Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Name of War

Today, I am reading Jill Lepore's The Name of War: King Philip's War and the origins of American Identity (1998).

I've read this book before, but never too seriously. Of all the books I own, it is definitely in the bottom quartile in terms of weight and size, so it sometimes gets taken along on trips.

I prefer Lepore's style of writing to many other historians' styles, but not everyone agrees (my friend Tom for one). Unlike many academic historians, Lepore writes engaging narratives that are accessible to a non-specialist audience, which is important to me. Too often, historians write deliberately inscrutable prose, thereby limiting their audience and making it more difficult for teachers, curators, and the interested public to keep up with the current historiography. I always prefer plain writing, even if it sacrifices elegance for clarity.

Page 123 contains the heading for Part III: Bondage, so this excerpt comes from page 121:
The Narragansetts' explanation for why they burned Providence provided Roger Williams with precious little comfort as he watched his house become a heap of ashes. But their words, like those of Nowell and Moody, suggest that both sides in King Philip's War believed they were fighting to save their lives — and their religions. And perhaps both peoples knew that, in the chaos and excess of a cruel war, they were "in A Strang Way," disoriented by loss, fear, and gods who had forsaken them.

The Name of War is as much about the memory of the war as it is about the war itself. Lepore explores how English colonists wrote about the conflict in its aftermath and how King Philip was transformed from a serious threat into an American hero in the nineteenth century.

For my seminar, I am only interested in Chapter 1: "Beware of Any Linguist," which recounts the story of John Sassamon, the Christian Wampanoag man whose mysterious death ignited the flames of war. Lepore constructs a basic (and largely hypothetical) biography of Sassamon, including his (not hypothetical) relationship with John Eliot, the missionary who printed the Bible and other religious works in the Massachusett language. Lepore argues that assimilated Native Americans were uniquely vulnerable because they were outcasts in both white and Native American societies, and that they were among those most harmed by the war.

My dilemma is this: the topic of next week's seminar is "Things." When I see "Things," I am immediately thinking Jules Prown and James Deetz, not Jill Lepore. The only material objects in the chapter are Eliot's books and the Cambridge printing press, but Lepore does not examine the objects directly. The closest she comes is arguing that many of the "Indian Bibles" may have been destroyed by Native Americans to show their contempt for assimilation.

But it's not a material culture text, so I'm feeling a little lost. I hope that the rest of the readings will make the link clear - perhaps this reading is just a piece in a puzzle that will end up making more sense.

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