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Interpreter of a brave new world

Writer and poet Charlotte Gordon was out running near her Ipswich house when she came upon a historical plaque noting that Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet and her husband, Simon, had once lived next door. The plaque became a keyhole into Bradford's world. The result is ''Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet" (Little, Brown, $27.95), the first biography in more than 30 years of this seminal writer.

The life led by Bradstreet, who was born in England in 1612, was anything but that of a typical Puritan wife and mother. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was steward to the earl of Lincoln, and his position gave her access to the estate's massive library. Despite her reluctance in leaving the Old World, Bradstreet became the first poet to speak in a uniquely New World idiom. In her spare time, she managed a household, ran a farm, and bore eight children.

Bradstreet was embraced by early 20th-century feminists, and Gordon thinks it is time to look at her again, with an eye to her work and her place in society. She spoke from her current home, in Gloucester.

Q: What kind of sources are available for Bradstreet, who died in 1672?

A: There aren't a lot of sources. Her autobiography is 5½ pages and that's it. I had to read diaries and letters from other people. . . . She had this series of prose meditations, where she talks directly about how we should live, and, of course, her poems. An abundance of material on some level. But you have to decide how you are going to read the poetry.

Q: She had an unusual childhood, in that her father, skipping over her older brother, paid a lot of attention to her and taught her to read poetry. He also taught her to write, something most Puritan women did not know how to do. He was an unusual man, a progressive thinker in that he respected women's intellectual capabilities.

A: He is especially famous in history for being rigid and stern. Usually [he's] painted as the unyielding one. He didn't like how flexible [Governor John] Winthrop could be. On the other hand, he has this daughter and he encourages her.

Q: Talk about the way she changed how people thought of the New World.

A: She started out iconic, which is why [John] Berryman wrote that poem about her [''Homage to Mistress Bradstreet"]. She was an Englishwoman, and she would never have thought of herself as an American. You can see the transition in her poetry, from an English mode of writing to a New English mode of writing. Her early poems are full of classical allusions, then [she writes] ''A Dialogue Between Old England and New." She has New England say ''No, no Mother. You must stop talking so much." She used a plainer style. Her commitment to the New World [is in] that poem. The idea that ''you are sick corrupt and you need New England to heal you" and that ''We are the better part of England, the redemptive part." . . . She is the first person to articulate that.

One of the other things we misunderstand about her is the role of the poet. . . . So many of those long poems nowadays would be essays and commentary. She would have been on the news as a political observer.

Q: Do you think that she was able to get for herself all the things that Virginia Woolf, in ''A Room of One's Own," says a woman must have in order to write? She didn't have a salary, for example, but she had a great deal of control over her life, as much as a woman could in the 17th century.

A: She was more of what Virginia Woolf wanted to be than what she got to be. In Victorian England, men and women had their roles. In New England, Anne has to supervise laborers and run a farm. She has to flex her muscles in all these arenas of life.

Q: And unlike Virginia Woolf, she did have a houseful of children.

A: She never hides that she's a woman. [The Puritans thought] that women should write prayers or little suggestions to her children. . . . One of the things I love about Puritanism is the time for individual reflection. In some ways that's going to be a democratizing thing. You had to have time for yourself.

Q: Did you come across anything that surprised you in your research?

A: The act of doubting, although it's a convention of Puritan faith. If you are a good Puritan, you spend a lot of time thinking there is no God. You can't call it skepticism because it's all couched in faith. ''How could I know there was a God? I never saw any miracle," Anne writes. I found that sort of honest -- putting it down for her children to read. Also, [I was surprised] finding out what an earthly people the Puritans were. Sex was such a part of life. . . . Not like the Victorians. It's a 19th-century idea [that the Puritans were puritanical]. You could say it started before the Victorians, with people like Hawthorne. [The Puritans] had more in common with Shakespeare. . . . Which is not to say they didn't have high ideals about behavior.

Robin Dougherty, a writer and critic, lives in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at

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