Jill Lepore: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity
Many years ago, some time after I’d moved from Pennsylvania to Scotland, I decided it would be nice to own a good, solid single-volume history of America. I made my way along to the big branch of James Thin that used to be on Nicolson Street in Edinburgh and asked the bookseller in the history section for advice. He recommended Hugh Brogan’s Penguin History of the United States of America. It looked a little dry, but there weren’t many options within my budget and I was full of the acquisitive impulse. I bought it.
An early clue that this might not have been a good decision came when I noticed that chapter five was entitled “Indians: 1492–1920”, and ran to fewer than twenty pages (of a seven-hundred-page book). I read out the chapter title to my boyfriend, and we laughed a little at how comically inadequate it sounded. I managed to keep going with the book until around chapter six before admitting defeat: somehow I just couldn’t stay focused on it. It wasn’t speaking to me.
A lot of people like Brogan’s book, if the online reviews are any guide. I can see why it was recommended to me, even though I didn’t get on with it. After a while I gave my copy away; but when I read The Name of War – an entirely different sort of book – a particular quote dimly recalled from the aforementioned ‘‘Indians” chapter came back to niggle at me. Thanks to the magic of the Look Inside feature on Amazon, I can reproduce it for you here:
Few historical themes are of greater fascination than the tale of the North American Indian; but it cannot be told here for its own sake. A history of the United States must be a history of victors; the defeated are relevant chiefly for what they tell us of their conquerors. Sed victa Catoni; the sage Auden, however, tells us that
Few even wish they could read
the lost annals
of a cudgelled people.
Honour to those few; but they must seek satisfaction elsewhere. Let us see what the cudgelled can reveal of their oppressors.
“A history of the United States must be a history of victors”. I was amazed, probably a bit naïvely, by that statement at the time; it just seemed so brazenly wrong to me, having taken the odd single-semester history course at my very right-on liberal arts college. I look at it now, trying not to assume the worst, and wonder: what exactly does it mean? Is Brogan simply saying that because the records of the past were mainly written by conquerors, for practical reasons it’s got to be “their” history? Or is he aiming for a more general truth about what actually counts as significant, in historical terms? I’m not sure; I can’t remember the context, and can’t see enough of the text online to judge. But whichever way he meant it, the follow-up statement, “the defeated are relevant chiefly for what they tell us of their conquerors” is still hard for me to read as anything other than arrogant and ridiculous. Even the word tale earlier on – “the tale of the North American Indian” – contributes to the general impression of head-patting. It doesn’t help that Brogan sounds as if he thinks he’s being tremendously gracious about all of this.
I’m in no position to judge a work I’ve only read part of, clearly. Still … leaving Indians almost entirely out of a big, mass-market American history book that aims to be a comprehensive single-volume account, and then justifying this decision with a bit of Latin, an Auden quote and a handwave? Is that really something people are still prepared to accept? Because although Brogan wrote it in the early 80s – and for all I know, his own views may have evolved since then – the book is still being sold as Penguin’s standard offering on US history. So presumably they think it’s perfectly all right. (Tangential but interesting note: the day before yesterday I read this piece by Bidisha about what she terms “cultural femicide” in Penguin’s Planet Word book, a tie-in with a recent Stephen Fry TV series. It is incisive and eye-opening, and I’m not suggesting that my amateur observations about a twenty-five-year old backlist history title are in any way its equivalent, but there is a slight linking theme of entire groups of people being shruggingly left out of big, influential books.)
Enough of that. Reading The Name of War has been like a gentle brain-exfoliating treatment, first revealing and then polishing away the traces of non-specific calcified irritation that my long-ago experience of dipping into Brogan left behind. I like Jill Lepore’s writing a lot, though I didn’t know who she was before I started this blog. Most of what I’ve read is in the form of long articles (e.g. this recent one on Planned Parenthood, or this one from 2010 on the Tea Party movement). She writes with clarity and restraint, her prose is elegant, and her observations are perceptive and through-provoking. She introduces this book as “a study of war, and of how people write about it”, asking “If war is, at least in part, a contest for meaning, can it ever be a fair fight when only one side has access to those perfect instruments of empire, pens, paper, and printing presses?” What follows is an exploration of how white Americans and Algonquians defined themselves and characterized one another before, during and since the war in question, and how those constructions of identity shifted according to changes in their circumstances.
It seems American colonists wrote a great deal about King Philip’s War (1675–6), an extraordinarily bloody period in American history: some in order to make sense of their own experiences, others in the hope of defining events for posterity as they saw fit, still others to profit from the appetite for gory detail of readers back in England. By contrast there’s very little, basically nothing, in the way of written accounts by New England’s Algonquians, despite the fact that large numbers of them were literate. The first part of the book is mainly about why the Indians wrote so little and the colonists wrote so much, and it’s illuminating on the potentially fatal consequences of literacy for Indians at the time. The focus is on John Sassamon, a literate Indian whose (probable) murder in 1675 set in motion the events that led to the outbreak of war.
Subsequent sections use accounts of the vivid, often grotesque events of the war as a way into examining some fairly abstract-sounding ideas: first the interplay of the physical and moral boundaries that were drawn during wartime, and the way they were rationalized; then the ways in which colonists and Indians experienced captivity and bondage (with particular reference to Mary Rowlandson, whose captivity narrative is so famous, and to the Nipmuck Indian James Printer, about whom I’d never read before). Finally, Lepore looks at how King Philip’s War has been remembered and retold to varying purposes over the past few hundred years.* There’s an enjoyable chapter on the hugely popular nineteenth-century play Metamora: or, the Last of the Wampanoags, a melodramatic re-telling of Philip’s story, and the various ways in which different audiences responded to it over the years, depending on what else was going on culturally and politically between white Americans and Indians.
It took me a long time to read this relatively short book. It’s ambitious and deserves close attention, and these days my opportunities to spend time reading do not tend to come along at moments of intellectual liveliness. So I went at a snail’s pace, but enjoyed it, and will probably read at least some parts of it again eventually. It’s very different from the other two books I’ve read so far as part of this project – Ulrich’s Good Wives and Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare – and I’m glad of that; all three are fascinating, and reading them close together has taught me such a lot, as well as reminding me how enormously satisfying it can be to read in depth about history. The Name of War in particular, though, is one I know I’ll keep thinking about for a long time to come (in this case, thankfully, for all the right reasons).
*Family history note: my ancestor Samuel Sewall, in connection with whom I’ve had to discard my rose-tinted spectacles since I started reading in earnest for the blog, crops up at the beginning of that last section, participating in the cheerful dissection of an executed Indian captive. Stay classy, Samuel.