America's first published poet raised 8 children too
Mistress Bradstreet met tut-tutters with what we might call a stealth-feminist tactic
"Nestled right next to her poems in her collected works there is an astonishingly powerful autobiography," Charlotte Gordon affirms in the preface to this passionate appreciation of America's first published poet. This is welcome assurance that Mistress Bradstreet's work will not be taken out of the context of a time when not even men had the energy - not to mention the pens and parchment - for writing poetry. It is not to imply, however, that Anne Bradstreet's poems are what you could call domestic in nature. Not when her first five published poems total some 5,400 lines and have for their titles "The Four Elements," "Of The Four Humours In Man's Constitution," "Of The Four Ages Of Man," "The Four Seasons Of The Year," and "The Four Monarchies" (Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman). And all this before she then turns her ambitious mind to "A Dialogue Between Old England and New: Concerning Their Present Troubles, Anno 1642."
Who was this dutiful daughter brought reluctantly across the ocean as a girl; this loving wife led by her husband from one outpost to the next while raising eight children mostly as a single parent; this doubting woman of abiding Puritan faith? Who was this daring poet with restricted resources and limited library access who found it possible to work out the rhythms of her rhymed couplets in her head until they could be confidently set down; this first bestselling author ever to emerge out of the wilds of the so-called New World? And, truly, how can it be that Anne Dudley Bradstreet's story could be so little known, especially when she told it herself?
In Gordon's vivid account, her having been "anointed" as her father's favorite was to have "fallen heir" to his "heroic perfectionism" while also being supported and always sustained in her urge to express her strong opinions in a tolerable manner. She learned from the harsh object lesson of Anne Hutchinson's banishment ("To speak in public like this - to 'publish' - was to usurp the role of men and trespass into a world where a woman did not belong").
Mistress Bradstreet instead invented other ways to disarm her potential critics and still take up the important issues of the day. When she writes in the prologue to her published volume, "This mean and unrefined ore of mine/ Will make your glist'ring gold but more to shine," she succeeds with what might today be called the stealth-feminist tactic of ironic self-deprecation. "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/ Who says my hand a needle better fits," is, in other words, to beg to differ.
It was 1650 when Anne Bradstreet's "The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up In America" was published in England and, as Gordon tells it, "To her surprise, her words would catch fire and she would become the voice of an era and of a new country." It was a little volume, "measuring only five and a half by three and three-quarter inches," but it was listed a few years after its publication as "one of 'the most vendible books in England' in the bookseller William London's catalog, next to 'Mr. Milton's Poems' and 'Mr. Shaksper's Poems.' "
In these intervening 375 years, Anne Bradstreet's work was condescended to by the educator and editor Charles Eliot Norton, who wrote in his introduction to the 1897 edition of her poems, "Now and then a single verse shows true, if slight, capacity for poetic expression." But she was more respectfully included (without commentary) in the poet Conrad Aiken's 1929 "A Comprehensive Anthology" of American poetry. And then in 1956, the poet John Berryman published his breakthrough "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," combining his voice with hers and identifying with her pockmarked person as a means of paying tribute to her verses.
In a related way, while Gordon's bibliography is ample and her careful research impressive, her larger achievement likewise seems to be deliberately driven less by her own identity as an academic than as a published poet. And this quality of exuberant care proves contagious, motivating as it did in this reviewer the wish to experience "The Works of Anne Bradstreet" without interruption or interpretation. In "Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet," both the poet and the woman are so alive, and so seemingly contemporary, that to finish reading this book is to prompt the desire for more.
• Alexandra Marshall's fifth novel is "The Court of Common Pleas."