By Jim Miller
It’s Banned Books Week and what better way to kick it off than with a salute to America’s first banned book: Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan published in 1637? New English Canaan is a three-volume affair containing Morton’s sympathetic observations about Native Americans along with a celebration of the beauty of the natural world and a fierce satire of the Puritans.
While some scholars point to other books such as John Eliot’s The Christian Commonwealth (written in the late 1640s) or William Pynchon’s The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption (1650)as the first books to be banned by the Puritans for theological or historical reasons, Morton’s New English Canaan precedes both of these texts and the conflict surrounding it is far more important and illustrative with regard to the political and cultural history of the United States.
Indeed, Morton’s book was banned because it told his side in one of the pivotal battles for the cultural soul of the New World. Morton, a perpetual thorn in the side of the great Puritan patriarch William Bradford, represented the untamable “other” of colonial America. When Morton set up his rival colony of Merry Mount in close proximity to Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation and invited the Indians and escaped indentured servants to join him, all hell broke loose.
As scholar John Beckman tells us in his recent book American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt, “William Bradford was nobody’s democrat.” In fact, “He was the first in a long line of American fortress builders—from slave owners and Klansmen to corporations and country clubs—elites, oligarchs, and authoritarians for whom the wilderness was either weeds to be incinerated or woods to be hewn into exclusionary towns. He was also the first great American curmudgeon.” Thus, Bradford was not one to tolerate dissent from the likes of his new neighbor.
Thomas Morton, Beckman explains, was “an ideological threat to [the Puritans’] fastidious utopia.” Morton, whom Bradford called the “Lord of Misrule,” inspired the Puritans’ fear and contempt because, according to Beckman, he:
[F]ounded a camp of free-loving bondservants within striking distance. A lover of the wilderness who consorted with Indians, a radical democrat and reckless hedonist, Morton represented an opposing side of the incipient American character, the gleefully unruly side. Cheerful, curious, horny, and lawless, he anticipated the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic. His experiment in insanely energized democracy at his anything goes Merry Mount colony, thirty miles north of Plymouth’s spiky fortress, made confetti of their Mayflower Compact. Bradford’s coup to bring it down, in the spring of 1627, counts as the first volley on the battlefield of American fun.
In fact, Morton did everything he could to thumb his nose at the Puritans by erecting a maypole at Merry Mount festooned with bright colors and penning a poem full of classical references that his neighbors considered a pagan and sacrilegious gesture almost as bad as the phallic nature of the maypole and some of the ribald content of the poem.
Morton then proceeded to frolic with Native American “lasses in beaver coats” and “drink good liquor” with his band of former indentured servants whom he had invited to join him as equals. That, along with the selling of guns to Native Americans whose hunting prowess aided his trading company, was seen as a severe threat to the Puritan social order.
In his satiric account of the Puritans’ attack on his colony, Morton ridicules their lack of learning, mocks the “gloom” of “the melancholy man,” and refers to Captain Myles Standish and his men as “Captain Shrimp” and “the nine worthies.” In the end, the problem with the Puritans, according to Morton, is that they “make a great show of religion but no humanity.”
Bradford, in his account of the conflict, is fairly forthright in his condemnation of the “great licentiousness” of Morton’s crew and lists their sins of “trading with the Indians,” setting up “a maypole, drinking and dancing about it for many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies rather, and worse practices.” For Bradford, it was clear that Merry Mount (the sexual pun was intended) was an example of “the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians.”
In addition to the sins of race mixing and revelry, perhaps the greatest transgression manifest at Merry Mount was the presence of a populace of rowdy former indentured servants who Bradford calls “all the scum of the country” and who Morton had inspired to join him, “’so may you be free of service, and we will converse, trade, plant, and live together as equals, and support and protect one another’ or to like effect.”
And so Bradford concludes his case against “so unworthy a person, and a bad cause.” Morton, who even after the Puritans cleansed Merry Mount, kept coming back to stake his claim, was finally, Beckman tells us, “apprehended in Boston in 1644 for the publication of New English Canaan, distinguished ever since as America’s first banned book.”
Though Morton was finally exiled and died in Maine in 1647, his story survived being banned and lives on to this day, reminding us that the impulse to uphold pleasure over work, to love rather than to just exploit the wilderness, to stick it to the Puritans, and to insist on the desirability of radical democracy over any form of unjust social hierarchy is a deeply rooted though frequently repressed aspect of the American character.