The Courtship of Miles Standish

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The Courtship of Miles Standish

 

The Courtship Of Miles Standish, the story of John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and Miles Standish, is one of the favorite Thanksgiving stories, right up there with Squanto and the fish. It is found most completely in “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” a long long poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which few people read nowadays.

In the story, Miles Standish, captain of the Mayflower, has taken a fancy to one of the young passengers, Priscilla Mullins. He asks his young lodger, John Alden, to go to Priscilla and court her for him, since he is a man of action and not of words. When John presents Standish’s proposal, Priscilla says, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” The two end up marrying.

Let me offer you some links to go with this story:

  • Here is the story retold for children, with lots of historical detail, from A First Book in American History by Edward Eggleston. There are a couple of writing prompts included.
  • Here is a play script for the story. Use it as a starting point for writing  a play or Reader’s Theater script, or read it for a quick puppet play.
  • Read about the Alden’s home and family.
  • Find out general background about the Pilgrims. This site is a good reference for teachers, and also a good technology connection for upper elementary and above. We especially like the collection of primary sources, including letters.

English

  • Here, for high school students, is the story as presented by Donald Ogden Stewart inA Parody Outline of History. This piece tells the story in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, providing a nice seasonal opportunity to look at Fitzgerald’s style. Assuming that your students have read The Great Gatsby, this would be a good starting point for a lesson on parody.
  • Compare the story of Miles Standish and john Alden with Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de BergeracHere is a thorough lesson plan for Rostand’s play.
  • There can be few better choices than this story for rewriting from different points of view.

Critical thinking

  • The factual background to this story is very limited. In fact, the only real source of the story is the poem by Alden descendant Longfellow, who knew it as a family story. Discuss the importance of oral history and the drawbacks to relying on it. Identify the provable facts of the story (essentially, that all three characters existed and that John and Priscilla married) and decide how to evaluate the plausibility of the rest of the story.
  • The entire question of the provability of history is examined at this site, which looks at widespread misinformation about Standish and in particular about that other beloved character of Thanksgiving stories, Squanto. Examine the sources given to decide whether the author’s claims are accurate.
  • Following one or both of these discussions, consider the question: should a story be told if it isn’t true? At what point does a good historical tale become a legend? Is there a point along that continuum at which we should stop treating it as history?

Character

  • This story contains a wonderful ethical dilemma. John, who already loves Priscilla, is asked by a friend to court her on the friend’s behalf. As a good friend, should he have foreseen the outcome and refused? Or should he have gone ahead and done his best, as he did in the story? Captain Standish didn’t know of his friend’s love for Priscilla; should John have told him? Had he known, would Standish have foreseen the outcome? Would he have retracted his request out of kindness? And what about Priscilla? Should she have put John in the difficult position of having to betray his friend? Should she have kept quiet, even though her own happiness — and that of the men as well — was at stake? This would be a great topic for a free-ranging discussion followed by a more structured debate.
  • For a briefer activity, have students list all the character traits they see in the three main characters of the story.
  • The poem shows some very old-fashioned attitudes (as we would expect), describing Native Americans as “heathens” and “savages” and showing similar obsolete viewpoints about women and other topics. Practice skimming and scanning by having students highlight examples of attitudes we would now find offensive, and discuss whether such literature should still be read or not. Is it worse to subject ourselves to offensive language, or to lose old works that are still important parts of our heritage?

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