- Historic Sites
The Pilgrims And The Rock
Did the Fathers in 1620 really land on that famous slab of granite? Through the haze of myth that surround it, a profound truth may be dimly seen
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
A tercentenary pageant, The Pilgrim Spirit , written by Harvard’s professor of drama, George Pierce Baker, was performed the next summer. At this climax of the celebration the presidential yacht Mayflower , with President Harding aboard, steamed into Plymouth Harbor accompanied by four battleships and six destroyers. On landing Harding spoke as he usually did, with empty resonance. The Grecian temple was finally dedicated the following November on a wild day of rain and wind.
After three centuries the legend of Plymouth Rock has become so fixed in the American consciousness that the Rock itself takes on the magical aura of a Blarney Stone or a Stone of Scone. When some prankster in 1937 daubed the Rock with red paint, the news flashed across the country. It seemed a national desecration. At once Harvard University and the Communist Party of Massachusetts publicly disclaimed any connection with such lurid lithography. I remember from my Harvard days a story Professor Howard Mumford Jones told of an old Negro janitor from the University of Texas who made a sightseeing bus tour of the United States. When he reached Plymouth, he sent back a postcard of Plymouth Rock on which he had written: “Here is where our forefathers landed.” So we had felt in the Tileston School, even though most of us in that fifth-grade room were—like myself—members of what Boston’s Mayor James Michael Curley liked to call the “newer races.” I suppose it was the somewhat ponderous piety of the legend, plus childhood recollections of The Landing of the Pilgrims framed on a schoolroom wall, that inspired Dorothy Parker’s remark in the brittle twenties that it would have been better if, instead of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims.
Yet, if the landing on Plymouth Rock is a myth, it is no more a myth than that the Stone of Scone once served as Jacob’s pillow, no more recent a myth than Blarney’s gift of eloquence. And behind the myth is a profound truth. In a sense the old Texas janitor was right. Each of us has made his symbolic approach to Plymouth Rock; each is here because someone took a step forward and felt a sustaining firmness underfoot, whether the landing took place from the Mayflower , from an Irish “coffin ship,” on Ellis Island, or from the last jet at Logan or LaGuardia.
I sense the tenacity of that feeling whenever I visit Plymouth on a bright summer’s day. The approaches to the Grecian temple are traffic-blocked. Forty assimilative years have given the white columns a certain minimum of harmony with their nonclassical surroundings. Cars with license plates from every state in the Union are parked for a mile along Water Street. The Mayflower II , brave in new paint at her dock, sets off the striated blue of the harbor and the yellow streak of sandspit that almost encompasses it. To the right on the horizon are the bluffs of Manomet, and to the left a single white house breaks the dense greenery of dark’s Island. The crowds are twenty deep around Plymouth Rock. Two college boys in Pilgrim costume alternate in giving talks on the Rock’s history, then pass around their wide-brimmed pot hats. Their talks are at least eighty-five per cent accurate. Across the road a goateed photographer, also dressed as a Pilgrim, is waiting to snap the tourists. They in turn may focus their own cameras on him for twenty-five cents a pose. As I wedge my way to the iron guardrail under the pediment and stand looking down at Plymouth Rock in its pit, I feel a homely affection for that familiar, battered granite lump, and I sense a comradeship with those strangers in their summer clothes who have gathered with me to stare at it.