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Books: Behind the Looking Glass

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AMERICA BEGINS (438 pp.)—Edited by Richard M. Dorson—Pantheon ($4.50).

One day in the early 1600s, a certain gentleman of Jamestown murdered his wife, cut her in pieces and later “was burned for his horrible villainy.” In Carolina, a horn snake struck at a small locust tree the thickness of a man’s arm, and six hours later the tree was dead. Farther north, some Indians buried a white man, standing, with only his head above ground, scalped him and lit a fire close by. The heat made his brains boil and started his eyes gushing out of their sockets. In Casco Bay, Me., a merman tried to board a hunter’s boat, had a “hand chopped off and sank, purpling the water with his inhuman blood.

American history (and legend) had begun. Few Americans, of course, had the wit to recognize it in the making. Yet here & there a quick eye, a sharp ear and a busy pen took note of the rich, small doings of 17th Century American life. These early histories, diaries, memoirs and letters, vivid scribbles on the cuff of history, have mostly been suppressed into the dreary, quoteless grey of the professional historian’s page. America Begins gives a glimpse of the real wonderland behind that dingy looking glass.

Liquor by the Mouthful. Editor Dorson has searched through records of the colonial century for its sharpest incidents, sharpened them still further with careful editing, and made of them a volume that brings the colonial century almost too keenly alive for some 20th Century tastes. The tales of Indian captivity, in particular, are about as easy to take as a tomahawk in the skull: babies bashed to death against trees, a prisoner ripped in half by the main force of some 20 of his captors, another with thumbs cut off and a sharp stake driven up his arm to the elbow; the torture of famed Jesuit Father Jogues, who was later massacred with his party.

But colonial life had a lighter side, even when it was turned to the Indians. One John Lawson records how the Indians bought their liquor—by the mouthful. “And for this purpose the buyer always makes choice of his man, which is one that has the greatest mouth, whom he brings to the market with a bowl” to spit the liquor in. “The seller looks narrowly to the man’s mouth that measures it, and if he happens to swallow any down . . . the merchant . . . does not scruple to knock the fellow down . . . Thereupon the buyer finds another mouthpiece . . .”

The Devil’s Children. The colonists had plenty else to concern them besides the Indians. In New England, especially, the Devil made trouble. “Exhibiting himself ordinarily as a small black man,” says that great theological gossip, Cotton Mather, the fiend “decoyed a fearful knot of proud, froward, ignorant, envious, and malicious creatures to lift themselves in his horrid service . . .”

Yet the Devil also became the butt of some of the first fine sallies of Yankee humor. One of them is an ancestor of a long posterity of country-bumpkin v. city-slicker witsnappers that pass current to this day.

“I’ll tell you, son,” one early Bostonian informed “an honest, ingenious countryman” with pompous condescension, “the Devil is dead.”

“Well, then,” said the countryman, “if he be dead, he hath left many fatherless children in Boston.”

The range of 17th Century American literature is not wide, and its forms are not overly refined. The early colonists were too busy building a civilization to write much about it. Yet its dirt-simple honesty and plow-ahead directness set the main style for later American writing, just as the rugged life it describes was the hardy set of roots which nourished the beginnings of American history.

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