- Individuality Incorporated: Indians and the Multicultural Modern
Joel Pfister's Individuality Incorporated: Indians and the Multicultural Modern is the result of a long-term archival and interpretive project clearly situated within the interdisciplinary field of American Studies. This book is not a project in American Indian Studies, nor is it a study of American Indian literatures and cultures. In some respects, SAIL is not the most appropriate venue for its review. Pfister is professor of American Studies and English at Wesleyan University, and his substantial body of scholarship is focused on U.S. cultural and literary history. In previous books and articles, Pfister offers analyses of how the work of canonical literary figures intersects with changing understandings of psychological discourses, class, and gender. In this new book, Pfister is interested in the construction of the category of the "individual" within early modern U.S. culture, and how American Indians became caught up in this "history of individualizing."
Pfister's premise is that both white assimilationist reformers and so-called white "bohemian" artists and intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries looked to American Indians in formulating and expressing their changing ideas about the American individual. As evidence he offers readers two case studies. The first is a study of the efforts of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, led by Richard Henry Pratt, to turn its American Indian charges into [End Page 118] "worker-individuals" and "individual landowners." The second is a study of the efforts of the group of artists, writers, and New Deal reformers associated with Taos, New Mexico—including Mabel Dodge Luhan, D. H. Lawrence, and John Collier—to turn Indians into a therapy for restoring a "lost" white individuality that had been repressed by European American culture.
Although Pfister draws on lesser-known archival materials for each case study—including a range of Carlisle school publications and photographs and the writings of the Taos literati—his examinations of how Indians were used, literally and symbolically, by dominant white Americans in this period often retrace the work of other scholars. His arguments are likely to feel familiar to those faculty and graduate students already working in the field, since, as he acknowledges, his research mostly confirms the earlier work of historians such as Francis Paul Prucha, Frederick Hoxie, David Wallace Adams, and Michael Coleman. Pfister occasionally looks at American Indian responses to dominant practices and representations, and these parts of the book will likely be of most interest to readers of SAIL.
Too predictably, in my opinion, Pfister concludes his book by arguing that his two case studies, "Carlisle 'Indian' reformism and Taos 'Indian' reformism," represent "two sides of the same ideological coin" (221). Both "sides" coincide with the rise of "personalizing 'psychological' discourses" and "diverse anthropological discourses" (222), and both demonstrate "how individuality ideologies have played significant, sometimes subtle roles in the establishment and exercise of economic, state, and cultural power" (230). It is a broad and safe conclusion, likely to spark little challenge or debate, familiar rather than innovative within American Studies practices.
One of the aims of this book—and of other "multi-cultural" or "multi-ethnic" American Studies texts like it—is to demonstrate the importance of understanding the history of Indian-white relations for understanding U.S. cultural history more generally. While this is undoubtedly a necessary component of the field and a noble academic goal, it is striking what does and does not happen in its execution. The drawbacks of a two case studies approach, for instance, are immediately apparent: Pfister wants to make claims about the operations [End Page 119] of a pervasive "American" discourse during a complicated period of U.S. history based on a quite limited focus and on a quite limited range of specific data. As a reader I find myself less than fully convinced by the book's broader claims about U.S. history and culture and disappointed that, given the inherent interest and richness of some of the primary materials Pfister examines, the book's conclusions have little to say about...