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  • The Pen Might be Mightier than the Sword
  • Gregory Evans Dowd (bio)
Jill Lepore. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. xviii + 338 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $30.00.

Jill Lepore’s subject is history itself: the chronicling, explaining, justifying, memorializing, and even fictionalizing of King Philip’s War (1675–1678) and of war in general. Thickly researched, original, contemporary, and disturbing, The Name of War also belongs to an ambitious American studies tradition that seeks to find sweeping meaning, nothing less than the origins of American identity, in American letters. Lepore delves deeply, too, into the history of the book. She dabbles in the history of commemoration and of the body. Laced with such scholarly apparatus as discursive endnotes, time lines, and graphs (all of them useful), this book is, nonetheless, a self-consciously speculative history. The writing is generally brilliant. The arguments, if not always convincing, are always interesting and often provocative.

Lepore’s first seven chapters analyze works produced in England and New England during and in the generation that followed the war. Lepore finds and carefully teases meaning out of the few words written by Indians that survive (pp. 94–96). For there were literate Indians in New England; Lepore’s figures indicate that among Christian Indians the literacy rate may have been as startlingly high as that among colonial women (pp. 36–37). But though one Indian was a printer, and may even have set the type for Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, none left a war narrative. Instead, the war produced a stream of colonial and English print; twenty-one separate accounts were published before 1685.

Examining these works along with many unpublished writings, Lepore contends that the sheer violence of King Philip’s War intensified the settlers’ fears of losing their Englishness. This is why they especially abhorred the nakedness and homelessness wrought by the war and why they became increasingly uneasy with Indians in English dress or in English-style towns. This is why they ruthlessly removed Indians from their presence: incarcerating their allies on disease-ridden Deer Island, driving survivors underground, and exporting as slaves captured enemy Indians, women and [End Page 656] children among them. (Her analysis of that enslavement is breathtaking, not only for its sheer poignancy, but also for its revelation that the English were puzzled by the Indians’ constitutional place in New England society.) Waging and winning the war, she contends, colonists proved to be barbarous; writing of the war, they defined themselves more clearly than ever as English against a physical and psychological Indian threat. The argument is reminiscent of John Canup’s in Out of this Wilderness: The Emergence of an American Identity in Colonial New England. But Canup identified a more persistent fear of what one colonist called “criolian degeneracy.” It surfaced long before the war and it culminated sometime after in the assertive and defensive writings of Cotton Mather. 1 Reading Lepore against Canup, one has to wonder if King Philip’s War, by itself, was decisive.

The Name of War is primarily about colonizers. It is not the place to turn for much new thinking about King Philip or his allies. The Indians who stand out in these pages belonged to the Christian minority. To the limited degree that the book is about Indians, it seeks to identify the war as marking a signal change in Indian-colonial relations by placing a clear boundary between Native Americans and English colonists, where something fuzzy (if not warm) had existed before. Lepore finds an English willingness to coexist with Indians in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century English writings about Spanish cruelty in the Americas. These, popular in early New England, construct Indians as fully human and stand in contrast to those of the 1670s and 1680s. The latter, contemptuous of and without compassion for Indians, “proved to be pivotal to [the English] victory, a victory that drew new, firmer boundaries between English and Indian people, between English and Indian land, and between what it meant to be ‘English’ and what it mean[t] to be ‘Indian...