Happy May Day—and in Massachusetts, Happy Thomas Morton Day too! Here’s a hope that you’ll raise a rowdy Maypole, join hands with neighbors, kick up your dancing feet and hoist some “excellent beer” to your singing lips, to celebrate 392 years since Thomas Morton’s May 1627 Revels at Merrymount, with Native Americans and “all comers” on Massachusetts Bay.
Your town could do worse than to claim, thus, America’s oldest civic festival, to foster multicultural community and center us afresh in the rhythms of nature—even as the National Idiot Election Machine gears up to sell its latest “lesser evil.”
To the feast this year I offer another first-of-its-kind story out of Morton’s 1637 New English Canaan: as usual for him, a bit of crucial common-sense perspective wrapped in biting comedy and hoots of laughter.
We’ll likely never know who was the real frontier clown dubbed “Master Bubble” in Chapters X and XII of Canaan‘s third book—but his seems a pretty sure case of “You can’t make this stuff up.” For he was “a man endowed with many special gifts” (Canaan 122) that you’re about to see in action, whose self-sanctified blunders remain too much with us on the international frontier.
“This,” Morton writes, “was a man approved by the Brethren” (meaning his neighbors, the evangelical “Saints” of Plimoth Plantation’s Pilgrim fathers), “and at the public charge conveyed to New England” during Morton’s first years there (1624-27). Why is worth knowing. For Plimoth’s congregation had years of trouble replacing their original beloved pastor, John Robinson, who had not been allowed to emigrate with them in 1620: his most famous counsel came in a letter after Plimoth had assassinated multiple Native New England leaders at Wessaguscus or Weymouth in 1623. “Oh, that you had converted some before you had killed any!” Thoughtful fellow! But as you’ll see from just this Canaan excerpt, there were indeed more thoughtful people hereabouts.
Before the Plimothers fetched Bubble over, they had tried one other fellow now known only as “Mr. Rogers,” but he proved even to them “crazed in his brain” and was dismissed. What was the problem, their England brimming then with fire-breathing Puritan “reformers”? For Morton, it was their contempt for solid Renaissance and humanistic learning based in anything outside The Bible—which (if we can trust their records) left them floundering in a flood of holy pretenders, charlatans and fools. When Morton says Bubble was brought over “for his zeal and gifts,” he names the two central but tragically-fuzzy Puritan criteria for choosing a spiritual minister, and they were echoed soon after by Boston’s reverend John Cotton: fierce zealotry, and matching “gifts” such as oratorical fireworks and “the exercise of prophecy.”
“Well,” Morton muses—as if watching the country prepare for Father Coughlin and Billy Graham—“if you mark it, these are special gifts indeed, which the vulgar people are so taken with, that there is no persuading them that it is so ridiculous….This that comes without premeditation [that is, by instant ‘inspiration of the Holy Spirit’], this is the Superlative; and he that does not approve of this, they say, is a very reprobate” (Canaan 186).
Not a good place to be—“without” God’s own congregation—warns the man who found himself “America’s First Rascal” and first political exile, burned and hoisted out the country for practicing the wrong kinds of culture.
And what would take Merrymount’s learned, jovial, flexible and common-sense place? Here’s a quick Canaan gem about another holy candidate who foreshadows Bubble’s misadventures. “There was one who…had been expected to exercise his gifts in an assembly, who stayed his coming. In the middest of his journey, he falls into a fit, which they term a zealous meditation—and was four miles past the place appointed before he came to himself, or did remember whereabouts he went” (182).
Familiar, all too familiar, but these jokers were nothing if not ambitious “to dispense…edification.” Witness Bubble’s own sparkling resume of achievements leading up to his fool’s errand in the (inhabited) wilderness. For himself, Bubble had first intended “to pen the language [of Native New England] down in Stenography” (122). “But there, for want of use, which he rightly understood not, all was loss of labor.”
How indeed could an Englishman acquire Native speech without consenting, like Morton the successful trader, to the land’s already “mixed language” in frontier affairs? (Remember, Plimoth’s William Bradford hoped that America’s tongue would be Hebrew.) Well, Morton quips in so many words, it might have been worth the learning later in Bubble’s story, if he had understood Native language(s); but even after all the trouble, this never dawned upon him. The almost-murderous slapstick results were rooted here, and fast upon us.
Dropping the difficult Stenography, Bubble’s next unsurprising choice was ministry itself, trying his hand as “house chaplain” to the rough company of another unruly Morton neighbor: Plimoth’s first outcast John Oldham, living by then near the sea at close-by Hull. “Every night” Bubble began making “use of his gifts”—and his “oratory lulled his auditory as fast asleep as Mercury’s pipes did Argus’ eyes.” Maybe Chaplain Bubble did make a striking start in a speech or two, but “when he was in, they said he could not tell how to get out: nay he would hardly out till he were fired out, his zeal was such.” Losing his theological way, Bubble even then would not shut up, not until they kicked him out of the cabin.
So, Bubble would now “become a great Merchant.” He “removed” and “obtained house-room” among Morton’s own building company (“nine persons, besides dogs”), “because it stood convenient for the beaver trade.” Morton thought this “big-boned man” would be “a good laborer, and to have store of corn.” But Bubble brought no provisions, only “the trophies of his honor: his water tankard and his porter’s basket,” becoming another mouth to feed through Morton’s hunting and trapping skills. Bubble himself had none of those, either—but that didn’t keep him from rushing out to shoot ducks and geese “in haste and single-handed,” paddling out “like a cow in a cage” to wound many and scare off the rest, causing his host “to mutter at him.”
And once Morton’s gun had put some meat on the table? “This man and his host at dinner: Bubble begins to say grace, yea and a long one too, till all the meat was cold. He would not give his host [Morton] leave to say grace: belike he thought his host past grace.” And “in the usage of this blind oratory”—that is, Bubble praying with his eyes sanctimoniously closed—Morton “took himself abused, and the whiles fell to [eating]; and had half-done before this man Bubble would open his eyes to see what stood afore him.”
Morton’s years at London’s boisterous law school, The Inns of Court, were the professional crown of his youth. Surely he had mentors and help in seasoned elders there, whose pedagogy consciously curried young talent toward national service. Maybe that’s why we already see Morton’s patient indulgence toward Bubble. On the other hand, when he at last matched Bubble with “a couple of Indians for guides” (127) for an inland journey toward the matchless profits of the beaver trade, maybe Morton was ready to be rid of him. Bubble got ready by filling “a sack…of odd implements” and his head with “a conceit…that he had hatched a new device” or trading-method to obtain those furs, all zeal and gifts as usual.
Their introductions seemed cordial and comfortable enough, and with “both his journeymen glad he was [a] good man,” Bubble and his guides set off westward into central Massachusetts, lands of the Nipmuc people’s Nashaway and Showatuck clans. For Bubble’s sake, remember that they were hiking deep into Old Growth American forest (whose thickets and massive hardwood trees intimidated even the likes of Thoreau)—a greenhorn like Bubble simply had to feel intimidated, vulnerable, and watchfully afraid.
Morton tells the rest of what happened:
Night came on. But, before they were inclined to sleep, this good man Master Bubble had a fantasy creep into his head—by misunderstanding the Salvages’ actions. He must needs be gone in all haste, yea and without his errand. He purposed to do it so cunningly that his flight should not be suspected: he leaves his shoes in the house with all his other implements, and flies.
As he was on his way, he increased his fear, suggesting to himself that he was pursued by a company of Indians, and that their arrows were let fly as thick as hail at him. He puts off his breeches, and puts them on his head, for to save him from the shafts that flew after him so thick that no man could perceive them.
And crying out, “Avoid, Satan! What have ye to do with me?” and thus running on his way without his breeches, he was pitifully scratched with the brush of the underwoods as he wandered up and down in unknown ways.
The Salvages, in the meantime, put up all his implements in the sack he left behind, and brought them to Wessaguscus [Weymouth], where they thought to have found him. But understanding he was not returned, they were fearful what to do; and of what would be conceived by the English to have become of this mazed man; and were in consultation of the matter.
One of the Salvages was of opinion that the English would suppose him to be murdered: fearful, he was, to come in sight. The other, better acquainted with the English, having lived some time in England, was more confident. And he persuaded his fellow that the English would be satisfied with the relation of the truth, having had testimony of his fidelity. So, they boldly adventured what they had brought, and how the matter stood.
The English, when the sack was opened, did take a note in writing of all the particulars in the sack; and heard what was related by the Salvages of the accidents. But when Master Bubble’s shoes were shown, it was thought he would not have departed without his shoes.
And therefore they did conceive that Master Bubble was murdered by some sinister practice of the Salvages’, who unadvisedly had become guilty of a crime which they now sought to excuse. And the English straightly charged the Salvages to find him out again, and bring him dead or alive; else, their wives and children would be destroyed.
The poor Salvages, being in a pitiful perplexity, caused their countrymen to seek out for this mazed man; who, being in short time found, was brought to Wessaguscus, where he made a discourse of his travels and of the perilous passages, which did seem to be no less dangerous than those of that worthy Knight-Errant, Don Quixote; and how miraculously he had been preserved.
And, in conclusion, he lamented the great loss of his goods, whereby he thought himself undone. The particular whereof being demanded, it appeared that the Salvages had not diminished any part of them: no, not so much as one bit of bread. Whereby Master Bubble was overjoyed, and the whole company made themselves merry at his discourse of all his perilous adventures.
And by this you may observe whether the Salvage people are not full of humanity; or whether they are a dangerous people, as Master Bubble and the rest of his tribe would persuade you.
Did Bubble’s Native guides encourage a bit of fear in the man, to make him more dependent (or even grateful) for protection and profit? Perhaps, but without Morton’s seasoned confidence, one folly unfolds the next: Bubble misconstrues or misunderstands, decides to run away God-knows-where, and cleverly leaves his shoes behind, thinking this will fool his hosts that he’s still invisibly with them. Now he imagines they are with him, but chasing him, and with arrows; such that he strips off his pants, turns them into a helmet, and is “pitifully scratched” as he wanders “up and down” screaming. This it seems will not end well.
And where do we now find the crucial calm exercise of reason and experience? It speaks for the first time, in this the most extraordinary narrative turn in America’s earliest letters, between Bubble’s two Native guides—who resolve (in spite of wise fear about catching the blame) to report Bubble’s “mazed” running off. And notice how cautious they are about it: first they determine that Bubble has not returned, before they go into the midst of the English at Wessaguscus/Weymouth.
These guides are afraid of English fear—which they know will assume that Bubble has been murdered or killed in their hands. They know they’ll have to present the ridiculous facts on the very ground where, all too recently, “Captain Shrimp” Myles Standish assassinated others of their kind. Still, they go in and report, making their best case with Bubble’s sack of implements. But it’s Bubble’s own most preposterous ploy, his abandoned shoes, that brings on the fresh and very credible English threat to destroy their families, wives and children, if the fool isn’t found.
Terrified, the guides find and return Master Bubble in short order. And here at last, for all Morton has put his readers through, lands a thud of anticlimax. For Bubble tells all of his “perilous passages” with an empty-headed air of the “miraculous.” It was all about him. Not a stab of self-aware sunlight dawns on this “mazed man” for his chief part in this fiasco.
Morton drops it in the lap of those who would build America: all for himself, and virtually empty, Bubble would not listen, look or learn. Yet, through New English Canaan, we have twice the chance.
HAPPY MAY DAY!