Book Review: "Making Haste from Babylon"

Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World
By Nick Bunker
Illustrated. 489 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.00.

Two eras of American history seem to be of perpetual interest to readers: the Revolutionary War and the Puritan epoch. Our attraction to the former stems, I think, from our desire both to emulate the bravery of the Founding Fathers and to claim them for our own political ends. We study the Puritans for the opposite reason: We want to avoid making what we view as their mistakes. (There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. Certain members of the religious right admire the Puritans as much as the Revolutionaries; and neo-Calvinists likely admire them more.)

Each year brings a new surge of books attempting to supply us with a new angle on what is a very familiar story, albeit one that has been so heavily mythologized that the average layman would not recognize the truth if he were transported back to the 1620s. Proper history must defuse the convenient and attractive myth; until that happens, further books on the Puritans will be necessary.

The latest book of this sort is Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World. The subtitle–appealing, no doubt, to fans of Brian McLaren–reads “A New History,” a claim that is simultaneously true and false. Bunker gives us much that is new (though he also repeats debunkings that earlier scholars have already performed), but it’s rather misleading to refer to this book as “a history” of anything. Rather, the phrase “and Their World” provides a more accurate summary of the book’s contents. Making Haste contains multitudes and would be more accurately subtitled “New Histories,” for Bunker does his best to discuss everything that went into the voyage of the Mayflower and the founding of Plymouth Plantation. As is so often the case, this expansiveness is both the book’s major strength and the termite that threatens to chew through its foundation.

Among the topics Bunker covers in Making Haste: the comet of 1618; King James’s obsession with health and illness; the Royal Chapel at Whitehall; the geography of Englands Old and New (many, many times); the importance of the beaver hat to 17th-century fashion; Robert Browne, the notorious Separatist; and a violent earthquake that shook England in 1580. All of these topics can inform our understanding of the Mayflower Pilgrims, of course, but most of them could serve as books in their own right, and Bunker’s narrative is continually in danger of collapsing under the collective weight of his diversions.

Much of this danger would be alleviated if Bunker had a clear thesis beyond “Here’s what happened to the Pilgrims,” but most of the time the book feels scattershot. He will return from an excursion in the informational wilderness long enough to discuss Plymouth for a few pages, before heading right back out again. Occasionally he will even jump from diversion to diversion without going back to the Puritans at all, as when he begins a discussion on “The Entrails of the King,” only to immediately head down another rabbit hole: “But before we venture into the depths of his mind, there is a story of surfaces to be told” (150). One closes the book with an image of Russian nesting dolls, a never-ending series of progressively more arcane topics.

The problem with my criticism is that the way Bunker’s book proceeds is, to the best of my knowledge, the way history as a discipline proceeds. (Disclaimer: I’ve never studied history in a professional or an academic way, aside from the two American history courses I took as an undergraduate and the dozen or so history books I’ve read in my capacity as a literary scholar, so if a professional historian reads this and wishes to correct my misconceptions about her field–well, much obliged.) History is by its nature interconnected; to learn one thing properly, one must learn every subject that touches it. So forth and so on, until you’re stuck in a mise-en-abyme, a house of mirrors with no exit. One solution to the problem is to pretend the interconnectedness doesn’t exist. This is how we end up with the so-called “whiggish histories” that propagate the oversimplified myths that in turn clal our for intentional complication, such as we find in Making Haste from Babylon.

What I look for in a history book, then, is the treacherous middle ground. The author must acknowledge the dizzying complications of his discipline–he must stay true to the real world–but he also must make cosmos from the chaos of his materials–he must stay true to the reader. The historian’s task is to draw a narrative where there exist only multiple narratives; the reader of history’s task is to read different accounts of the same events, in order to turn the monolithic myths of her primary school back into the twists and contradictions of real life. But it is very much a two-person job, and both reader and writer must confess to each other their finiteness; that is, they must admit that they cannot possibly cover it all.

This has rapidly turned into the sort of book review I hate, the review that talks about everything in the world except the book at hand. So let’s return to Bunker, who, though he’s bitten off a bit more than he can chew, nevertheless opens up some very interesting aspects of a story most Americans believe themselves to be familiar with. Bunker suggests early on that his being an Englishman gives him a new perspective on things, that heretofore English historians

have done what the Pilgrims did not do, and left America to the Americans. This is why so much of the Pilgrim narrative remains in shadowy monochrome, like a photograph in sepia, or a silent film, deprived of color, light, and sound. (5)

And indeed, this reviewer, at least, learned much that he did not know, most of it taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. Bunker is fastidious in sifting through 16th- and 17th-century records, which he uses as much as or more than he uses canonical histories like William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation. (When he takes a Pilgrim’s side, incidentally, it is usually Bradford’s–and if he disagrees with the governor from time to time, most often he goes a pretty long way toward vindicating Bradford’s opinions.)

By far, Bunker’s most interesting discovery is the role of the beaver in the survival of the Plymouth Colony. Our national story on the Puritans is that they sailed from England to find something abstract like “religious freedom.” Bunker doesn’t disagree, and he spends dozens, maybe hundreds, of pages discussing the theological positions and religious context of the Puritans. But he does add an economic motivation.

As is well-known, the Pilgrims did not leave England and immediately head to the New World. The original plan was for them to live unmolested in the Dutch city of Leiden, a textile powerhouse and world city on the make that Bunker memorably compares to “Chicago in 1890 . . . a new metropolis with the same extremes of inequality, the same volatile politics, and a religious divide” (213). But religion does not seem to have been the major problem for the English refugees in Leiden. Rather, they came to the city and found it exceedingly dangerous for the working classes and especially for immigrants. Leiden was a closed economic system:

In Leiden, wealth and influence belonged to very few. More than half the city’s property was owned by a narrow class of no more than 250 people, led the brewers and overseas merchants. . . . No Englishman could penetrate the clique of oligarchs who ran the towns, and neither could most of the Dutch. (216)

In the 1610s, Leiden was, like the rest of Europe, sliding toward recession, and things were starting to get ugly. Bunker points out that, of the four reasons Bradford gives for leaving Leiden, theology comes last. More important “was what he called ‘the hardness of ye place’: poor conditions, endless work, and a harsh diet” (219). The New World was thus an opportunity for economic rebirth.

The North American beaver, in Bunker’s estimation, is as responsible as any other factor for the survival of the Mayflower colony. He reveals the surprising fact that

At the peak of their activity, in the 1630s, the Mayflower Pilgrims sent more than two thousand beaver belts home to England . . . Without the fur trade, the colony would have failed, and the name of the ship would have faded into oblivion. (233)

The author admits that he is just exapnding on a reference Bernard Bailyn made half a century ago to the importance of the fur trade to the Puritan colony in Massachusetts–and yet his exploration of the subject carries the weight of new revelation because he is, he claims, the first historian since Bailyn to discuss this aspect of the settlement. Determining whether this claim is true is beyond my ability, but I had certainly never heard this part of the story before reading Making Haste from Babylon.

The irony is delicious and unsettling. The Puritans, known above all else for their renunciation of worldly decadence–this is the sect, after all, who banned all visual art from their churches and who stereotypically wear drab outfits of black and gray–were kept alive by selling beaver pelts back to the country they’d left. The pelts had only one use: They were made into beaver hats, luxury items that were the biggest status symbols of the mid-17th century. Some idea of their symbolic value to the era can be gleaned from the fact that Bunker quotes Coco Chanel in order to explain them.

He also discusses two English chapeliers, Richard and Samuel Arnold, noting that while “Later historians have often portrayed Puritan merchants as troubled souls, afflicted by an inner conflict between religion and the stress of conflict[,] this does not seem to have worried men such as the Arnolds” (235). Maybe not–but I would have liked to have heard about how Bradford and the other Mayflower Puritans walked this fine line, proclaiming a simple lifestyle while selling objects that inspired tremendous envy and vanity. As it is, Bunker hints at a complex dialectic of sin and economics, then leaves it for the theologians to untangle.

If there were a unifying thread to the histories Bunker weaves together in Making Haste from Babylon, it would be the role of the beaver, which he brings up many times and discusses at length in at least two chapters. But it’s not enough to provide a unified thesis for this messy, ambitious book, carved up by rabbit trails. This is apparently Bunker’s first book, and it’s not without either interest or promise. But here’s hoping that his next effort will present a better balance of order and multiplicity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *