Gordon plays no poet in this book. She is all business, to the effect of suppressing her own burnings. (Having now read about Puritan life, this seems an almost Bradstreet-esque gesture.) 2) Scott Simon, to my reading, quite accurately called this book “the best depiction of life in the colonies” that he’d read. What he was complimenting Gordon on was her skillful and precise treatment of social history -- including details most wonderfully mundane and high-mindedly philosophical. Again, Gordon’s role in this book, for better or worse, is that of researcher, of arranger (the never-ending and lovely details!), and of narrator. Never once, though, was a bit of the book itself excerpted for broadcast.

The making of art and the course of a life exist in a strange, sometimes antagonistic or parasitic relationship. The one sucks the fervor out of the other as easily as it feeds. Charlotte Gordon is certainly aware of this problem. Particularly for a Puritan woman, the problem of making art and living appropriately was a daunting one. This strange matter controls Gordon’s own voice in the text. It is not until Anne herself begins to emerge from her youth that Gordon allows her own diction to appear in the writing. I am bothered by Gordon’s steady, neutral presence. I am bothered by her failure to excessively and lovingly cite and shed light upon Bradstreet’s poems. I am bothered, finally, by her plain and unadorned language. (“Puritan Plain Style,” maybe?) These criticisms are surface things -- personal tastes, flimsy subjective notes -- but I believe they highlight something about Gordon’s theory as she entered into dialogue with the unwieldy shape of Bradstreet’s life.

Gordon has the cutting and pasting hand of Max Ernst (perfect Victorian bird lungs in the leg of a woman jumping over a mirror in flames -- not a trace of collage) as far as arrangement of information goes. On a technical level, she is an absolute genius. So seamless and full is her prose, that it feels she has gifted to the reader a wealth of fun and novel information. There is a patch about midway through the book where she is particularly adept. Chapter after chapter spills forth wonderful factoids with frank functions. On naming children: “[T]here were many instances of names that Puritan parents adopted to express their devotion to God or to declare their own earthly suffering, such as ‘Hoped For,’ ‘Return,’ ‘Believe,’ ‘Wait,’ ‘Thanks,’ ‘Unite,’ ‘Supply,’ or ‘Tremble.’ One recently widowed mother even saw fit to name her newborn ‘Fathergone.’” Babies, in fact, “were frequently referred to as ‘it,’ not because of any lack of maternal devotion, but because mothers were responsible for running an entire household... there were often dire results to the many responsibilities a woman had to juggle... One poor mother came home from hiking out to a distant field to deliver her husband his midday meal only to discover her baby had vanished. ‘It was here just now presently,’ an older daughter declared. But after a frantic search, the body of the toddler was found floating in an “unfenced water hole.” On Bradstreet’s requisite knowledge of herbs:

She would have known that adder’s tongue was excellent for healing wounds and ground ivy for those struggling with a "ringing sound and humming noise" in their ears. Angelica could "abate the rage of lust in young persons" and was an antidote to poison, "all infections taken by evill and corrupt aire," toothache, sciatica, and gout. Anise quited "belchings and upbraidings of the stomach"... Artichokes eliminated "the rank smell of the arm-holes"... Cinquefoil treated toothache, "falling sickness," ulcers, liver disease... cucumber for complexion... gentians for those who had fallen off a roof or to rub on the udders of a cow that had been bitten by a snake.

As thoroughly as Gordon depicts the daily operations of colonial life, she also carefully elaborates on Puritan thinking. I am not sure if it is an intended sub-text, but the book certainly explains, given our country’s Puritan roots, many of the ideas and morals present in our current and historical culture. Gordon does an impressive job of avoiding the passing of any contemporary thought-based judgment on these often small-minded and imperialistic forefathers (and foremothers). “Of course, Anne had no idea that she lived ‘before’ anything in particular, any more than we think that the twenty-first century is a time ‘before.’ All things in a context. All things, large and small." Ultimately, Gordon’s book is a piece of history without the messy candy stuff I so crave -- the troubling pair of a poetics and a life, how the one influences the other and how the arranger of the posthumous minutiae and niceties puppeteers all of it, how one can dwell outside of time when inside of a poet’s process. Charlotte Gordon is quite disciplined in her approach, though one cannot but wonder...

Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet by Charlotte Gordon
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0316169048
337 pages