In 1991, while living in Washington D.C., I wrote a short piece of social history at Thanksgiving for the Washington Post entitled: “A Pilgrim Primer.” Its intent was to clarify many of the myths and misconceptions about the Pilgrims in a light manner explaining that what we knew about the pilgrims was only partially true. I based my piece on several well-document works, including George F. Willison’s book, Saints and Strangers.
After first explaining the initial attempt to sail was made on the ill-fated Speedwell, not the Mayflower, I went on to say that the Pilgrim band was not all separatists from England, but also strangers and others hired for the voyage, such as John Alden, the ship’s cooper who tended the barrels of beer or possibly strong spirits in the hold. I then discussed Longfellow’s version of John and Priscilla and noting that his was mainly a folk tale, and that Myles Standish was married when he made the voyage, but failed to mention that his wife had died after the arrival.
Further I noted that the Pilgrims were ridiculed by the ship’s crew, and then moved on to the story of Plymouth Rock. Noting that it too was part of oral tradition, I explained that in the 19th century Felicia Dorothea Hemans, an obscure author, composed an ode to the Pilgrims’ landing. Since she knew very little of the Pilgrims’ lives, she made up many of the details, including the rock-bound coast and crashing waves. It was from Hemans and Longfellow that we got many of our ideas about the Pilgrims. Adding that whether or not the Pilgrims actually stepped on Plymouth Rock, they must certainly have been glad to get off the Mayflower.
The following weekend, in the Op-Ed section of the paper a curious and critical rebuttal appeared to my piece. In it the writer, who took great umbrage, accused me of spreading rumors and innuendo about the Pilgrims: that I implied Capt. Miles Standish was contemplating bigamy when he wished to marry Priscilla Mullins, that the Pilgrims were drunkards because I mentioned that they drank beer, that Longfellow was a careful historian who told the truth, and my explanation of Plymouth Rock’s origin was false because “anyone who thinks that the rockbound coast and crashing waves were made up by an imaginative 19th century authoress has not flown into Boston airport and looked down from the plane as it comes in for the landing.”
To say I was floored not only by the accusations of the writer, but also the tone of the rebuttal, is an understatement. I had clearly ruffled some feathers and challenged some cherished beliefs of the author. I had pointed out that the Pilgrims were real people with faults as well as strengths, and that their real story was more interesting than myth. My critic, however, had no interest in the truth.
This, then, is a lesson to all of us who try to clarify and explain the truth to those who prefer myth and folk tales – be careful who you tell the truth to –but remember sometimes the truth is clearly more interesting.