William Apess, Native Americans, Pequot Indians, Religion, Methodists
In the more than twenty years since Barry O’Connell published On Our Own Ground: The Collected Works of William Apess, a Pequot (Amherst, MA, 1992), the life and writings of William Apess (1798–1839) have generated a significant amount of scholarly interest. As the first American Indian to publish his autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829), and the author of frequently anthologized works such as “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man” (1833) and “Eulogy on King Philip” (1836), Apess’s name often appears in academic books and articles and on college syllabi. Yet, as Philip Gura points out in the prologue to The Life of William Apess, a Pequot, despite commanding the attention of a scholarly audience, Apess has yet to be fully appreciated by the general public, who, he claims, “needs a straightforward account of Apess’s life and times” (xvi). Gura’s cultural biography of Apess, which is engaging, well-researched, and accessible, provides such an account, while also speaking to the interests of an academic audience.
The eight chapters in The Life of William Apess span Apess’s early years and conversion to Christianity through his career as a minister, author, lecturer, and activist, and conclude with his untimely death in 1839 at the age of forty-one. Along the way, Gura highlights Apess’s participation in major events such as the War of 1812 and the so-called Mashpee Revolt, his interpersonal relationships and professional highs and lows, and the prejudice and racism that he experienced throughout his life. To provide a vivid portrait of Apess, Gura mines official documents such as the coroner’s inquest, court records, town records, financial documents, and newspapers, in addition to Apess’s own writings and select secondary scholarship. Through his readings of these sources, Gura makes a compelling case for ranking Apess among well-known nineteenth-century figures who shared his commitment to what we might now call social justice, figures such as Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady [End Page 835] Stanton, Frances Wright, Orestes Brownson, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and David Walker (xiv).
For an academic audience that is likely conversant with Apess’s writings and secondary scholarship about him, one of the key contributions of Gura’s biography is to contextualize Apess’s life and work among the rich networks of individuals and communities in which he circulated. Gura opens with a brief discussion of the Pequots in the early nineteenth century and Apess’s childhood and family life in Massachusetts and Connecticut, working from Apess’s autobiography, the scanty records that remain of Apess and his family, and scholarship on Native New England. Later in The Life of William Apess, he details life in communities such as the Hard Scrabble neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, where Apess lived with his wife and children in 1825, and 1830s Boston, where Apess and his work circulated among the African American community in which David Walker and Maria Stewart lived. Gura highlights possible and documented connections, noting that while in Providence, Apess may have met abolitionists such as Nathaniel Paul and Hosea Easton, and in Boston Apess was written up in Garrison’s Liberator and shared a stage with Elias Boudinot, editor of The Cherokee Phoenix. The rich detail brings these communities to life and helps even readers who are familiar with Apess’s published works to map his numerous travels and to more fully understand the literary, historical, social, religious, and economic influences on Apess’s writings.
Another strength of this work is its attention to the links between Apess’s experiences and literary productions with larger cultural and social forces. For example, as part of his discussion of Apess’s difficulties obtaining a license to preach, Gura notes how Apess’s experience reveals a broader point about Methodism in the 1820s, “the denomination’s increasing marginalization of the poor and disenfranchised—women and people of color—as Methodists became less the...