Aeneas at Plymouth Rock
Four centuries of American tradition is something to be thankful for.
For the first decade of the 17th century, the twenty-something Stephen Hopkins was a barman in England, the proprietor of a little tavern kept with his wife Mary (née Kent) and Mary’s mother Joan. Sometime early in 1609, the restless 28-year-old took a new job as a minister’s clerk adjacent to the Virginia Company, and in June left the women in charge of the pub to set sail aboard the Sea Venture for the young settlement of Jamestown.
In a five-day storm at the end of July, nearly two months into the transatlantic voyage, the Sea Venture came just short of sinking before she ran aground a mile offshore of the haven of Bermuda. Her passengers made their way to the island, where Sir Thomas Gates—who was on his way to assume the governorship of Jamestown—established a kind of provisional authority. By September, the Sea Venture‘s longboat had been readied to carry a small crew to the mainland; eight men set sail and never returned. When the rescue mission’s failure became evident, Gates ordered the construction of ships to carry the entire body to Virginia.
It was slow work, starting as they were nearly from scratch (albeit with abundant natural resources). Hopkins’ patience had worn thin by the new year, and he began to speak out against Gates’ island regime. He was quickly charged with mutiny and sentenced to execution. The dissident had made some friends, though, in Bermuda, and a few entreaties to the governor found the minister’s clerk spared death.
(It is alleged, by those who believe in that sort of thing, that a man named William Shakespeare read an account of the Sea Venture ordeal and was inspired to write The Tempest, a subplot of which sees a drunken jester named Stefano stage an abortive mutiny after shipwrecking on an island.)
The boats were finished in the spring and Gates’ cohort, Hopkins included, made the 11-day journey to Virginia in May, nearly a full year after their departure. There the striver Hopkins set to work, a portion of his wages supporting Mary and the children back in England. For more than three years he labored in the near-wilderness of Jamestown—which, upon the Gates group’s providential arrival, had been teetering on the brink of starvation. A letter informing of Mary’s death called Hopkins back to the Old World in 1614, where he resumed the care of his children and married again, to one Elizabeth Fisher.
The London life, it seems, did not suit his constitution. In 1620, the Hopkins family learned of another expedition to Virginia, this one to set up a new colony in the region’s northern reaches. Stephen and Elizabeth took Constance (14), Giles (13), and Damaris (2) aboard a little ship setting sail from Plymouth, near the southwestern tip of England. It was a hard journey; Oceanus Hopkins was born en route but would only live to six years old.
In November the sea-weary pilgrims caught sight of land at last, but it would be another month before they disembarked. After difficult weeks spent scouting along the coast, the passengers of the Mayflower finally stepped down onto what had been, a few years prior, the Wampanoag village of Patuxet. They renamed it in honor of the port where their journey began.
That winter of 1620-1621 would be harder than anything Hopkins had yet faced; but shipwreck, a near miss with the executioner, four years of colonial labor, the loss of his beloved wife, and every other brutality of the Old World and the New had prepared him well for what was to come. All through winter, the women and children stayed aboard ship at anchor in Plymouth Harbor. In the morning, Stephen and the other men would crowd into the longboats, row ashore, and work through the still-frigid sunlight hours at the construction of modest houses. Forty-five of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers were dead by winter’s end.
But the houses were built eventually, and the survivors set to farming once the ground had thawed in spring. They did so with the help of natives who had worked the land for generations, including men enshrined in our national myths like the translator Squanto, the sagamore Samoset, and the sachem Massassoit. In fact, it was through Hopkins that many of these relationships were built. The only man at Plymouth with past experience in America, he was thus the only one with any firsthand knowledge of its peoples. He learned their language quickly, and became a crucial conduit between the Wampanoag and Pilgrim leaders. It was at Hopkins’ newly built Plymouth house that the first official summit between the Old World colonists and their New World allies was convened.
It is a more festive convention, though, that we commemorate today. In the fall the Pilgrims, with native aid, saw a modestly fruitful first harvest. Elizabeth Hopkins and the three other women who survived the brutal winter—Mary Brewster, Susannah White, and Eleanor Billington—prepared a feast in celebration. Beer was the Pilgrims’ staple drink, and as the day grew long and the men grew boisterous, muskets were fired into the air as an odd but explosive signal of their joy.
This attracted the attention of the natives. Fearing an attack from the newcomers—whose intentions they had not yet figured out—Wampanoag men hastened to Plymouth ready for a fight. What they found was quite the opposite: The (slightly drunken) Pilgrims welcomed them with open arms. Too proud to come to the party empty-handed, the Wampanoag men went out to the woods, killed five deer, and presented them to Governor William Bradford and Captain Miles Standish. The simple harvest meal then turned into a three day feast, at which Wampanoag outnumbered Pilgrims by more than two to one.
Given late attempts to revise this history, the most remarkable thing about the first Thanksgiving may be just how close the truth is to the storybook version that was taught to us growing up. A year of terror and ruin was coming to a close. The Pilgrims’ fortunes were finally turning after their numbers had been cut in half by weather and disease. A tenuous alliance with a foreign people was solidified in a happy and spontaneous international celebration. Stephen Hopkins really did break bread his wife had baked with men whose language he barely knew and whose land he had just more or less invaded. The natives even brought the corn with which the bread was made.
Though the road ahead would not be without troubles—Damaris, Oceanus, and Elizabeth all would predecease him; alliance with the Wampanoag would not mean total peace, nor would it last two generations—that harvest feast 400 years ago was a turning point for Stephen Hopkins and all of his companions. After a decade wandering and months spent toiling, the man who had first left London a dozen years before had finally found a place to rest. Here, at last, he could put down roots that might take hold.
When Hopkins turns up in the colony’s records at all in his later years, it is always for minor infractions against the law at the tavern he set up on Leiden Street: serving beer on Sundays, letting things get rowdy. None of them brought him back to the gallows, though; he was buried next to Elizabeth in 1644, a remarkable 35 years after his death sentence in Bermuda.
* * *
At a remove of 14 generations I suppose it’s all a bit arbitrary, but I choose to take this as the starting point of my own American story. A selected genealogy, edited by no other standard than my amusement at the names: Hopkins’ daughter Constance’s daughter Constance’s great-great-grandson Elkanah Young was the grandfather of a man named Morris Grout, whose son Albert Morris Grout’s son Albert Morris Grout’s daughter Ethel Margaret Grout was my mother’s father’s mother.
Which is why I find myself torn. There is a part of me—a strong one—that wants to start learning Hungarian tomorrow; ready the lifeboats and just jump ship as soon as I see fit. Every day the American regime and the social order it breeds become more and more hostile to people like me. And I cannot help thinking that it was always going to be this way—that a world built by Separatists and their capitalist underwriters was never going to be too hospitable to their reactionary papist descendants. The part of me that is still very angry about the theft of the British crown from the rightful Stuart kings just wants to get on a boat and run off to a world where the churches are all eight centuries old and ancient myths can still be read in the contours of the landscape.
But it would not be very traditional to do so.
From the moment Stephen Hopkins first set foot in Plymouth, this has been—in some ineluctable if infinitesimal way—my country. The first of my ancestors arrived in my hometown four full centuries ago. Even in Europe, how many people can say the same today? A century and a half after their arrival my ancestors fought the forces of Parliament to defend their rights as Englishmen; another century later they fought to preserve the independent Union they had established when their countrymen turned arms on them. For better or worse, this—not Hungary, not Poland, not the resurrected Papal States—is the country my forefathers built. This is what tradition means; this is what has been handed down to me.
* * *
My only claim to Southern heritage is Stephen Hopkins’ Jamestown sojourn, but I’ve been thinking lately of that great Southern traditionalist, Allen Tate. I was racking my brain, some night about a week ago, over what I wanted to say on the quadricentennial of that Plymouth harvest feast. One of Tate’s finest poems came to mind: “The Mediterranean,” written in 1933.
In just nine quatrains “The Mediterranean” tracks a group of American travelers on a sort of pilgrimage in the European sea. They have stopped to rest in “a long bay / a sling-shot wide, walled in by towering stone.” One of the pilgrims narrates as a mystical, still moment “out of time’s monotone” quickly becomes a kind of ritual:
And we made feast and in our secret need
Devoured the very plates Aeneas bore:
Where derelict you see through the low twilight
The green coast that you thunder-tossed would win,
Drop sail, and hastening to drink all night
Eat dish and bowl—to take that sweet land in!
Where we feasted and caroused on the sandless
Pebbles, affecting our day of piracy,
What prophesy of eaten plates could landless
Wanderers fulfill by the ancient sea?
The allusion here is to a fulfilled prophecy in the Aeneid. As Dryden translates the scene:
Beneath a shady tree, the hero spread
His table on the turf, with cakes of bread;
And, with his chiefs, on forest fruits he fed.
They sate; and, (not without the god’s command,)
Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band
Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:
“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”
The speech had omen, that the Trojan race
Should find repose, and this the time and place.
Aeneas took the word, and thus replies,
Confessing fate with wonder in his eyes:
“All hail, O earth! all hail, my household gods!
Behold the destin’d place of your abodes!
For thus Anchises prophesied of old,
And this our fatal place of rest foretold:
‘When, on a foreign shore, instead of meat,
By famine forc’d, your trenchers you shall eat,
Then ease your weary Trojans will attend,
And the long labors of your voyage end.
Remember on that happy coast to build,
And with a trench inclose the fruitful field.’
This was that famine, this the fatal place
Which ends the wand’ring of our exil’d race.
Then, on to-morrow’s dawn, your care employ,
To search the land, and where the cities lie,
And what the men; but give this day to joy.
Now pour to Jove; and, after Jove is blest,
Call great Anchises to the genial feast:
Crown high the goblets with a cheerful draught;
Enjoy the present hour; adjourn the future thought.”
This, really, is the first thanksgiving. Exhausted travelers, arrived at last in a homeland they had not known when they set out, find themselves finally able to rest (though only for a moment—the land must be secured). Though the substance of their meal is modest, it becomes a “genial feast” devoted to divine praise and gratitude after long years of hunger and hardship.
And yet the moderns’ reenactment is not an actual repetition of the ancients’ thanksgiving feast. It cannot be: Aeneas was acting on divine command, and his feast came with the recognition that his foretold mission had finally been accomplished. Modern man lays claim to no such telos; Rome has not been promised to him. (Or, if it has been, he has rejected it.) The Trojans bearing Ilium to Italy are replaced by “landless wanderers.”
At this point, the poem’s epigraph becomes clear: Quem das finem, rex magne, dolorum? Tate has replaced Vergil’s laborum: What end will there be, not of our works, but of our troubles? The exhausted Trojans could at least conceive of their ordeal as a great labor. Exhausted moderns can see it only as misery, because they have no final end in sight, nor do they have the direction of Aeneas’ heroic code.
This aimlessness, paired with the recognition of another possibility out of reach in the heroic past, ends in despair. The poem builds to an image of American decadence and the paradoxical impotence it entails, which its narrator at once claims and condemns:
What country shall we conquer, what fair land
Unman our conquest and locate our blood?
We’ve cracked the hemispheres with careless hand!
Now, from the Gates of Hercules we flood
Westward, westward till the barbarous brine
Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,
Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine
Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.
Written at the height of the Great Depression, this visual could hardly be further removed from the economical feasting of the Pilgrims. But it is the country they built, however accidentally.
* * *
Yet elsewhere Tate casts the parallel in more favorable terms. In “Aeneas at Washington,” the hero remembers a time—the early settlements of Italy and America—when a sense of need and purpose still remained:
(To the reduction of uncitied littorals
We brought chiefly the vigor of prophecy,
Our hunger breeding calculation
And fixed triumphs)
Transported to the capital of another empire, Aeneas remembers the calamity that drove him first to Rome:
That was a time when civilization
Run by the few fell to the many, and
Crashed to the shout of men, the clang of arms:
Cold victualing I seized, I hoisted up
The old man my father upon my back,
In the smoke made by sea for a new world
This is the obligation of the virtuous man, the pious man (for whom Tate picks Aeneas) when the heroic society is crumbling all around him: to carry not just the torch of tradition but “the old man my father upon my back”—tradition embodied, incarnate, breathing.
This is our obligation, too—to take up our tradition with gratitude and the pietas for which Aeneas was revered. Only upon that acceptance would we have any hope of turning Latium to Rome. The history we inherit defines the limits of our action, true. But it is possible, with the right approach, to elevate both the history and ourselves to a higher level. Had Aeneas not borne Anchises out of Troy—had he simply fled to safety and abandoned both pater and patrimony—the father would have died and the son might just as well have. Perhaps most importantly of all: It is not as if Aeneas could have chosen another father. Just to grab any old man and whisk him out of Troy on your back is not going to do the trick.
In the last poem of Tate’s informal Aeneas trilogy, “Aeneas at New York,” this understanding of tradition as something just as human as Anchises—tactile and yet supermaterial, definite and yet organic—is hinted at:
Have you Penates have you altars have
You your great-great-grandfather’s breeches?
Do not I do not attempt to wear the greaves
The moths are fed; our shanks too thin. Have you
His flintlock or had he none? Have you bought
A new Browning? The use of arms is ownership
Of the appropriate gun. It is ownership that brings
Victory that is not hinted at in “Das Kapital.”
The style here is very different (because Tate is poking fun at Archibald MacLeish) but the substance is the same. Penates—what Dryden translates as “household gods”—are invoked in the same breath as hand-me-down pants and an ancient musket. On the most basic level, tradition is simply what you have been given by those who came before: breeches, greaves, a flintlock. But these things become, in the act of transmission, sacral—and by that sanctity impose obligations, not least of all the duty to fight “with one’s own arms when one detects / the fir-built horse inside the gates of Troy.”
The horse is inside the gates, and our first fight now, 400 years from the Pilgrims’ first foothold on this uncitied littoral, will be to reclaim the Vergilian conception of our own history: not as a break from the heroic past—a claim to which both the champions and the critics of the liberal regime are tempted—but as an opportunity, however tenuous, to bring it forward to a new land and a new age.
This is a long, if long-forgotten, thread of America’s self-understanding. William Strachey’s True Reportory of the Sea Venture (which the Bard is supposed to have read two and a half decades before it was published) connects the River James to the River Tiber, and recounts that the sea-tossed travelers at last made their way upstream “as Vergil writeth Aeneas did, arriving in the region of Italy called Latium.” The Founders valued the story highly, and the more erudite frontiersmen took the Aeneid as an almost prophetic guidebook. It is not without reason that Tate turned to Aeneas, and we would do well to look back through that lens.
* * *
The feast of “The Mediterranean”—perhaps like our own repetition of the Pilgrims’ harvest festival—is an attempt to take hold of something that the moderns already know is lost:
We for that time might taste the famous age
Eternal here yet hidden from our eyes
When lust of power undid its stuffless rage;
They, in a wineskin, bore earth’s paradise.
Let us lie down once more by the breathing side
Of Ocean, where our live forefathers sleep
As if the Known Sea still were a month wide—
Atlantis howls but is no longer steep!
Whether that reclamation can ever be successful “The Mediterranean” does not answer. In fairly equal parts Tate mixes modern disenchantment with a kind of pious hope.
I do not think I could give an answer either. The conundrum would be hard enough if the Anchises I were left to bear were simply Stephen Hopkins: a blue-law-breaking schismatic who nonetheless showed great personal strength, the kind of kinetic and classical manhood by whose force Aeneas crossed an ocean, too.
Growing up in Plymouth, I carried this history proudly. I could hardly have done otherwise: the land on which it unfolded was my own. We were surrounded by acknowledgments of the history and by its actual artifacts, and its value was taught to us as early as I can remember. Like so few Americans in the 21st century, I had the benefit of being raised in circumstances where tradition actually meant something.
But I do not live in Plymouth anymore. In a change of place that probably carries more meaning than I would like, I moved to Washington, D.C., more than a year ago. My own transition from the beautiful, 14-generation seaside village of my birth to the degenerate imperial capital in a swamp may be a microcosmic illustration of a broader transformation.
Even the natural virtue of my heretic forebears has vanished. Every Aeneas of the last few centuries—the out-of-time hero who inspired Allen Tate—has been replaced with an Antinous. Turnus killed Anchises and is groping Lavinia now. Latinus barely remembers where he is. Camilla… well, that joke makes itself. It is hard to imagine how, out of all this, we could salvage even the nobility of the Pilgrims, to say nothing of the Troy whose ruins they left behind.
Tate (or, at least, Tate’s Aeneas) must have felt a similar crisis in the same city nine decades ago:
I stood in the rain, far from home at nightfall
By the Potomac, the great Dome lit the water,
The city my blood had built I knew no more
While the screech-owl whistled his new delight
Stuck in the wet mire
Four thousand leagues from the ninth buried city
I thought of Troy, what we had built her for.
Perhaps Aeneas should not have been so desolate at Washington; perhaps I should not be so desolate now. It’s been four centuries since our Pilgrim fathers “feasted and caroused on the sandless pebbles” at Plymouth beach. It was just as long from the Trojans’ arrival on the coast of Italy—a desperate feast and long-awaited rest; fierce war with hostile natives; 400 years of settling, building, waiting—to the birth of Romulus.