- The Words of War
Despite the popular fascination with the Salem witchcraft trials, King Philip’s War (1675–76) was actually the crucial historical event in seventeenth-century New England. Led by the Wampanoag sachem Metacom (or “Philip” as he was named by the Puritan authorities), an alliance of Wampanoag, Narragansett and Nipmuck Indians engaged in a war against the New English Saints (and their own Native American allies) that wreaked havoc on Puritan towns and Algonquian settlements alike, caused almost unimaginable bloodshed and suffering, and jeopardized the very existence of the New England colonies. In light of its scope and political consequences, historiography about the war has of course scrutinized its causes. Revisionists today challenge traditional accounts of the “inevitability” of racial and national conflict, calling attention instead to the patterns of colonial expansion that precipitated Algonquian resistance. 1 Who was to blame for the conflict? And how did the war inform contemporary racial and cultural politics?
As its title, The Name of War, suggests, Jill Lepore’s study of this crucial episode re-imagines its significance in terms of language, specifically the printed word. Her title’s subversion of the minister William Hubbard’s claim in A Narrative of the Trouble with the Indians (1677), that the barbaric sequence of Indian massacres “did not deserve the name of a war,” characterizes this book’s entire project of recovering a racial politics of [End Page 455] print and literacy in colonial New England. The book’s thematic nexus of literacy, power and the “anxieties of identity” (xiv) shapes its reconstruction of the historical contexts for historical writing. Drawing upon the work of Michael Walzer and Elaine Scarry, Lepore departs from the Habermasian ideal of print’s relation to publicity and sociality to argue for the cultural hegemony that the literature of war exerts. 2 In her view, the many histories published during and after the war, in Boston, Cambridge and London, by both ministers and laity, were meant to (albeit unsuccessfully) demarcate cultural, racial and psychological boundaries that the war experience actually helped to collapse. “Words and wounds are not equivalent,” Lepore claims, “but they are sometimes analogous” (148).
As cultural history written for both academic and general audiences, Lepore’s work consciously departs from the mythic interpretation of the American frontier. Yet her theory of the cultural work of historical writing is premised upon those archetypal fears of degeneration that Richard Slotkin summarized over twenty years ago. “As succeeding generations of Puritans acculturated to New England, adopting ways that seemed ‘Indian-like’ (or at least un-English) to earlier generations, the fear of acculturation was symbolized as the ‘degeneration’ of civilized men into savages.” 3 Hence the unfulfilled Puritan desire—in Lepore’s view always an unfulfilled one—to “reclaim their Englishness” (11). Even as she articulates a “middle ground” (xiii, 249–50) of Puritan identity, Lepore sustains the Slotkinesque categories of “savagery” and “civilization.” For both critics, the stakes of frontier conflict lie in the racial politics of cultural (mis)identification; yet for Lepore, there is nothing “regenerative” in Puritan violence, whether it be the actual dismembering of Philip’s dead body, or the symbolic dismembering of Native American humanity in Puritan histories. There is only violence and “the confusion of identity” (81) that is best symbolized by the racially mixed circle of Anglo and Native American spectators witnessing the torture of a Narragansett captive (3–18, 238–40). As in early American frontier novels, such as Edgar Huntly (1799) or The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Lepore’s “middle ground” is less the place to theorize cultural liminality, or hybridity, and more the site to expose the delusive hypocrisy and epistemological difficulty of third-generation Puritanism (not unlike Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”). 4 Who are the “saints”? The “sinners”? How does one tell the difference between a “praying Indian” and a “preying Indian”?
The destructive potential of literacy for Native American identity compellingly emerges in the stories of John Sassamon and James Printer. [End Page...