America’s first banned book, lampooning the Puritans
Thomas Morton, 1637
MORTON, Thomas (1564-1659). New English Canaan or New Canaan. Containing an Abstract of New England, Composed of three Books. Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam, 1637.
The Brinley copy of the first edition of America’s first banned book—"the most lively and entertaining account of early New England” (Kupperman). Author Thomas Morton, called “Lord of Misrule” by Plymouth colony governor William Bradford, overthrew his former partner, the slaver Richard Wollaston, and transformed their trading post into an egalitarian society called Ma-Re Mount (later known as Merrymount). The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were scandalized by Morton’s "Comus-crew of disaffected fur traders, antinomians, loose women, Indians and bon-vivants" (Hakim Bey). The Merrymount “consociates” traded guns to the Algonquins—and even worse, engaged in “dancing and frisking together” with them (according to Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation). They were also prospering, and threatened Plymouth’s trade monopoly in the region.
Tensions came to a head in 1628 over Merrymount’s Mayday festival, which involved dancing around an 80-foot Maypole surmounted by stag antlers in a celebration that included the local native people. The Plymouth militia, led by Myles Standish, referred to by Morton as “Captain Shrimp,” chopped down the Maypole and arrested Morton, who was put on trial for supplying arms to the Indians and left to die on an island off the coast of New Hampshire. Morton survived to make it back to England and bring a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Bay Company. This book, New English Canaan, was based on the reports gathered during his legal battle and launched him into newfound celebrity.
Blending picaresque literary flourish with historical accounts and poetic interludes, this work—composed with help from literary friends at the Mermaid Tavern, including Ben Jonson—is an unremitting satirical attack on the Puritans as well as a joyous Jacobite romp, telling a lost true story of America’s colonial history. Morton particularly denounces the Puritan’s policy of land enclosure and genocide of the native population, and ends with a call for the "demartialising" of the colonies and the creation of a multicultural New Canaan in the New World. The book was banned in Puritan New England. There is some bibliographical confusion due to ghost records; the work was entered to the London publisher Charles Greene in the Stationer's Register on 18 November 1633 but not published (or completed) until 1637. Several copies with cancel titles reading “London, for Charles Greene” are extant. According to Sabin, it’s likely that this first edition was actually published in London. Only two other copies at auction in the last 30 years. Church 437; JCB (3) II:443; Sabin 51028; Vail 90. See John Beckman, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt; Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone; Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "Thomas Morton, Historian" in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1977).
Quarto (168 x 120mm). Woodcut ornament on title, woodcut initials (repairs to edges of title page and corners of Aa3; final leaf in facsimile). 19th-century green morocco with gilt spine (faintest wear to joints). Provenance: George Brinley (1817-1875; one of the most important Americana collectors of the 19th-century; book label; his sale, G.A. Leavitt & Co., New York, 22-25 March 1880, lot 2691).