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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 132-133

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Subject Matter:
Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676

Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676. By Joyce E. Chaplin (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2001) 411 pp. $45.00

Chaplin seeks to place the history of science—ideas about the nature of the material world, its human inhabitants, and their technologies—at the center of our understanding of the English conquest of America. Believing that hers is not "a project in traditional intellectual history," she claims to focus on "the way in which contemporary European [English] theories about nature influenced English settlers' relations with Indians" (8). She is confident that her "structural analysis" of English accounts of American exploration and colonization will "turn down the background noise, the static of cultural expectations and assumptions that the English put into their accounts" and show more clearly what the Indians themselves were saying and doing when they interacted with the newcomers (27).

Despite her claims, this book is not about the influence of ideas upon actions but a highly schematized "decoding" of a set of ideas adumbrated and appreciated by a relatively small group of educated writers and readers. The textual trends that she detects in—or constructs for—three periods (1500 to 1585, 1585 to 1660, and 1640 to 1676) served English readers solely as "an intellectual framing device, as justification to explore or colonize, and as a mark of the educated character of colonists" (16). [End Page 132] They were of limited or no use to the often unlettered traders, soldiers, fishermen, explorers, and farmers who interacted regularly with Indians and effected the actual "conquest" of America (with crucial aid from imported microbes).

But Chaplin has read widely and intelligently in a broad range of admittedly familiar sources, and she has much to say of interest even to ethnohistorians, who (she says) are "possibly too sanguine" about the notion that we can comprehend native cultures through carefully filtered sources (24). Yet not all, or even most, of her insights relate to her "nature" thesis. Most ethnohistorians, like most readers, will be disappointed by her methodological case study of Thomas Hariot's famous assertion that Roanoke Indians thought they were being killed by "invisible bullets" of English disease (28-34). Although she astutely ferrets out English "ventriloquism" of native voices and "absurd transcriptions" (accurate but underinterpreted observations of native customs or events), she too often asserts and speculates without adequate or relevant proof from the period under discussion (26, 27). Kupperman's work on native "bodies" and American climate is more accessible and convincing. 1

This is a scholar's book. It will probably cause a brief flutter in the learned dovecotes but have a short life in the classroom. It wields a fashionable jargon ("autochthonous," "valorize," "interface," "privilege," "hybridity"), makes much of its own originality, resorts to artless scaffolding, and too often addresses irrelevant topics and others at excessive length. In short, it is a difficult and only partially persuasive read. Perhaps a planned second volume on the rest of the colonial period will prove more satisfying.


James Axtell
College of William and Mary


1. Karen Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in English America (Ithaca, 2000), 41-76; idem, "The Puzzles of the American Climate in the Early Colonial Period," American Historical Review, LXXXCII (1982), 1262-1289; idem, "Climate and Mastery of the Wilderness in Seventeenth-Century New England," in David G. Allen and David D. Hall (eds.), Seventeenth-Century New England (Charlottesville, 1985), 3-37.



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