Builders of the Bay Colony
[Houghton Mifflin, $5.00]
THE MAN of the MONTH SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON
IN our post-war Jazz decade of the Machine Age it became clear that the American nation is at some sort of spiritual crossways having to do with its Puritan heritage, whether for modification or rejection. A transient phase of flippant cynicism could be ignored, but the revolt goes deeper. Modern psychology appears to have demolished certain of its traditional moral mandates. They no longer thunder in the index. How much is left? How much can be saved? How much is worth saving? What have we instead?
This situation is well known to Professor Morison, and he meets it wisely in not meeting it with a head-on collision. He has amused himself by writing for this tercentenary year of Massachusetts a history of its founding in terms of certain picturesque protagonists, and in so doing keeps his readers entertained while he instructs them unawares. He is not trying to reform anything, or convince anybody. This is what those founders were like, and, once certain gross current misconceptions are corrected, you may take them or leave them. It is all so well done that you find yourself rather inclined to take them. The very manner is disarming. His subject has become so much a part of him, he is so at home in it, he handles it with such ease and grace, that he is free to turn it to the illumination of contemporary life and manners with humor and spirit.
New England history has been accused of having been over-written. It would not be were more of its volumes like this one. I sigh to remember ponderous tomes of it I have waded through without finding in them the simplified essentials which one encounters in the compass of a few of Professor Morison’s pages.
The erudition is immense, yet never obtruded. Instead, you seem to be listening to an authority taking his ease, with such comments and side lights on his topic as would come in interestingly in conversation. Few Americans write such English. Here is scholarship without the stiff collar and the high hat. And so interrelated are persons, events, and scenes in many of the pages that one is reminded of the plot construction in a good novel.
Well, and what becomes of the Puritans — those much-belabored worthies with twenty mortal murders on their crowns who refuse to stay dead? Their sturdy lives are left to speak for themselves. They can and do. Their work is done and cannot easily be undone.
Perhaps one reason New England so exasperates its critics is that it has from long habit derived from these early founders a tendency to fix its eyes on a high goal and remain stonily indifferent to human missiles. Like Banquo with the witches, it neither begs nor fears your favors, nor your hate. The Puritan tradition remains the New England schoolmaster of the nation. Detest him we may, but respect him we must. Many of his former pupils hate him like the very Devil. That is nothing to him. The fact remains that he made men of us.