Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Name of War

Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (note the text of the scroll the Indian holds: "Come Over and Help Us")

Title: The Name of War: King Phillip's War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)

Author: Jill Lepore, at Harvard in the Am Civ department. Her interests are in
"early America studies, cultural history of colonial, Revolutionary, and antebellum America, with a particular interest in the history of print and of race and violence." Her other books are Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents (1999); A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2002); and New York Burning: Liberty and Slavery in an Eighteenth-Century City (2005).

Argument: This, Lepore writes, is a "study of war before television, before film, before photography" (xi), a story about a short and vicious war and how the victors, the English, used language to construct its meaning. Meanwhile, the vanquished, the Indians, left much less of a historical record, but Lepore sets out to try to "see" what the Indians thought about the war through the record that remains.


Prologue: The Circle:
Here, using an English account of the torturing of one rebel Indian by other, English-allied Indians at the end of the hostilities, Lepore asks questions about why the account was told the way it was - why the English were so careful to distinguish themselves from Indian cruelties, but also so seemingly eager that the cruelties happen and be watchable. She sets up the background circumstances of the war: English anxiety about identity in the New World; fears of becoming "too close" to the Indians; fears that the Indians themselves had become "degenerate" from too much contact with the American wilderness environment, and that the same fate would follow for the English. The English also worried about the way they acted toward the Indians because they wanted their actions to be distinct from the cruelty of the Spaniards in South America and Central America (a history which had been used in England as incitement against the Catholic Church). Meanwhile, Algonquian Indians worried that the English influence was taking the lives of too many Indians, either through death by disease or through Christianization.

Part One: Language
Chapter 1: Beware of Any Linguist:
This chapter begins with the story of the death of John Sassamon, a Christianized Indian and a go-between for King Philip, which resulted in the (English) conviction and execution of three Wampanoags, an event which touched off the beginning of the war. Lepore holds that the traditional story of Sassamon's murder, which has him killed for being a traitor to Indians, does not exactly explain the circumstances of the death, and although she doesn't have a concrete explanation, believes that the most important lesson to learn from the murder was that Sassamon was killed by "literacy" - the ability to move between the two cultures (25). She then explores this concept - that literacy, and with it, advanced cultural obliteration - was "dangerous" to individual Indians, giving a history of the English involvement with Indian "education" and Christianization. Here is the story of the life of Sassamon's teacher and the translator of Christian literature into Massachusett, John Eliot.

The Massachusett Bible printed in Cambridge in 1663.

Chapter 2: The Story of It Printed: Between 1675 and 1682, twenty-one different English accounts of the war were printed. Why, Lepore asks, did people who experienced the war directly rarely write accounts, while ministers and wealthy people living far away from the battlefields wrote so many? The former, she answers herself, kept silent because of illiteracy, low position on the social ladder, or simply because their suffering was such that they couldn't bring themselves to write down what happened. Meanwhile, Indians were silent, according to colonists, because violence was their only vocabulary.

John Foster's map of New England, 1677.

Part Two: War
Chapter 3: Habitations of Cruelty:
Using Elaine Scarry and Mary Douglas, Lepore writes that Indian attacks on the English were understood as "attacks on bounded systems", damaging "bodies, possessions, and political identities" (74) through corporeal violence, destruction of property, and conversion of captives to Indian-ness. Here, Lepore discusses the meaning of clothes and houses to English-ness and their abject terror of Indian ways of dressing, eating, and sheltering. On the other hand, Indians who attacked settlements seemed to purposefully target the things which they perceived Englishmen to cherish the most - cattle and houses - though the English did not recognize the attacks as being calculated in this way.

Chapter 4: Where Is Your O God?:
"Was King Philip's War a holy war? And if so, whose?" (99) The English saw the war as a punishment from God, sometimes. The Algonquians would sometimes, apparently, attack Christianity directly (105). Lepore describes the current thought in English and European discourse about what would constitute a "just" war, concluding that the colonists were inconsistent in their assessments of whether or not what they were doing was "just". Ultimately, some English believed that what was going on between them and the Indians could not even be called a war, because the Indians were less than human and used inhuman tactics. Lepore looks at possible explanations for these tactics from inside the Algonquian culture and actions - were they trying to "disorder" the English world? Regardless, "English colonists were either unwilling or unable to place such practices within the broader context of Algonquian culture and to read them as partial explanations for what had provoked the Indians to wage war" (119).

Part Three: Bondage

Chapter 5: Come Go Along With Us: Beginning with the story of Mary Rowlandson, Lepore points out that an analogous story - the history of James Printer, a Christianized Indian made captive by an enemy group and forced by colonial authorities to bring in two Indian heads to prove his loyalty to the white men - shows that Algonquian Indians also underwent experiences of bondage during the war. Lepore also tells the story of the Christian Indians confined to Deer Island without adequate food or shelter.

Chapter 6: A Dangerous Merchandise: In this chapter, Lepore tells the story of the Indians who were sold as slaves after the end of the war: "More than any other story of King Philip's War, it suggests just how furiously the colonists had come to despise a people they had once hoped to convert" (154). Some colonists, however, warned that the Indian cargo being sold away on slave ships represented a "dangerous merchandise", or a moral burden of guilt that the colonists would find crushing in years to come.

Later, and bloodier, image of Mary Rowlandson about to be captured (1773)

Part Four: Memory

Chapter 7: That Blasphemous Leviathan: Cotton Mather's boyhood memory of seeing King Philip's head on a stick serves as the starting point for a story of how colonists saw the war in the century to come. To Lepore, the anxieties about English identity in the wake of engaging with the cruelties of the conflict continued in the story-telling about the events of the war: "The incompleteness of the colonists' victory meant that preserving the memory of the war, and preserving a particular kind of memory, one that depicted Philip as a barbarous villain, became as desperately critical to the colonists' sense of themselves as waging the war had been in the first place" (175).

Chapter 8: The Curse of Metamora: Later, in the early nineteenth century, the story of King Philip's War, especially as re-enacted in the play called Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags, anchored by popular thespian Edwin Forrest, became a catalyst for contradictory national feelings about the Indians. Even as the Trail of Tears went on in real-time, white audiences thrilled to the story of the noble Philip. Lepore adds a twist to this old story of white affection for the vanishing Indian: real-life Indians of the time, including writer and intellectual William Apess and a group of Penobscots who attended a Boston performance of Metamora to plead their case for sovereignty, "turned such images to their own advantage, negotiating the tangled logic of the noble savage and the rhetoric of Indian removal to hold on to their tribal lands and even build momentum for a movement to found a new kind of Indian identity" (193).

Edwin Forrest in the title role of Metamora by John Augustus Stone - Engraving by T. Johnson after a photograph by Mathew Brady, ca. 1859

Epilogue: The Rock:
Lepore ends with an expedition into present-day popular memory of the war. For example, a monument in Rhode Island to the massacre of innocent Indians at the Great Swamp was erected in 1906, but since then has been an emblem of present-day Indian attempts to bring a memory of the more bloody events of King Philip's War to the public's attention.

The Great Swamp Monument, South Kingstown, Rhode Island

Well, it won the Bancroft Prize, so there's that. In the New England Quarterly, Zubeda Jalalzai wrote that the book manages to be "thrilling" while also "careful" and "astute". The one quibble: why, Jalalzai asked, did Lepore not explore further the reasons for this war's relative anonymity among the general contemporary public (as opposed to its celebrity in the nineteenth century)? In AQ, Phillip Gould pointed out that the book's greatest strength lies in its interdisciplinarity and its use of material culture, which, he said, allowed Lepore to do more with the minimal record of Indian historical documentation. But he faulted Lepore for re-inscribing what he saw as a fallacy coming from the work of Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch - namely, seeing Puritanism as a caldron for all future American-ness. Finally, in the Journal of American History, Patricia Rubertone wrote that the "fascinating" book was satisfying in its investigation of individual motivations of captives, Indians, and ministers, but wished that there was more information about the Indians sold as slaves. Generally, though, Rubertone lauded the book for its ability to listen for native voices between the lines of the history written by the pens of the "winners".

Books to follow up on: Secondary:
Jack Greene, Imperatives, Behaviors, and Identities: Essays in Early American Cultural History (1992); Mike Featherstone, et al, eds, The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory (1991); Calvin Martin, ed., The American Indian and the Problem of History (1987); Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985); Sue Scott and David Morgan, eds, Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body (1993); Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices (1984), chapter on "the perils of writing about cruelty" (257) (Chapter One).

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