Personal Notes

    In the nineteenth century, when gentlemen scholars painstakingly collected and published the letters of so many early American correspondents, Cotton escaped largely unnoticed. Maybe the adultery accusations simply made him too hot to handle, especially since he was the son of the great spiritual founder of New England. No one even collected Cotton’s letters into a “papers of” manuscript collection. Most of his letters sit in broad collections, such as those at the Massachusetts Historical Society, in “miscellaneous bound” or in the collected papers of someone else, such as the Curwen Papers at the American Antiquarian Society. Whenever I presented papers that included quotations from Cotton’s correspondence, someone in the audience would enquire, “where are those letters?” So, in an appropriate reflection of Cotton’s own habits of collaboration, this project was conceived at the suggestion of a few senior scholars after I delivered a conference paper on Cotton at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in 1998. My thanks to Richard Brown, Ken Minkema and Mary Beth Norton for encouraging me to put my unfinished monograph on the shelf and dive into Cotton’s world. Realizing that the task was too huge to tackle alone, I invited Len Travers, then of the Massachusetts Historical Society, to join me (he probably grew to regret that decision). Len’s editing of Cotton’s missionary journal may have hooked him on Cotton’s infectious prose (and comparatively easy handwriting). My deep gratitude goes to him; he kept this project rolling when I feared it would never see print, and his dedication, wisdom and longsuffering devotion to “the fabric of our lives” never ceased to amaze me.

    I have taken the Cotton project with me on several moves, and I am particularly grateful to Brian McKillop of Carleton University and my colleagues at SUNY Potsdam, especially Jim German and Geoffrey Clark, for their interest in my work. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada supported this work through a two-year postdoctoral fellowship. The late Sargent Bush and David Hall offered kind words of encouragement at an early stage of the project. Alan Taylor’s and Emily Albu’s friendship is invaluable, even as their prolific writing is humbling. Jonathan Shev and Louise Mundstock of UC Davis supplied the Latin transcriptions for the post-1680 letters. Dr. Jonathan Dann of the University of Michigan’s Clements Library helped to decipher some particularly nebulous passages in the letters from Joseph Lord. John Huffman re-raised the superscriptions that had mistakenly become lowered (thanks to technology) in dozens of letters from the Boston Public Library on very short notice.

    Michael von Herff, a historian temporarily in exile in the corporate world, reminds me that “Love carrys through many difficulties easily & makes heavy burdens light,” as John wrote to Joanna. His constant good humor and support made the work possible, and my gratitude and love are written into every word. I understand Cotton’s fear, pride and love for his children much more vividly since becoming a mother; William, Silas and Lucy von Herff have been the best excuse to leave the quiet of the library and play. My family, especially my mother, has listened patiently to all my stories about Cotton and spent many days taking care of my children so I could spend countless hours in the seventeenth century.

    During a lunch break at the MHS with some other early Americanists, I admitted that when I read these manuscript letters I actually “heard” the writer’s voice, which made the difficult handwriting and language easy for me to understand. Believing that they all shared this experience, I was surprised when they laughed and warned me not to circulate that too broadly. Ignoring their advice, I hope that readers also “hear” Cotton’s voice when they read this volume. Reading someone else’s mail always carries an illicit thrill. Cotton was naive enough to gossip and share his emotions with both intended and unintended readers, even when his candor often got him into trouble. Bringing his letters to a wider audience is exactly what Cotton would have wanted—he thrived on the notoriety that his letter-writing connections gained him—and I hope that modern readers will enjoy the correspondence of the “bad boy of the Cotton clan” as much as we did.

    Sheila McIntyre

    Contrary to what Dr. McIntyre suggests, my only regret concerning this project is that I did not think of it first. As Sheila relates, I was busy with Cotton’s Indian missionary journal at the same time that she was exploring the informal news nexuses of seventeenth-century New England, to which, of course, Cotton was an important contributor. I was also familiar with Cotton’s correspondence touching upon the King Philip’s War years and relating to my particular interest, the history of Plymouth Colony. But it was Sheila who approached me with the idea of getting Cotton’s entire correspondence into one volume. We two had a nodding acquaintance from our graduate school days at Boston University, but it was this tragic, yet eminently familiar and approachable figure from the past, and those others whose experiences he preserved in writing, who made us friends. We have become “gossips” ourselves, in the antique form of two who eagerly share news about others—only our subjects are long dead. I have enjoyed my part in this endeavor immensely, but without Sheila’s initial proposal for the project, Cotton might still reside in that literary limbo to which nineteenth-century historians (for whatever reason) consigned him. It is just as well that neither she, nor I, knew at the time what claims Mr. Cotton et al would make on our lives. We’ll know better next time.

    In addition to the acknowledgments we have made above, I too must confess my ignorance of Latin and thank my one-time mentors Joseph Scionti and Kevin Hargreaves for translations of certain passages in the pre-1681 letters. Mark Peterson, a scholar of the Old Colony church and one of our readers, provided much encouragement and saved us from at least one embarrassing gaffe. Doug Winiarski, who has his sights set on another member of the Cotton family, likewise shared information and insights generously. Nathaniel Philbrick alerted me in the nick of time to a letter I would otherwise have overlooked. And the Rev. Peter Gomes, when I have been fortunate enough to steal a few minutes of conversation from that wise and very busy man, has inspired me with his eagerness to hold the finished volume in his hands. That makes three of us, at least.

    And if we may be allowed to dedicate this volume, we think it appropriate to do so to the patient, longsuffering spouses—Joanna, Carolyn, and Michael—for all of whom we have acquired ever-greater regard over the course of this project.

    Len Travers