Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review: MAYFLOWER by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2006)

You've no doubt heard the old chestnut: "The Pilgrim Fathers fell on their knees and then fell on the aborigines." As Philbrick's absorbing history of the relationship between the Plymouth Colony and the Native Americans from 1620 to 1676 demonstrates, the truth was considerably more complicated than that. Taking advantage of new documentation of Native American life in New England, Philbrick treats the colonists and the natives with admirable even-handedness, avoiding falling into either the "traditional triumphalist narrative" or the politically correct modern version. The story he tells is one of a slowly-developing tragedy, in which the reasonably cordial entente between the Mayflower Pilgrims and the Indians fell to pieces upon the accession of the following generation. Greed for land and Native American rivalries proved to be the kindling for King Philip's War, a regional conflict which ranks among America's bloodiest on a per-capita basis. It has been argued that the devastation and chaos let loose by this struggle and other low-profile, high-intensity colonial wars of the time persuaded Great Britain to assume much tighter control over its American colonies, leading to "the end of American independence," at least for a century or so. After reading about the human and environmental costs of King Philip's War, I can certainly see the logic in this line of thinking.

MAYFLOWER is apparently becoming a popular choice for assigned readings in high-school history classes. I welcome this, because I honestly don't think that Philbrick has any agenda to peddle. It was gratifying to read a description of "The First Thanksgiving" that, while clearing up some of the misconceptions as to the exact nature of the affair, isn't afraid to point out that a number of the well-worn cliches about this event do, in fact, have a basis in reality. The first generation of Pilgrims, despite occasional missteps, did keep the peace with the natives for several decades and maintained reasonably good relations with local tribes. As often happens, however, those who came after them profited from the earlier generation's labors without absorbing enough of its wisdom.


Joe Torcivia said...


Not intending to hijack the discussion of history in another, seemingly unrelated direction, but when you write:
“As often happens, however, those who came after them profited from the earlier generation's labors without absorbing enough of its wisdom.”

We sure can apply this to the modern comic book industry!

Consider Marvel from the ‘90s to today. DC from the mid 2000s to today. And Boom! – Period!

Going back a bit further, let us not fail to mention Wizard and everything related to it, “Disney Comics” (Capital “C”), Montgomery’s Harvey, and all the schlock publishers of the ‘80s and ‘90s whose product litters back issue bins everywhere.

…Then, beyond comics, there’s “reality TV”, absurdly contentious politics, and the list goes on…


Chris Barat said...


And you probably could add to that list very easily! Good points.