where the writers are

It is worth reflecting on this Feast Day how one little book, crudely produced by early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, has become the most expensive book in the world, outstripping unique versions of the Bible, Shakespeare's First Folios and Jean-Jacques Audubon's famous Birds of America.

On Tuesday, a copy of the Bay Psalm Book sold at Sotheby's, New York, for $14.2 million, a sum even Croesus would have found eye-watering. Rarity is, of course, a factor. There are believed to be only eleven of these volumes in existence. The books were so thoroughly used that most fell into disrepair sooner rather than later. These few have survived Independence Wars, Civil Wars, World Wars, boundary disputes and hard-driven migration. But their intrinsic value is surely bound up in all the hope, the longing, the nostalgia, the idealism, the quest for freedom, equality and a Promised Land, dreamed by the founding fathers of America. This was the pilgrims' rightful inheritance, in the gift of a beneficient God whose bounty was freely available to the focused and thankful heart.

Months of pitching and rolling on the Atlantic under changeable stars, in insanitary conditions and fed on a scratch diet that barely kept body and soul together, must have caused some misgivings. The sight of an expansive, untamed wilderness must have been daunting, their cultural heritage abandoned for good. For most, there was no going back. It would have taken many seasons for the magnitude of the undertaking to sink in. It is impossible to dwell on this with a dry eye.

But what did they seek in order to steel their courage and confirm the ground under their feet? A book of Psalms, the first recourse for the bewildered and anchorless, where the map of God's heart is reflected in daily human vicissitudes, a compendium of 'givens', without any challenges to theological construction and meaning.

What those pioneers sought was a new translation from the Hebrew, one fit for the realities of the New World and couched in democratic phrases. In such circumstances, the striving for commonwealth was not a design, but an instinct of survival. They wanted their Psalms in verse. Singing was their inspiration. Breathing together, chanting harmonies, strengthened a sense of family and corporate purpose whilst engraving truths in the memory.

The text is said by some scholars to be graceless and awkward. But the ministers responsible made it clear they 'attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language'. The press had to be transported all the way from England. The ink is said to be uneven, the standard of workmanship poor and the book riddled with misprints and idiosyncratic punctuation.

But what remains to the twenty-first century is a living legacy charged with the power of that virgin experience on the threshold of a vast unknown. It is a moving testimony to faith rewarded, to the hardwon fruits of labour in field and vineyard, to the population of a Continent pledged to freedom and opportunity. This little book flags the chapter in global history in which Western civilisation took root in America and led to the birth of a great nation.

What a fine irony that capitalist cultures can only express their homage to a vision via mercantile currency!


 Wishing all American friends and colleagues a Happy Thanksgiving (and Hanukkah) !



12 Comment count
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THIS psalm booi was all new information to me, Rosy.  Very intersting.

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Hope you had a wonderful time!

Your chronicles of family life are so warm and interesting, Thanksgiving must have been a really special day, especially as you had a birthday celebration, I believe. Congratulations!

Glad you enjoyed the post, Sue. Thanks so much for commenting :)

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I heard about this psalm book

I heard about this psalm book on Radio 4.  Absolutely extraordinary.  Thank you for this.

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Thank you, Katia!

I missed the Radio 4 item, but reports have been widespread and various in the lead up to the sale and its outcome. Just thought it would be interesting to place it in an evolving historical context.

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Fascinating blog Rosy and thank you for sharing this remarkable story with us. 

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Delighted you enjoyed reading this post, Nicholas.

It's a theme close to my heart since some of my Puritan ancestors migrated to America at the time of the Pilgrim Fathers.

On another note, your photo art is really striking, with a clear pattern of development. I know how challenging monochrome can be from my amateur (and by now historic!) art days. I'm only just learning what to do with a camera, but confess to feeling quite proud of the wraparound cover of The Twain which was carefully planned. Just a stroke of luck to get the right conditions after visiting the same spot for many days.

Thanks for dropping by!

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Puritan Thread

Thank you for your response, Rosy and fascinating to see this Puritan aspect to your heritage. Forgive me if I have missed anything you may have written on this previously but have you explored this remarkable part of your ancestry?

You are very kind in complimenting my b/w photos and I've enjoyed photography since childhood when I first used a 1913 Kodak bellows-type camera my dear grandmother gave me when I was seven or eight years of age and it became my favourite 'toy' by opening up an exciting vista for me: to think that I held an object in my hands that could freeze a moment in time for evermore and all I had to do was to depress a shutter. It felt magical to me at the time some fifty years ago and it still does to this day; the magic never dies with photography. I'd love to see your images if you would care to post them on Red Room.

Please have a look at some of my other pictures at: http://www.artslant.com/global/artists/show/162261-nicholas-mackey  

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The Puritan theme...

figures strongly in my ancestry and I'll append a footnote to this post as soon as I have a few moments.

I was given a Fujifilm FinePix by my son at Christmas 2011 which is helping enormously to overcome my photography hang-ups. From time to time, the results do appear within blog posts. Perhaps the most popular has been Epiphany At East Coker. What appeals to me also is taking photographs that I can translate into art. Some might think this cheating, but I feel if the photo is an original of the artist's, that shouldn't apply. It's good practice anyway and even Vermeer was believed to have used a camera obscura!

Thank you so much for the link to your graphic and unique chronicle of events through the decades.

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Epiphany symphony

I just read your blog 'Epiphany at East Coker' - a beautiful piece of writing and you mentioned one of my favourite poets, T.S. Eliot. Plus your piece was peppered with local history of the area - a delight to savour. Thank you very much for this, Rosy. If these are your pictures illustrating your blog, they add so much to your article and I hope to see more of your photography very soon. 

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Yes, they are all my pics :)

Eliot is my favourite poet.

Thank you so much for your comments and generous enthusiasm, Nicholas. Much appreciated!

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When I later saw an article about this, I thought: well Rosie Cole had already informed me about it on RR.  (Hard to scoop RR.)

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Bless you, Sue!

I just thought it a perfect story for Thanksgiving. No doubt the auctioneers astutely timed the scheduling!