A Pen Better Fits: Bradstreet’s Heroic Voice in “The Prologue [To Her Book]”
Written for my English 201 (American Literature) class on February 2, 2018, I had to choose a Puritan piece we had covered in class and analyze it from the one of the four Native American story types we had examined when looking at Native American oral tales: Origin and Emergence Stories, Cultural Hero Stories, Trickster (Transformer) Tales, and Historical Narratives. This assignment was extremely random. I felt like my paper was going to be bad before I ever began it; however, I had a lot of fun with it, it made me think about Puritan writings in a new, unique way, and I am actually pretty proud of how this essay turned out. I considered looking at Salem Witch trial court documents as a Trickster Tale (Mather’s “Wonders of the Invisible World”), but ultimately decided to cover Anne Bradstreet’s “The Prologue [To Her Book],” which I argued could be looked at as a Culture Hero Story for what Bradstreet and this piece did for women’s rights in America years after her death. The essay was written in MLA 8 format, complete with in-text citations and a Works Cited page.
I earned a score of 96%. My instructor disliked my weak qualifying words: “might,” “seem,” “perhaps,” and “can be,” and wanted me to be more firm in the positions I was taking. I see where he’s coming from and see the mistake as a learning opportunity, but am still proud of this and my high A.
Anne Bradstreet was among the Puritan settlers who sailed to America and claimed land that was occupied by Native Americans. The two groups coexisted and interacted. It was impossible for them not to influence each other, physically as well as intellectually. Although Native Americans never recorded their own stories, which they intended to be experienced orally, it is interesting to think about how their stories might have influenced early Puritan writings. Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan and the first American poet, may have seen and heard about Native American culture and society. Perhaps she saw great Native American women, who not only had voices in their societies, but also important roles and influence. Perhaps she heard stories about great women who were respected and considered culture heroes to their people. How might Bradstreet’s writings and ideas have been influenced? In “The Prologue [To Her Book],” Anne Bradstreet writes about one such hero: herself. If “The Prologue [To Her Book]” were looked at in the same light as a Native American Culture Hero Story, one might notice common elements: a social order that needs changing, a remarkable individual who plays the part of a hero, and a cultural change brought about or influenced by that hero that changes the world for the better.
Anne Bradstreet lived in a society where women were considered lesser creatures than men. She believed it herself. She writes in “The Prologue [To Her Book]” that “men can do best, and women know it well” (7.40). It can be argued that because of her social status, Bradstreet lacked confidence. She calls herself and her work “obnoxious” (5.25) and “unrefined” (8.47). She states that she is not worthy to write about things like “wars, . . . captains, and kings” (1.1). Most women in Puritan society were uneducated. Writing and thinking about complex ideas were left to men. It might be argued that this was just how it was in the time in which Bradstreet lived, but her work was published and credited to her as a woman in Britain.
In America, many Native American women were honored and treated as equals by men. “They had power politically, spiritually, medically and generally in everyday life” (Popick). Furthermore, in Native American oral stories like “Changing Woman and the Hero Twins,” women were held in high regard. Female oppression was not a result of the time, but rather a result of Puritan religious beliefs. Although, as a woman, Bradstreet was not permitted to have a voice in her own society, her writing gave her a voice that would last through time. “The Prologue [To Her Book]” expressed what she hoped to accomplish with her writing: “Yet grant some small acknowledgment of ours [women]” (7.42). The Puritan social order was in dire need of change. A hero would have to bring about that change.
For Bradstreet, the speaker in “The Prologue [To Her Book],” to be a hero who can stand strong beside culture heroes in Native American Culture Hero Stories, she would have to be remarkable (Wiget 24). The way she refers to herself and her work in “The Prologue [To Her Book]” may leave readers thinking she is anything but; however, Bradstreet’s greatness is implied and proven in her craft rather than said outright. Bradstreet’s poem is written in iambic pentameter, a feat that was probably difficult for most writers to accomplish at the time. The fact that Bradstreet was able to skillfully write in iambic pentameter as a woman in her time with the limited amount of education afforded to women makes it an even greater feat. In “The Prologue [To Her Book]” Bradstreet goes on to allude to Bartas, a writer many Puritans read and loved (2.8). She also alludes to Calliope and the nine muses, great females in Greek mythology (6.32-33). Bradstreet’s book that includes “The Prologue [To Her Book]” is actually titled “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America,” and implies that Bradstreet is the tenth muse. That she would dare hint at placing herself among such heroes of the past as Calliope and the nine muses shows the backbone of this woman in such a repressed society. Bradstreet’s evident education in a time where women were not typically educated makes her a remarkable Puritan woman. Her skill as a poet makes her a remarkable writer. She was a devout Puritan and accepted her place in society, running a home and raising eight children before working on her craft (Cowell 438). That makes her a remarkable person. Her willingness to stand up against the Puritan social order and ask men to acknowledge women makes her a remarkable hero.
As remarkable as she was, Bradstreet was not able to bring about change in her own time for her own people. It can be argued that because men in her life published her book, she was acknowledged and accepted by men for her efforts, her ideas, and her talents. That is not enough for her to be considered a culture hero, however. For Bradstreet to be a hero in a Native American Culture Hero Story, she would have to bring about or inspire change across a society (Wiget 24-25). In her lifetime, she probably did not see social change among her own people when it came to women being acknowledged in society. To see that change, one would have to zoom out and look beyond her life. Bradstreet was not a female Puritan culture hero. She was a female American culture hero.
Although in “The Prologue [To Her Book],” Bradstreet stays within the confines of her culture and faith and does not ask to be looked at as an equal to men, she asks to be acknowledged (7.42). Her people, the Puritans, were a strict and Godfearing people. Women were raised not to challenge men or their own status in society, so this seemingly small request was huge for Bradstreet’s time. Her act of courage in “The Prologue [To Her Book]” laid the groundwork for women to demand rights in later generations. In this way, Bradstreet could be looked at as the first American feminist. She, in fact, became a figurehead for feminism and women’s rights in America (Hutchins 41). Changing a culture begins with changing a person, and that begins with just one step in the right direction. Bradstreet took one of those first steps for feminism in America. Readers can look back at “The Prologue [To Her Book]” today, knowing the advances that have been made regarding female equality, and look upon the speaker of the poem, Bradstreet herself, as a culture hero.
Like Native Americans, Anne Bradstreet was in her own right a masterful storyteller. In “The Prologue [To Her Book],” she wrote of a remarkable culture hero who noticed that the social order needed changing and set out to change it. Maybe Bradstreet’s vision was to merely change her local surroundings, but what she began would ultimately change the world, bettering the lives of millions of women worldwide. Although she never saw the impact of her work on feminism in her lifetime, her poem’s speaker, herself, became a culture hero that can stand among the best in Native American Culture Hero Stories.
Bradstreet, Anne. “The Prologue [To Her Book].” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, 7th ed., Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, pp. 439-41.
Cowell, Pattie. “Anne Bradstreet 1612?-1672.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, 7th ed., Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, pp. 437-39.
Hutchins, Zach. “The Wisdom of Anne Bradstreet: Eschewing Eve and Emulating Elizabeth.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, Summer 2010, pp. 38-59, JSTOR, www.academia.edu/15331212/The_Wisdom_of_Anne_Bradstreet_Eschewing_Eve_and_Emulating_Elizabeth.
Popick, Jacqui. “Native American Women, Past, Present, and Future.” Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2006, www.lurj.org/issues/volume-4-number-1/running.
Wiget, Andrew O. “Creation/Emergence Accounts.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, 7th ed., Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, pp. 23-26.