In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Bradford

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Journals
  • Criticism
  • Bradford’s Theology
  • The Pilgrims in England and Holland
  • The Atlantic Crossing
  • Modern Histories of Plymouth Plantation
  • Encounters with Native Americans
  • Encounters with Thomas Morton

American Literature William Bradford
David T. Read
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0067


Students of William Bradford (b. 1590–d. 1657) approach his career from two main standpoints that are closely related but that lead in rather different directions in terms of the existing scholarship. First, there is Bradford the historical personage, the governor of Plymouth Colony for two separate periods of a dozen years (1621–1633 and 1645–1657) and for several shorter terms in between, thus an important figure in the early British colonization of North America as well as in the myth of national founding that developed after the American War of Independence. Second, there is Bradford the writer, the author of the most important and best-known document to emerge from New England during the first phase of settlement, Of Plymouth Plantation. This manuscript was largely out of view for approximately 200 years—in private hands after Bradford’s death and through the 18th century, presumed lost during the American War of Independence, finally located in the bishop of London’s library in 1855, first printed in 1856, and returned to the United States only in 1897—so in many respects Bradford’s history of Plymouth belongs to the modern age. The text is divided between a fairly short First Book that is organized into chapters and offers an eloquent and coherent narrative of the early history of the Pilgrims up to the arrival on Cape Cod and a lengthy Second Book, divided into annals that chronicle Plymouth Colony’s activities from 1621 through 1646. Obviously, Bradford’s manuscript is the essential primary source for the history of the Pilgrims’ colonial enterprise, but its merits and nuances as a book have been recognized at least since its rediscovery in the 19th century, and excerpts from it have a place in the first part of every comprehensive anthology of American literature. The researcher’s line of inquiry will depend on whether the main interest is in Bradford’s contribution to literary and intellectual history or to history more broadly understood, though there remain many possible points of intersection. The aim here is to provide both the core group of materials related to Bradford and a range of resources for exploring the context of important passages, themes, and events in Of Plymouth Plantation.

General Overviews

Anderson 2003 constitutes a genuine overview, addressing the author and his book from multiple perspectives; there is nothing strictly comparable to this study scholarship in the late 20th or early 21st centuries. Elliott 1994 is a relatively recent effort to situate Bradford in the ever-evolving field of American literary history. Gay 1966, Grabo 1969, Levin 1972, and Rosenmeier 1972 have different emphases but can all serve as basic introductions to Bradford’s legacy as a writer.

  • Anderson, Douglas. William Bradford’s Books: Of Plimmoth Plantation and the Printed Word. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

    The only full-length study in many years to focus primarily on Of Plymouth Plantation. A carefully argued effort to relate Bradford’s manuscript to 17th-century print culture and the history of the book. Primarily intended for specialists in the field but accessible enough to serve as an introduction to readers unfamiliar with Bradford.

  • Elliott, Emory. “New England Puritan Literature: Personal Narrative and History.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature. Vol. 1, 1590–1820. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, 205–225. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521301053

    Places Bradford in the context of other Puritan writers whose work could be characterized as belonging to one or both of the two categories in the article’s title.

  • Gay, Peter. A Loss of Mastery: Puritan Historians in Colonial America. Jefferson Memorial Lectures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520338494

    Treats Bradford the historian as similar to Julius Caesar, narrating events in which he was also an eyewitness and participant.

  • Grabo, Norman S. “William Bradford: Of Plymouth Plantation.” In Landmarks of American Writing. Edited by Hennig Cohen, 3–19. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

    Identifies Of Plymouth Plantation as an important source for the idea of American exceptionalism.

  • Levin, David. “William Bradford: The Value of Puritan Historiography.” In Major Writers of Early American Literature. Edited by Everett Emerson, 11–31. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.

    Makes the case for Bradford as an important historical interpreter in a general sense, and not simply because Of Plymouth Plantation is the first long-form history to emerge from colonial New England.

  • Rosenmeier, Jesper. “‘With My Owne Eyes’: William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.” In Typology and Early American Literature. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, 69–105. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

    As suggested by the collection in which it appears, this essay emphasizes Bradford’s application of typology in Of Plymouth Plantation, rooted in his devotion to the doctrines of the English Separatist movement.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.