Carla Gardina Pestana is Professor of History, Department Chair, and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World at the University of California, Los Angeles. This interview is based on her new book, The World of Plymouth Plantation (Belknap Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write The World of Plymouth Plantation?
CP: The simple answer, and one I allude to in the book’s acknowledgements, is that I participated in an NEH funded workshop at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation some years ago. During that multi-day meeting, I was struck by how Plymouth appears isolated from the wider world. Immediate interactions, especially those with the area’s original residents, received the focus of attention in conversations there and, I subsequently realized, in the literature around Plymouth as well. I felt inspired to think systematically about what connected Plymouth to a world beyond the neighboring Wampanoag peoples and the immediate location.
On another level, this project represents a return to my roots. My original research centered on New England; and though I have kept it in my sights in a number of more broadly framed projects, this is the first time I have returned to consider the region on its own. This return had not occurred to me, until a number of friends pointed it out.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The World of Plymouth Plantation?
CP: Plymouth Plantation was connected from its inception to other places, and those connections shaped its early history in ways both basic and profound. (That is one!)
JF: Why do we need to read The World of Plymouth Plantation?
CP: I realize this is my chance to make my own case, but I am not sure I would use the word “need”! (Obviously, I could be better at self-promotion.)
The World of Plymouth Plantation offers a readable account of everyday life as well as of what we might call their world view. It is organized around some basic categories that have shaped Atlantic history, specifically things, ideas, and people that circulated into and through the outpost. It uses those categories to shape 18 short chapters that each begin with a vignette (although not the usual ones) and consider an element from one of the three categories. So, it’s organized in an interesting (if subtle) way. It also reflects knowledge gained from many years of teaching and researching, without being didactic about it. My intended readers are not only scholars and students but also the wider public, so it is relatively short, not to mention nicely illustrated and written in an accessible style.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CP: I stumbled into the study of history in that I went to graduate school largely on the recommendation of my undergraduate faculty and without a clear idea of what I would find there. As an undergraduate, I had felt especially drawn to early American history so I continued in that vein, making me technically an American historian since the colonial period is treated as the first (and often least significant) chapter of US history. I stumbled across the Quaker executions in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the first months of my graduate career and quickly became obsessed with explaining them. I wanted, on the most basic level, to understand how Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: From Colony to Province and Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down could both be legitimate representations of an era (and some closely connected people during it) when their subject matters and findings seemed so vastly at odds. In a way, my dissertation and first book were an attempt to answer that question.
Since that time, I have wandered out into Atlantic, Caribbean, and even British topics, but I have always taught early American history. I continue to consider myself a historian of early America, even though now I am interested in that and more.
JF: What is your next project?
CP: Sadly, I am uncertain. Like most historians, I am missing the access to archives and libraries brought on by the pandemic. I want to get back into the Jamaican archives to answer some questions left hanging from a previous book. I want to think more deeply about maritime topics, and I would have been in the National Records Office in Kew looking at High Court of Admiralty records this summer had that been possible. I may put together an edited collection of articles by other scholars on the early modern global Caribbean, since I have been facilitating conversations around that topic for some time.
JF: Thanks, Carla!