Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin by Joseph Kelly, Bloomsbury Publishing, US $32.00, Pp 512, October 2018, ISBN 978-1632867773
Normally we think of myths as the superstitions of ancient societies, like the Olympian gods of Greece, Rome’s pantheon, the Vikings’ Thors, and the feerie people of Ireland. But modern nations need myths too. Fifty years ago, historian Warren Susman showed that myths unify complex modern societies, justify social order, and reinforce basic values. The prosaic American middle class too uses myths to sanctify communal goals. In Marooned, Joseph Kelly says that the image of a “shining city on a hill” emblemizes this religious explanation of American exceptionalism. The connection between the modern United States and the shining city on a hill goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who used the image in a sermon he preached on the Arbella as it crossed the Atlantic in 1630. In his sermon on the Arbella, Winthrop had tried to strike a bargain with the God. If God would guide the Arbella through its trials and if He would spare it from shipwreck, if the colonists promised to obey His will, love each other, and avoid “pleasures and profits.” Docility, obedience, and keeping to one’s appointed place prop up Winthrop’s notion of a good society. Kelly writes, “Such are the spits and polish on the Puritan’s hilltop city.”
Marooned is not the first book to debunk the Puritan myth. Kelly argues that the historical inaccuracy beneath the Pilgrim story is not the only issue. Nations are imagined communities. What matters is not so much what the historians would call legitimate or accurate history, although, by all means, we ought to drive out error wherever we find it. More important in defining a nation is what Ernest Renan called “a rich legacy of memories.” Kelly argues that a community’s sense of shared deeds, the suffering and glories of our grandmothers and grandfathers. Memory, as we all know, selects and discards and distorts, and even though it should strive to be objective, it still must witness each scene from one angle. Such is the nature of myth.
Jamestown has long compared with Plymouth as our origin myth. For four hundred years, Kelly says, we have known the particular prejudices and even grudges that distorted the historians’ points of view. They each needed to flatter particular men, exaggerate the flaws of their personal enemies, maximize their own praise, and minimize their blame, so they used their pens as they used their swords. Most of the historians have overlooked the fact that the history of Jamestown was recorded by upper-class gentlemen who were high ranking executives of the Virginia company. Despite their petty differences, these writers stand united by their class prejudice. They looked at the common settler, the Company’s low-level employees, the way management regards labor, as a resource to be manipulated. Kelly says he reverses the habitual point of view. It looks at Jamestown through the eyes of the idle, the discontented, and the unruly renegade mutineers. They did not record their own thoughts and impressions. They did not write about their adventures and justify their deeds and inscribe the faults of their oppressors. They never told their story, although it has been in front of us for four hundred years.
Marooned is a new, authentic and myth-busting history of Jamestown. With his unmatched scholarly credentials, Joseph Kelly busts myths that surround Jamestown and how America was founded. Kelly reimages America’s past to re-tell the story of America’s founding from the standpoint of the marooned colonists, escaped slaves, and native inhabitants, the discontented, and the unruly renegade mutineers who could not write their own history. Marooned gives new insights and revisits the 1607 Jamestown settlement. It is a meticulously researched book. Kelly reinvents the familiar figures such as John Smith and Pocahontas and introduces new figures such as the rebellious commoner Stephen Hopkins, whose love for freedom and hate for aristocratic lordship make the marooned commoner a powerful figure in the story of America.