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Literary landmark

Let's save the last touchstone of Anne Bradstreet

by Catherine A. Salmons

[University Bookstore] On Salem's narrow Liberty Street, in the shade of the Old Town Hall, lies a rock-choked patch of New England history known as the North Point Burying Ground. I'm standing at the center of this tiny labyrinth of 17th-century headstones, sandstone tablets protruding from a chaos of roots, each carved with the ghoulish, grinning skull that reminded Puritans of their "pre-destined" hereafter. Beside me, flecked with winter sunlight splayed through the branches of a massive oak, looms the monumental sarcophagus of Bay Colony patriarch Simon Bradstreet -- governor and magistrate, founding father of the city of Cambridge, died 1697.

Conspicuously absent, however, is the grave I was hoping to find: that of Simon's even more famous wife, the poet Anne Bradstreet -- mother of American literature, the first published author from these shores, whose verse collection, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, was listed among the "10 most vendible books" in England after its printing in 1650. Unfortunately, Puritan women -- even celebrities, it turns out -- were laid to rest in unmarked plots, their bones assumed to lie mingled with their husbands'. Anne Bradstreet's descendants told me she was buried here, but I can't find a woman's name among Salem's dead before the late 1700s.

The same holds true in Andover's North Parish Churchyard, which I also visit on this February afternoon, since an on-line history buff insisted that Bradstreet's grave is actually here. Again I scramble among headstones, in the twilight's last, cold glimmer, desperately seeking Anne. Again, nothing. No portrait of our first poet survives. Her papers were destroyed when her North Andover home burned in 1666. At least we still have her published poems; they are, to quote another Yankee poet named Anne (Sexton), her "immortality box." But the fact that no monument of any kind celebrates her memory -- that no tangible "bookmark" holds her place in history -- strikes me as unspeakably sad.

My search for Anne Bradstreet actually began with a reminder of her absence. In a recent Boston Globe update on the Cambridge controversy of the moment -- the planned demolition of the "Read Block" in the very heart of Harvard Square, a cluster of four historic buildings joined by a half-moon façade that rounds the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and JFK Street -- architecture critic Robert Campbell noted that Anne and Simon Bradstreet lived at this address in 1630, the year "Newtowne" (later Cambridge) was founded.

Not a shred of the Bradstreet home remains in the present Read-Farwell building, circa 1790, which is now occupied by the Tasty Sandwich Shop -- itself a Harvard Square landmark for the past 80 years -- and was once also home to the Wursthaus. But there's something compelling in the knowledge that our still-adolescent Tenth Muse, newly arrived in the New World, once lived here in a cabin probably not much larger than the hole-in-the-wall Tasty. It seems appropriate that, over the long march of years, one local icon has replaced another.

It was also the mention of Anne Bradstreet that prompted me, as a poet, to add my voice to the ongoing campaign to save these four buildings, which embrace everything from a Bank of Boston outlet to an optician's shop. Their owner, the Cambridge Savings Bank, wants to raze them to the ground to make room for a glass-ensconced shopping "atrium." ("This is not a mall," the bank's directors drone in unconvincing, corporate double-speak.) The Cambridge Historical Commission has called these structures "rare survivors," the city's oldest commercial space.

The Read-Farwell building alone had several noteworthy pre-Tasty incarnations. As a university bookstore, it appeared in Henry James's The Bostonians; it also housed one of New England's first photography studios. But though the CHC could mandate preservation of the entire Read Block by recommending that the City Council vote to declare it a historic landmark, the commission has yet to take such decisive action. It had given the bank until April 3 to study "whether or not the buildings can be preserved." (Funny, that was never an issue until the bank wanted to tear them down.) At last week's hearing, preservation architect Mo Finegold laid out three possible schemes for preserving all or part of the historic structures -- a truly inspired scenario that calls for some much-needed shoring up of these weary buildings and still leaves room for new construction behind them.

Although Finegold's plan would cost roughly the same per square foot as all-new construction, bank president Pete Ingram insists that preservation would result in a $15 million loss. Retailers, he lamented, will pay top dollar only for space that's brand, spanking new. The commission, inching a step closer to landmarking the site, voted to prepare an "official" report for the City Council, meanwhile asking the bank to "rethink" its fiscal concerns before new public hearings on May 1.

And so the battle continues. The experts will keep crunching numbers and gathering new data. (Stalling tactics, says an informed source, citing rumors that the bank will sue the city in the event of landmark designation.) Already the commission's files overflow with "feasibility studies" from both sides, analyses of the remaining percentage of original pine beam and fieldstone. There's more old material, some experts advise, in Harvard's Wadsworth House, across Mass Ave, which is a similar architectural specimen. As if preserving more than one example of the style were somehow redundant -- as if we should curate the streets like a museum and not respect the Square as a thriving town common, its entire architectural inheritance as much a part of its present as its past.

Against such dry, bureaucratic logic, I can only appeal to the ingrained sense of place we New Englanders are said to harbor -- a hope that we can stave off the malling of Harvard Square, the nation's first grid-plan settlement, which has managed to retain its vernacular countenance for nearly 350 years. Even the crescent-shaped façade (added in 1896, and in its own right to be preserved as an architectural curio) is a symbol of the rambling way these buildings have evolved, through the centuries, undergoing strange metamorphoses, adapting to new uses -- opening themselves to the future without sacrificing their visual record of the past.

And, house or no house, the ground where our literary ancestor lived should be revered as a kind of totemic shrine. I can't see myself gazing up at the glass-and-steel newness of an atrium, peering into the windows of Starbucks or the Gap, and thinking, "Anne Bradstreet slept here."

Strange to think that the Puritan theocrats might have approved of the bank's grand scheme. Industry, progress, prosperity: these were seen as virtues, signs that a man was beloved by God. (Although these same theocrats were slightly suspicious of banking itself; turning money into more money seemed a bit like devilish alchemy.) To genteel, educated Puritans like Simon Bradstreet and Anne's father, Thomas Dudley (both Cambridge University graduates), over-sentimentalizing the past was a symptom of mental weakness. But I like to think Anne Bradstreet would have been ready to mount the barricades alongside today's preservationists.

Pious and meditative, Anne was very much the devoted wife who had penned, for Simon, the famous lines: "If ever two were one, then surely we./If ever man were loved by wife, then thee . . . " But she was also quietly subversive, at a time when it was dangerous for anyone to be a rebel, least of all a woman.

The Puritan elders went to great lengths to silence dissenters. Dudley himself once warned against the dangers of "toleration." Both he and Simon Bradstreet (who together, writes one historian, "held so many important offices that their history is that of New England") had a hand in the persecution of Quakers. A Rhode Island Friend described, in the mid 1600s, the harsh treatment his brethren routinely suffered here in Massachusetts: "Three were martyred, and three had their right ears cut off. One hath been burned with the letter H. Thirty-one persons have received 650 stripes -- one was beat until his body was like a jelly. One lieth in iron fetters condemned to die."

So it must have taken great courage for Anne Bradstreet not only to reject the passive role assigned to women but to defy her own husband and father, two of the staunchest Puritan extremists. She dared to befriend Anne Hutchinson, even as Dudley and Bradstreet were scheming to banish her for the heinous crime of teaching Scripture to women. She openly opposed Simon when, as magistrate, he helped condemn the Quaker Mary Dyer, who was hung from the great elm on Boston Common in the spring of 1660. As she heard the crowd riding back from the hanging, Anne wrote: "The hoofprint of every horse falls right upon my heart." According to historian Ruth Plimpton, she railed at Simon, weeping, "Might not life be spared? Death is a great thing!" But her husband had turned a deaf ear to her pleas, and on that "heaviest day of her life" she made it clear she considered him an unyielding tyrant.

That Anne cared to write poetry at all was viewed askance by some Puritan busybodies. I can picture hushed conversation among the menfolk as they debated what to "do" about Anne. In the end they "let" her continue -- even encouraged her -- but were clearly baffled by her skill. The Tenth Muse opens with a flurry of blurbs by men apologizing for the author's gender: "It half revives my chill frost-bitten blood,/To see a woman once do ought that's good," quips the preacher Nathaniel Ward, who elsewhere in his writings had likened women's brains to those of squirrels.

Theologian Cotton Mather once described Anne's poetry as a "crown unto her father"; generations later, her Victorian biographer, a Colonel Caldwell, summed up her life via a chapter on Simon, a chapter on Thomas Dudley, a chapter on each of her children . . . and almost nothing on Anne herself. Even John Berryman's celebrated ode, "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," devotes a good many of its 57 stanzas to Anne the daughter, Anne the mother, Anne the wife.

So where did Anne find her own voice, her crusader's righteous tone? In one poem, defending her right to write, she declares, "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue,/That says my hand a needle better fits!" She takes courage, in part, from the example of her idol, the late Queen Elizabeth I: "Nay masculines," she writes, "you have thus taxed us long,/But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong./Let such as say our sex is void of reason,/Know 'tis a slander now but once was treason."

She also throws off Puritan prudery, in historical poems that are both erudite and bawdy. In her epic on ancient Assyria, she revels in the exploits of the prostitute Semiramis, even while she describes the emperor Sardanapalus as a cross-dresser who cavorts "like a strumpet clad." She asserts her literary opinions with bravado -- charging, for instance, that anyone who dislikes the poet Sir Philip Sidney is an ignorant "beetle-head."

But Anne Bradstreet is best remembered for her "meditations," sober poems on a rugged life of the spirit -- on "the vanity of all earthly things" -- expressed in elaborate and very John Donne-like metaphysical conceits. Her literary legacy is a bridge between Puritan theology and the liberal reform that followed, a key to the classic, Yankee contradiction between stern pragmatism and spiritual fancy, a half-step between Milton and our 19th-century transcendentalists. She is a touchstone of everything mystical in American poetry.

Yet there is nowhere we can go and pay, like Berryman, our "homage to Mistress B." -- no grave, no house, no relic, no exhibit in any museum. Nothing but a sliver of a café in Harvard Square where her essence still lingers in the soil beneath swiveling chrome barstools and '50s formica. And where Tasty owner Peter Hadad (one of the Square's last, proud mom-and-pop-store proprietors) always enjoys a chat about Anne Bradstreet -- or any other source, as he puts it, of "that sense of connection we all need."

"You either get it," he adds, "or you don't."

A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment

My head, my heart, mine eyes, my life, nay, more,
My joy, my magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever,
If but a neck, soon should we be together.
I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,
Whom whilst I 'joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt.
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return, return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father's face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till nature's sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one.