MAYFLOWER BASTARD

A Stranger Among the Pilgrims

By David Lindsay

St. Martin's. 262 pp. $23.95

It is perhaps appropriate that this biography of Richard More is an exceedingly strange book, for More appears to have been an exceedingly strange man. He and his siblings, the four illegitimate children of an Englishwoman named Katharine More, were placed aboard the Mayflower in the summer of 1620 and shipped off to America; Richard was 5 years old. Of the four, only he survived the voyage, indeed survived another 7 1/2 decades -- the precise date of his death is unknown -- in the New World, where he lived a peculiar, complicated and mysterious life.

David Lindsay was drawn to More's story because he is "a direct descendant in the More line -- from Katharine's side" and because he sees Richard More as a representative man, embodying "the myth and countermyth of America -- the wellsprings of our current patriotism and dissent -- on an eminently human level." He is not especially convincing in that regard, but the book has deeper problems than that.

The first is that Lindsay insists on addressing the book not to the reader but to the person who snitched on More to the First Church of Salem, in the Massachusetts known to the ages for its witch hunts, on charges of "gross unchastity with another man's wife," for which he was excommunicated; this gives the narrative a peculiar tone that is far more irritating than revealing.

The second is that more is unknown than known about More's life, with the result that Lindsay constantly must resort to speculation: "One is tempted to imagine," "Nevertheless, we are relatively safe in asserting," "It is quite possible that . . . On the other hand it may have been . . ." Obviously, a certain amount of speculation is necessary to biography and history, but there is so much of it in "Mayflower Bastard" that the line between fact and fiction is hopelessly blurred.

This is a pity because More's story is interesting. The passengers aboard the Mayflower were divided among the "Saints," as the sternest Puritans imagined themselves to be, and the "Strangers," who did not share their particular religious convictions. Even at the age of 5, More was one of the latter, and he remained so for the rest of his life, though in old age he briefly underwent a deathbed conversion of sorts. The stories of the Pilgrims have been told often, while the stories of the Strangers have often been overlooked. Lindsay is correct to sense that the life of Richard More offers an opportunity to jigger the balance a bit.

More came from difficult circumstances -- his mother underwent a painful and public divorce from the man who was her husband but not her children's father, and Richard was parted from her at a very tender age -- and he was a difficult man. Clearly, he was both intelligent and resourceful, but he was unreliable in familial matters and apparently could be unpleasant in his business dealings. He went to sea early and seems to have found his true home there. He became a respected captain and made a decent living in the tobacco trade, shipping the weed to England and the Continent and returning with the material goods the Colonies so sorely needed. As Britain began to clamp down on American trade with the Navigation Acts, which required the Colonies to trade with Britain and no one else, he got involved in smuggling, but then so did almost everyone else in New England, where it was regarded as patriotic duty.

More took an American wife when he was about 20 years old, but she apparently didn't meet all his needs, as he took an English wife about a decade later. He became "a man with families on both sides of the Atlantic, in a particularly convoluted bind -- in one of his wives' homes, he had to appear to be Puritan, while in the other he was supposed to be anything but." Somehow, he managed to get away with this bigamist's Captain's Paradise until both wives were dead (whereupon he soon took a third), but Lindsay thinks that the pressures attendant to keeping so large and dangerous a secret -- bigamy was punishable by death -- weighed heavily on More and influenced his life in ways that can be speculated about (of course) but not known.

"The witness of a century," Lindsay says of More in 1692, "he was the only man alive to have seen firsthand the Puritan dream in its transit from brave beginning to desperate denouement" in the Salem witch trials. This apparently is true, and thus justifies him in seeing More as a footnote to the larger drama that played out during his lifetime. A footnote, though, and nothing more.