Friday, June 04, 2010

Book Review: "Prospero's America"

Walter W. Woodward's Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676 (UNC Press, 2010) is a captivating and necessary new study of John Winthrop, Jr. - skilled political leader, well-regarded alchemist, entrepreneur, and advocate of toleration in religion. This excellent reinterpretation of Winthrop's pursuits, placing his life and activities in an Atlantic and European context, will serve (one hopes) to continue the trend of reshaping the conventional understanding of early New England culture (religious, economic, scientific, and political).

The first chapters of Woodward's book are focused on Winthrop's important role as the leading alchemical practitioner in New England, and the strong communication networks he developed with other adepts in Britain and Europe. This emphasis makes clear, as Woodward notes, "the importance of pan-European and transatlantic scientific alliances on New England colonization" (p. 3). By building and maintaining these connections, "Winthrop sought to use alchemy as a means of helping achieve the pansophic reformation of New England and the world while establishing the Puritan colonies on a sound and sustainable economic footing." As "the first effort to locate New England alchemical study within its broader cultural context" (p. 9), this book makes clear the depth and breadth of alchemical knowledge, study, and application in colonial New England, much of which was known to and facilitated by Winthrop himself.

Woodward is careful to note that the alchemical practices undertaken by Winthrop and other elite New Englanders (and their counterparts across the Atlantic) were not the "turn lead into gold" stories that alchemists have been caricatured into, but were rather "pursued for simultaneously practical, economically productive, and godly ends" (i.e. medical efforts, mineralogical studies, &c.).

In the next chapters, Woodward examines Winthrop's plans for an "alchemical plantation," a sort of New England home base from which various experiments and economic undertakings could be managed and organized. This plan was made more complicated by the tenuous relations between the English settlers and the native peoples of the region, a subject which allows Woodward to explore Winthrop's style of diplomacy, and some of the differences in approach between him and his father (which were evident in a great range of topics).

The sixth chapter is given over to a detailed study of Winthrop's broad medical practice: Woodward estimates that he treated at least half of the population of colonial Connecticut, others wrote from throughout the English colonies and Britain for suggested treatments, and many traveled to New London for personal care. Woodward attributes Winthrop's successes to his elite status in the community, his good bedside manner, and his charitable practices (he does not appear to have asked for payment from those for whom it would have been a hardship). And again here, Winthrop built up a strong network of those practicing alchemical (as opposed to herbal) medicine in early New England.

Winthrop's cultural status and alchemical knowledge also played a key role, Woodward argues, in the way Connecticut handled witchcraft accusations and trials in the seventeenth century. Once Winthrop began taking part in the trials, almost no witches were found guilty or executed (with the exception of a period when Winthrop was away from the colony), and were instead reintegrated into the community or strongly urged to leave the area. With their knowledge of the occult, Winthop and his allies (such as Gershom Bulkeley) were able to reshape the legal understanding of spectral evidence and admissible proofs of witchcraft to such a degree that prosecutions became nearly impossible. As Woodward puts it, "In Connecticut, the decisive shift in witchcraft prosecution came, not from Puritan positivists rejecting magic, but from alchemical philosophers who believed that the practice of witchcraft by ordinary people was overstated, overprosecuted, and overfeared" (p. 251).

In the final chapter, Woodward examines Winthrop's role as the first colonial member of the Royal Society, his correspondence with the Society's members, and the ways in which this network enabled Winthrop to keep and groom ties between himself and powerful people at the court of Charles II, whose support he needed for the continued political security of Connecticut. Winthrop's exemplary diplomatic skills were also on display here: while the Royal Society was constantly badgering him to write a natural history of the New England region (which Winthrop feared would encourage the court to exert more political and/or economic authority over the area), he kicked the can down the road by sending accounts of astronomical observations, samples of natural curiosities from the colonies (including a hummingbird nest with eggs, a bow and arrows, a deformed deer head, various grains, nuts, and rocks), and always promised more later. I quite liked Woodward's summation of this strategy (which Winthrop also used in various political arenas): "expressing the desire to comply, explaining the inability to comply, citing the possibility of future compliance, and providing an alternative to show loyalty without compliance" (p. 297).

All in all, this is both an enjoyable and enlightening book about a fascinating historical figure and his role in many of the important events of the seventeenth century. While I would have appreciated a full bibliography, the footnotes are at least very thorough, and will be fruitful ground for future studies of the various elements of Woodward's work.

Full Disclosure: The author of this book had a fellowship at the institution where I work (before I worked here), and acknowledges this in the book.

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