Today I visited a rock that’s as close as one can get when looking for the foundation stone of the American enterprise.
It’s old, or at least as old as the British migration to North America: It lay here in Plymouth back when the Mayflower landed in 1620.
It’s more myth than reality: The first document to claim that this rock is the actual landing site of the Pilgrims was written in 1741, 120 years AFTER that famous landing.
And it bears the scars of its mythological status: This rock broke in half when the townspeople of Plymouth tried to drag it to their Town Square in 1774. After it was returned to its original location, it continued to diminish under the consistent attacks of souvenir-hungry tourists with chisels. All in all, it’s now barely as big as a third of its original size.
And so, here it lies, this possibly-authentic relic in its less-than-authentic form reinstated to its authentic place to serve as the closest thing to an authentic pilgrimage site that this country possesses. But as Anderson writes in his classic book about national identity, Imagined Communities, the fact that something is imagined doesn’t mean that it’s a lie. All those generations of modern-day pilgrims in search of meaning and memorabilia may have chiseled away this rocks physical body, but they conferred upon it the kind of meaning that the original Pilgrims couldn’t have imagine back when they may have stepped on it in 1620.
With every generation that came back to this rock, with every American that came to stand here and recall the dawn of the Anglo story of America, this rock grew in symbolic resonance. Once, it simply lay here. But now it stands for the American story in its entirety: the good, the bad, the ugly, the inauthentic that’s still earnest, and all.
So yeah. I was excited to stand here today.