Richly researched life of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, arguing that the Puritan leader was more moderate than history has conveyed.
Editor of the Winthrop Papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society, Bremer (History/ Millersville Univ.) overflows with information about period customs and culture on both sides of the Atlantic; in fact, 67 pages pass before John Winthrop (1588–1649) is even born. The author has visited all the relevant sites, European and American, and unearthed myriad details about Winthrop’s daily life, political views, religious struggles, and family difficulties. One of Bremer’s great achievements is to add flesh to the previous, skeletal portraits of Winthrop’s life in England before he sailed west in 1630; almost half the text deals with these slighted decades. We learn, for example, that Winthrop very nearly emigrated to Ireland instead of Massachusetts and that death was a regular, unwelcome visitor to his household; he buried children and wives with a frequency alarming even for the age, though his fourth spouse survived him. Of course, much remains hidden. We do not know, for example, which grammar school Winthrop attended or why the 17-year-old rushed to marry a woman four years his senior (it wasn’t due to prenuptial pregnancy). Bremer capably explores New England’s internecine politics: colonies competing with one another, religious men striving piously for earthly power, ever-present concerns with the situation back in England, which was always “home” to these early arrivals, the author reminds us. Wars with Indians and punishments of heretics punctuate the narrative. Unfortunately, Bremer’s prose is not always commensurate with his sterling research. Each chapter begins with a superfluous “vignette” that clutters rather than clarifies (e.g., “It is a fine June day in 1643”), the figurative language rarely strays from the conventional, and an epilogue offers mostly platitudes.
Still, despite some stylistic flaws, this scholarly makeover adds considerable color to Winthrop’s wan cheeks. (15 halftones, 4 maps, not seen)