Author Interview: Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon, author of Mistress Bradstreet

by Lisa Yanaky

Charlotte Gordon is the author of Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet (reviewed here), a biography of Anne Bradstreet, a seventeenth-century woman that wrote about her new country, her old home in England, and the family that she adored. Recently, Charlotte Gordon was wonderful enough to take a break from her busy writing schedule to sit down and answer some questions from Book Brothel about poetry, history, and a few shockers about Anne’s Puritan lifestyle.

What was it about Anne Bradstreet and her
that spurred you to write a biography about

I was looking for a female mentor, a woman poet
who had not killed
herself like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. And
Anne was such a brave
woman! She was a pioneer who helped found three
towns in
America — Cambridge, Ipswich, and Andover,
Massachusetts. She had eight
children and yet still produced the first book of
poems from the New
World. Her work is more significant than modern
audiences can
understand. For example, she wrote more lines of
poetry than any other
English poet for the next one hundred years, with
one exception — John

Today’s readers might be quite surprised how
they can relate to Anne – she had to juggle her
writing career, a large family, and fairly
extensive community involvement, for example.
What other factors are making her and her poetry
stand up to the test of time, keeping readers’
interest almost 350 years after her

Toward the middle of her writing life, Anne
decided to write in a
simple, “homespun” style. Many of her poems
are written to her husband,
children, or grandchildren and they are easily
accessible to modern
audiences. We can relate to her grief over losing
a grandchild, or her
passionate love for her husband.

What did you come across in your research that
you found surprising and challenged your original
beliefs about Anne’s life?

Traditionally, Anne has been painted as a pious
Puritan woman and I had
a lot of stereotypes about what that
meant — black dresses, white
bonnets, no sex or alcohol. But I discovered that
the Puritans actually
drank beer or wine with every meal. They thought
sex was an important
part of life and believed that a woman could not
get pregnant unless
she had an orgasm. Therefore, it was important
for husbands to learn
how to be good lovers. Also, the women’s
dresses were dyed the colors
they found in nature: deep red, brown, green, and
blue. Only rarely did
anyone wear black. Finally, I thought that Anne
would never admit to
doubting her religion. But in the spiritual
autobiography that she
wrote for her children, she wrote that she was
often tempted by
atheism. Sometimes, she doubted the truth of
Scripture! It was hard for
her to maintain her faith and she confessed this
readily to her

Most people see history as cold, hard facts
poetry as subjective, emotional descriptions.
What was it like combining the two into a
biography? Do you find one aspect more
interesting than the other?

I thought that I would prefer writing about her
poetry, but I soon
realized that the most creative endeavor for me
was to try to make the
history come alive. I had the facts, but I had to
fill in the missing
sensory and emotional details. For example, I
knew when and where Anne
set sail for America. But then it was my job to
supply the details of
what that journey must have been like. And I
loved doing that!

It seems inevitable that 21st century
and beliefs would creep in when writing about
life in 17th century America. How did you stay

I spent a lot of time imagining what life was
like in 1630 in America — a
process of subtraction and addition. I had to
“take away” all the signs
of civilization that now dominate New England and
“add” evidence of the
wilderness — primordial forest, Indians, wolves,
etc. When my own
preconceptions crept in, I could tell by the
jarring sound of the
language. I tended to use 21st century slang to
express 21st century
viewpoints and these were easy to catch.

How much time was spent researching
compared to the time you spent
actually writing it?

I spent at least ten years reading before I
started to write about
Anne. Then it took about two years to write the
book. But I was still
researching even as I wrote my chapters.

In your research, how did you decide what
most likely to be the “truth” when you were faced
with conflicting information, or if the details
were simply lost to the passage of time?

If I couldn’t figure out the “truth,” I
told the reader, or else I left
things out. One of the things I like about
non-fiction, in contrast to
historical fiction, is that there are inevitably
going to be gaps and
this is what gives the work an integrity and a
beauty that is sometimes
missing in novels that presume to know
about a historical

You’ve written several books of poetry
(When the Grateful Dead Came to St. Louis;
Girls on a Raft
). What poets have inspired
in your writing career?

Too many to list! And they have changed over
time. I used to love Yeats
and Keats and T. S Eliot. Now, I admire
Symborzka, Dickinson, and
Elizabeth Bishop.

Did you change any of your writing rituals
you switched from poetry to non-fiction? Do you
find one to be more challenging than the

I had a deadline with Mistress Bradstreet so I
had to work many more
hours than I did as a poet. I used to write in
the mornings. With
Mistress Bradstreet, I wrote all day long, and
then after the kids were
in bed.

As a teacher, you must be familiar with people
having the attitude that poetry is irrelevant to
modern times, that it’s overly difficult, and any
other number of complaints. What do you think
poetry needs to bring to the table to keep people
interested in reading it today?

Well, to use the Romantic battle cry, poets must
write in the language
that people actually speak. Also, we should shed
the Modernist idea of
difficulty for the sake of difficulty. People
need to be able to
understand poetry. Poets need to be accessible.
But students also need
to be taught how to read poetry. I think readers
give up too easily.

What have you been reading lately?
I have been reading books for my new project,
Divided Heart (Little,
Brown). I am writing the story of the biblical
patriarch Abraham and how
he is torn apart by his love for two women: his
wife, Sarah, and her
servant, Hagar. These two women each bore a child
by Abraham: Isaac, who
is traditionally known as the founder of the
Jews; and Ishmael, the
father of the Arabs. Currently, I am steeped in
medieval rabbinical

What’s up next for you?
is due next
July so I am pretty

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